The Environment Protection Agency has just released a plan to protect fenceline communities from toxic oil refinery pollution, which includes long overdue health standards and expanded air monitoring. If adopted, EPA estimates the new standards would cut 5,600 tons of harmful chemicals from the air each year.
On Tuesday, EPA held a hearing in Galena Park, TX (outside Houston) to solicit public comment on the proposed rule. Environment Texas Director Luke Metzger attended the hearing and delivered the following testimony:
"Good morning. My name is Luke Metzger and I am the Director of Environment Texas, a statewide, citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces.
Pollution from oil refineries pose serious risks to the health of the people living nearby, especially children. Here in Texas, 597,000 people with asthma (including 178,000 children) live in counties with at least one oil refinery. According to a 2006 study by the University of Texas School of Public Health, children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel – home to 5 oil refineries - faced a 56% increased risk of leukemia compared with children living more than 10 miles away. And a 2008 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that, for residents of the eastern portion of the Houston Ship Channel, the greatest contributor to an increased risk for cancer is point source emissions from petrochemical refineries.
My organization, Environment Texas, together with the Sierra Club, have been involved in three lawsuits involving refineries and chemical plants in the Houston area. We’ve settled suits against the Shell refinery in Deer Park and ChevronPhillips chemical plant in Baytown and we’re currently in the middle of a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for violations of the Clean Air Act at its Baytown refinery. In each of these cases, we’ve found several things to be common.
First, refinery emissions are far higher than what is reported, due to (a) use of unrealistically high flare combustion efficiency rates, and (b) companies generally only report emissions from leaks and other upset conditions from the time they were discovered, which may be long after they had begun. In the trial in our lawsuit against Exxon in February, we submitted unrebutted expert testimony showing that Exxon’s flare emissions are many times larger than what they report; Exxon had years of prep for trial, and 3 full weeks of trial testimony, to come up with any evidence to the contrary, and they couldn’t: their only response was “We follow the regulations on how to report, which allow us to assume 98% or 99% combustion efficiency.”
Federal regulations thus need to be updated to take into account the current state of knowledge on how industrial flares work in practice, and on how they can be operated far more efficiently than they are. You also need to set a hard cap on flaring to ban routine emissions.
Second, the evidence in the Exxon trial, and the results of our past litigation (Shell & CP Chem), prove that refinery emissions can be reduced dramatically, but this ONLY happens when companies are forced to do so. Shell and ChevronPhillips reduced annual upset emissions by 95%, compared to pre-lawsuit levels. Exxon also finally began trying to reduce upset emissions only AFTER we started filing these lawsuits. We can’t sue everybody, so federal regulations need to be far stricter across the board.
Third, Exxon personnel and experts testified that Exxon does not believe it is “economically reasonable” for the company to spend money on capital improvements, like additional sulfur recovery units and additional flare compressors and flare gas recovery systems, that would cut emissions by many tons per year. Only stricter federal emission requirements will force companies like Exxon to prioritize pollution reduction over profits.
Finally, the lack of fence line monitoring systems is a huge problem. Stationary monitors are few and far between, and they are simply not capable of reliably detecting plumes of pollution from relatively short-lived upset events or from specific point sources of emissions. Only fence line monitors can reliably do that. Companies (like Exxon did at our trial) then use the inadequate data from the few stationary monitors to argue that their emissions are not creating any risk for the public.
Thank you for including, for the first time ever, mandatory fenceline monitoring in a national rule. However, in order for the monitor to be meaningful, you need to require the best available monitoring techniques, monitoring for more pollutants in real time, and better monitoring for leaks.
Oil refineries, especially in Texas, have gotten away with fouling our air for too long. I urge you to adopt a strong final rule that will protect the health of our children and our communities."