EPA: "Toxic Air Pollution? Cancer? Whatever."

So it's not often that you can just quote EPA's own media spin to see the self-evident absurdity of their latest attack on the environment, but here goes: "A recent analysis by EPA on the risks from air toxics emitted from petroleum refineries found that the risks to human health and the environment are low enough that no further controls are warranted." Accordingly, EPA proposes to require no additional emissions reductions from oil refineries because the risks are "acceptably" low.

That's right -- oil refineries. Those clean, green, efficient machines whose pure, floral emissions could be bottled and sold as air fresheners in organic grocery stores.

The media spin above attempted to put a cheerful face on an ugly EPA announcement yesterday that oil refinery air pollution is clean enough for the agency to ignore. That's right -- EPA announced a proposed rule that concludes that tens of thousands of tons of toxic air emissions from U.S. oil refineries are not risky enough to warrant any additional safeguards for the breathing public.

EPA's decision concerns the Clean Air Act obligation to respond to any public health risks remaining from oil refineries' toxic air pollution, following the agency's adoption of technology control standards in 1995. Congress recognized that after pollution control technologies are applied, pollution coming from these facilities might still pose unacceptable health risks to the public. Thus, in 1990, Congress instructed EPA to examine the remaining or "residual" risk from all toxic pollution sources. The agency was supposed to determine whether the first-generation technology standards reduced lifetime cancer risks to the public from toxic pollution to less than 1-in-1-million. If cancer risk exceeds 1-in-1 million, EPA must require better control measures to protect the public by reducing risks to below 1-in-1 million. In yesterday's announcement, however, EPA asserts that the appropriate threshold for action is not 1-in-1-million, but 100-in-1 million. And because the agency finds toxic emissions from oil refineries to pose cancer risks of 70-in-1 million, EPA indicates its preferred approach is to do nothing about these cancer risks and to require no additional pollution controls at oil refineries.

EPA thus proceeds to ignore acknowledged risk levels that are 70 times higher than allowed by law. And EPA itself admits that its do-nothing approach would subject 460,000 Americans to cancer risks from oil refineries higher than 1-in-1 million.

EPA estimates that approximately 90 million Americans live within 30 miles of a refinery, and 60% of refineries impose lifetime cancer risks on the public higher than 1-in-1 million. (EPA utterly ignores the cancer risks to individuals living more than 30 miles from petroleum refineries, presumably because of the gargantuan, invisible, ultra fine-mesh nets that encircle refineries at a 30-mile perimeter, and prevent refinery air pollution from traveling more than 30 miles. Natch.)

As if this all were not bad enough, it's important to realize that even the unlawfully excessive cancer risks that EPA is willing to impose on the public are fraught with flaws that would be laughable were they not so tragic. In fact, the health risks are higher than EPA lets on. 

First, EPA refused to require the nation's 153 petroleum refineries to provide emissions data and other essential information to the agency that are necessary to perform a meaningful risk assessment – even though EPA has clear legal authority to require such information. (Industry and the White House routinely collaborate to block EPA attempts to gather such crucial data.) Instead, EPA started with a hodgepodge of some actual emissions data from 2002 combined with guesses (which EPA artfully calls "best estimation methods"). Then EPA incorporated site-specific information for just 22 facilities – information helpfully furnished by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's trade association. Next, EPA invited comments and corrections from the oil companies themselves, which resulted in the vast majority of instances in the oil companies estimating emissions data to be lower than EPA and the states had calculated. EPA failed to collect any additional site-specific data for a remarkable 81 of the 153 refineries.

EPA's action was accompanied by a quiet but highly revealing passage in which the agency announces wanly that its "review of the data indicates that there may be a low bias in reported emissions for many facilities." Translation – but first steel yourself for this shock – oil companies are under-reporting their toxic emissions. EPA then recites an astonishing laundry list of reasons why the agency's risk assessment may be flawed because of under-reported toxic emissions data. EPA admits it is missing emissions data attributable to: facility noncompliance; emissions during malfunctions, startups and shutdowns; unreported emissions from leaks; sources that are "unexpected," "not measured" or "not considered"; and process sewers, wastewater systems, fugitive emissions and tank roof landings. Finally, EPA admits sheepishly that "for many facilities the physical characteristics (i.e., stack height, physical location) of the reported sources may be inaccurate for detailed risk characterization purposes."

Armed with this wholly inadequate industry-biased data, EPA then proceeded to engage in a series of abusive manipulations designed to misrepresent even further cancer risks to the public. EPA ignored background ambient risk levels, even though required by law to account for this; EPA ignored cumulative risks taking into account nearby pollution sources; and EPA even ignored the risks from toxic pollution emitted by certain equipment located at petroleum refineries. The agency arbitrarily ignored the cancer risks posed by at least three significant air toxins (chlorine, hydrogen fluoride, and hydrochloric acid) simply because they are emitted by pieces of equipment covered by a rule the agency is not considering now. So EPA ends up not addressing the risks from these other pieces of equipment. The perverse result of these blatant manipulations is to allow EPA to underestimate – and misrepresent – the overall cancer risks posed by petroleum refineries.

The Reuters article covering EPA's announcement contains an appreciative quote from an American Petroleum Institute spokesman thanking EPA for its "collaborative effort" in producing this do-nothing decision. The article notes further that API lobbies for big U.S. oil refiners like Valero Energy Corp. That would be the same Valero that the Justice Department and EPA nailed in a Clean Air Act enforcement lawsuit just a few days ago to the tune of $238 million. This followed on the heels of a 2005 Clean Air Act enforcement settlement between the feds and Valero, in which the company was forced to pay $700 million. To date, the Justice Department and EPA have reached Clean Air Act enforcement settlements with 89 oil refineries producing a remarkable 84% of domestic refining capacity. These refineries are spread across 26 states and are being required to spend $4.7 billion on pollution controls as a result of violating the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately, these settlements will take as long as 10 years to deliver their promised pollution cuts, and more oil company lawbreakers continue to stiff-arm federal enforcers. Meanwhile, oil refineries will continue to pump tens of thousands of tons of toxic air pollution each year into communities where 90 million Americans live.

But rest assured, the Bush EPA considers the risks posed by the nation's clean, green oil refineries to be "acceptably" low.

About the Authors

John Walke

Director, Clean Air, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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