EPA Proposes to Limit Cancer-Causing Toxic Air Pollution From Petroleum Refineries

Yesterday, EPA proposed new standards to limit toxic air pollution from petroleum refineries. EPA’s proposal is good news for millions of Americans, since about 90 million Americans live within 30 miles of a refinery, and many live near more than one. There currently are about 150 petroleum refineries in the country, located in over 30 states. These refineries emit many different types of toxic air pollution, including cancer-causing benzene, lead and hydrogen cyanide. In addition to cancer, pollution from refineries can lead to respiratory problems, birth defects, and neurological problems. EPA’s new proposed rule will further limit the amount of toxic air pollution that refineries are allowed to release into the air, and will cut emissions by:

  • 5,600 tons per year of toxic air pollutants;
  • 52,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that form smog; and
  • 700,000 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents as a co-benefit of the rule.

EPA is required to conduct a Risk and Technology Review for toxic air pollution standards at least every 8 years, yet the agency had not updated standards for this sector for at least 16 years. This proposal updates both EPA’s understanding of the risk posed to people living near refineries and the technologies that can protect people from toxic pollution emitted by the facilities.  

As a result of this update, EPA has proposed for the first time to require fenceline monitoring for carcinogenic benzene emissions around each refinery. Because much of the air pollution from refineries does not come directly from the emission stacks, a great deal of this air pollution escapes detection—and control—through leaks, flares and other emission sources. Requiring monitoring around the perimeter of the site will allow a more complete picture of the toxic air pollution from refineries, rather than just a slice. Just as importantly, EPA will make data from these monitors publically available so that the public may know better what level of pollution they are being exposed to by nearby refineries.

Along with landmark fenceline monitoring provisions, EPA has also proposed to require increased flare management at facilities. Refineries often flare off excess waste gases, leading to huge emissions of toxic air pollutants. The new standards proposed by EPA will require refineries to manage their flares at a much higher level of burn-off efficiency than they do currently, which will mean that much less toxic pollution makes it into the air. Reports have shown that in the past refineries have failed to maximize their flaring efficiency. This has meant massive underreporting of toxic air emissions. The proposal’s flaring standards, coupled with first-time fenceline monitoring provisions, will go a long way towards correcting this underreporting of the past, and will draw a more accurate picture of these dangerous emissions going forward.

Finally, EPA is also proposing new emission standards for cokers located at refineries. Cokers are part of the refining process, but they involve heating up the petroleum and hydrocarbons to high temperatures, producing large amounts of toxic air pollution. The proposed coker standards will reduce toxic air pollution by 1,800 tons per year alone.

Combined, the updates in EPA’s proposal mark a significant step in the right direction—towards increased health protections for the millions of Americans that live with this toxic pollution every day.

EPA should be congratulated on taking these positive steps, and for providing tools that local communities may use to better understand the toxic pollution to which they are exposed.

EPA’s proposal makes clear that the cancer and other health risks posed by petroleum refineries on nearby communities are unacceptable. EPA’s own research indicates that five million Americans face an elevated risk of cancer from petroleum refineries' toxic air pollution—greater than a one-in-one-million lifetime cancer risk. (Table 10, pg. 277). Even more alarming, 7 million Americans face a one-in-one-million lifetime cancer risk from the "allowable emissions" of toxic air pollution from petroleum refineries.

Just like other industries, petroleum refineries should clean up the deadly air pollution they emit so that nearby communities are not sickened further. It is imperative that EPA follow their proposal with strong final standards limiting this deadly air pollution.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air Project, Climate & Clean Air program

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