Refinery Air Pollution: Protections for Some Communities, Delay for Many

Yesterday, EPA and a coalition of environmental groups including NRDC announced a precedent-setting settlement with BP over alleged air pollution violations at the company’s massive refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

Back in 2008 when we began this lawsuit under the Clean Air Act, BP claimed that its planned multi-billion dollar expansion of the Whiting Refinery to process dirty tar sands crude oil would cut the refinery’s air pollution.  But according to our team of engineering and legal experts, BP left out huge sources of pollution within the refinery and used faulty calculations for others.  If the company had done its pollution accounting properly, it would have shown major increases in air pollution and triggered the legal obligation to use state-of-the-art controls.

Four years later we’ve come full circle, with the announced settlement requiring BP to better control its pollution by installing $400 million in air pollution controls.  These controls will reduce pollution from the refinery by 4,000 tons each year.

The settlement is ground-breaking in many respects, but also is part of a line of refinery enforcement cases brought by EPA (and in many cases citizen groups) dating back to 2000.  Like BP Whiting, these enforcement cases involved major expansions of existing refineries.  And through these enforcement efforts, we have garnered tons of information about air pollution from refineries (surprise – it’s much greater than we thought) and how to control it (surprise again – refineries are not doing a great job, despite the availability of numerous control technologies).

This enforcement effort is impressive and much-needed.  But it poses an important larger question: if refineries across the country can do so much more to protect the air, both for local communities and our climate, why hasn’t EPA updated its national standards for refineries to protect us from pollution?

Refineries account for the equivalent of just over 200 million tons of CO2 each year, ranking them among the top three industrial sources of global warming pollution in the U.S.  In addition, refineries are huge sources of pollutants like particulate matter, SO2 and NOx, which harm the lungs and heart, and cancer-causing air toxics.  

EPA has made some effort to update its New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) for refineries.  But final new standards are still missing, and comprehensive control requirements for the refinery sector languish in regulatory limbo.  EPA started to revise its decades-old refinery standards back in 2008 after being sued by a coalition including NRDC, but the agency watered down some key components in the course of its process, such as stringent control of flaring; it is only now moving to finalize what is likely to be a relatively weak subset of standards that does not go as far as the agency’s own enforcement settlements.  Additional efforts to beef up these standards based on the lessons learned through the enforcement cases appear to be delayed.  But an earlier agency excuse for delay – that it had insufficient information for setting standards – is no longer credible, as EPA gathered a wealth of information from refineries this past summer and fall.

The agency committed back in December 2010 to a schedule for finishing its legally-required updates of the refinery NSPS and air toxics regulations.  EPA pledged to add standards for greenhouse gases.  Yet the agency has missed all of the deadlines in that agreement.

EPA today held hearings in Washington D.C. and Chicago over its proposed CO2 standards for new power plants, which we applaud.  But the updated refinery standards for toxic chemicals and carbon pollution are nowhere in sight.

Refineries seem to have fallen through the rulemaking cracks, despite being one of the largest industrial categories of cancer-causing air toxics, smog-forming pollutants, and climate-warming greenhouse gases.

EPA has the data it needs to issue strong, nationally-effective protections for communities living near refineries that today continue to spew pollution into the air, and to reduce refineries’ large contribution to global warming.

So even as we celebrate an important victory at one refinery in Indiana and progress on power plants, we ask EPA, where are the national standards to clean up the 150 refineries across the country? 

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Senior Attorney, Midwest program

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