CHICAGO (August 22, 2007) -- Groups concerned about the heath threats posed by a major new expansion at the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in the Greater St. Louis area are asking the federal government to overturn a permit they say was issued unlawfully by state officials in Illinois who hindered local community input on the project and ignored readily available, proven safeguards used widely at similar facilities nationwide.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), representing the American Bottom Conservancy, filed a petition yesterday with an appeals board at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arguing that stronger air pollution safety measures are required under the federal Clean Air Act before ConocoPhillips can expand operations at its sprawling Roxana, Illinois facility. Sierra Club, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project, joined in the challenge.
“ConocoPhillips, the third-largest oil producer in the country that had its most profitable year on record last year, should be setting the standard for clean operation, rather than seeking to do less than other refineries to control their pollution,” said Ann Alexander, a Senior Attorney with NRDC’s Chicago Office. “The greater St. Louis region already suffers from chronic dirty air. ConocoPhillips ought to be part of the solution, not the problem.”
At issue are the burning columns of waste gas known flares that can be seen for miles, and which emit vast amounts of dangerous pollutants. NRDC says refineries elsewhere have significantly reduced flaring through better design and improved management practices.
The petition also shows that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) ignored procedures intended to ensure full public participation in issuing the permit to the oil company, in particular a law requiring the agency to provide interested citizens with a list of changes made to the draft permit and the reason for the changes. Without that information, it is extremely difficult for citizens to figure out on their own what IEPA changed and whether those changes are appropriate.
“Illinois EPA ignored the simple rules required by law,” said Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy and a member of the Illinois Sierra Club Clean Air Campaign. “Citizens should not have to file legal appeals to see that the Clean Air Act is enforced or that a state agency does the job it is supposed to do to protect their communities.”
The challenge specifically addresses a provision in federal law giving older facilities a temporary reprieve from modern pollution control standards required under the Clean Air Act. When new updates or expansions take place that would increase their emissions, such facilities are legally required to install the best available current emissions controls. But IEPA never looked at best practices used by other refiners before giving a green light to ConocoPhillips.
"ConocoPhillips has had record profits. A special Internal Revenue Code tax provision allows a refinery to write off half the entire cost of an expansion project the very first year it is in operation. Why wouldn't they install best available control technology?" asked Andria. “Why wouldn't they protect our health?”
“I was a refinery worker for many years, and I had hoped that ConocoPhillips would treat our community with respect and upgrade to a first-class refinery,” added Gayle Borman, a Sierra Club member living in Wood River near the plant. “I expected more from them and from Illinois EPA.”
The refinery is being expanded to process crude oil extracted from Canadian tar sands, a source that generates three times the heat-trapping pollution of gasoline made from conventional oils. Extraction of tar sands oil is causing devastating consequences across a vast stretch of Canadian forest.
“The consequences-be-darned approach to unconstrained Alberta tar sands oil extraction and usage will wreak havoc to the environment,” said Verena Owen, Clean Air Campaign Chair of the Illinois Sierra Club. “We can't drill and refine our way out global warming.”