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Five Texas refineries exceeded federal pollution limits for the carcinogenic chemical benzene in 2021, according to an Environmental Integrity Project analysis of refinery self-reported data to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA classifies benzene as a human carcinogen, and long-term exposure to benzene emissions has caused blood disorders. There is some evidence that exposure to benzene is associated with damage to reproductive organs and fetuses.
A dozen refineries in the United States exceeded the EPA’s limit on average benzene emissions last year, according to the analysis.
In Texas, Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay Refinery, TotalEnergies’ Port Arthur Refinery, Chevron’s Pasadena Refinery, Flint Hills Resources’ Corpus Christi East Refinery and LyondellBasell’s Houston Refinery reported average emissions of benzene in 2021 above the federal threshold of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.
The EPA began collecting data on hazardous air pollution from refineries in 2018 after the agency updated air quality regulations in response to legal action by environmental groups. The update required more than 100 U.S. refineries to monitor and report benzene levels along the perimeter of their facilities and take corrective action when those levels get too high.
Data shows that some refineries have seen benzene pollution worsen over time. Marathon Petroleum’s Galveston Bay refinery in Texas City had the highest average benzene levels in the nation last year, with emissions that were more than double the federal limit. The refinery’s average benzene concentrations have steadily increased each year since 2018, when the EPA began collecting data. About 37,000 people live within 3 miles of the refinery, and about 62% of those are people of color, according to EPA data.
Marathon Petroleum spokeswoman Melissa Ory wrote in a statement that the Galveston Bay refinery was making efforts to reduce benzene emissions, such as increasing its tank inspections and closing two processing units containing benzene.
Each of the five Texas refineries that exceeded benzene pollution limits last year recorded an increase in emissions from 2020.
The EPA rule requires facilities to take air samples at the close of their refineries every two weeks, and the highest benzene concentrations from each of the 26 two-week periods in a year are averaged for a rolling annual metric. If this average exceeds 9 micrograms per cubic meter for two consecutive quarters, the EPA requires facilities to submit an emissions reduction plan.
But the public health risk from pollution depends on how long concentrations of the chemical have remained at high levels in the air and whether those emissions have drifted into nearby neighborhoods. Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a DC-based nonprofit environmental and legal group, said that means the EPA isn’t requiring companies to respond quickly enough. Schaeffer added that the action plans do not require refineries to do enough.
“We have facilities that have exceeded the action level every year,” he said. “It has now been four years for some of these facilities, so what they are doing is not enough. The EPA could make them do more.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency could not provide comment at the time this story was published on steps it has taken to reduce benzene emissions at Texas facilities that do not were not compliant.
Community and environmental advocates in Texas said the data again shows how gated neighborhoods — most often communities of color due to a legacy of racial segregation — are bearing the brunt of carcinogenic emissions from the oil and gas industry.
“This just validates what we already know,” John Beard, executive director of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, said in a statement. He pointed out that Port Arthur is known to have high rates of cancer. According to the Texas Cancer Registry, the Port Arthur-Beaumont metro area had 452 cancer cases per 100,000 residents in 2018, a rate that was 11% higher than the state average.
“Benzene emissions are dangerous to life and health,” Beard said.
When the EPA crafted the rule requiring refineries to report benzene emissions, the agency’s analysis found that communities near refinery fences have low-income and minority populations nearly twice the rate of the general population of the United States.
More than 6 million people in the United States live within 3 miles of an oil refinery, according to the EPA.
The increase in benzene emissions in 2021 could be the result of increased production last year as the oil and gas industry recovered from pandemic disruptions in 2020. Additionally, Marathon Petroleum, Flint Hills Resources and TotalEnergies said the increase in emissions at their facilities was due to operational disruptions during the February 2021 winter storm.
Some companies also said refinery benzene emissions had fallen below the federal threshold since the end of 2021. Jake Reint, spokesman for Flint Hills Resources, said the annual rolling average of benzene emissions from the refinery was less than 9 micrograms per cubic meter in March. 2022 and that the facility reviews each sample result that exceeds the EPA limit.
“Continuous leak detection monitors allow us to identify and respond to small leaks more quickly,” Reint said. “We also recently eliminated a source of occasional benzene emissions related to ship loading in the shipping channel.”
TotalEnergies spokeswoman Marie Maitre also said the company’s plant in Port Arthur has been below the EPA limit for the past six months. Maitre said the company invested $1.2 million last year in projects to reduce benzene emissions at the plant.
A Chevron spokesman, Rajni Yadav, said benzene emissions from the Pasadena refinery were also below the federal limit as of mid-April.
LyondellBasell, which owns the Houston Refining refinery, did not respond to a request for comment at the time this story was published.
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