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Oil Refineries Are Leaking Cancer-Causing Benzene Into Residential Neighborhoods

The EPA’s benzene monitoring and control program has failed to rein in the worst offenders.

A cemetery stands in stark contrast to chemical plants that surround it on October 15, 2013, in Baton Rogue, Louisiana.

Despite a nationwide effort to monitor and stop emissions, dangerous concentrations of the cancer-causing chemical benzene are still being detected in the air and near ground level between oil refineries and neighboring communities in the Gulf South and Midwest.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General, the federal watchdog for the EPA, released an alarming report this week exposing massive holes in regulatory efforts to track and require oil refineries to reduce harmful concentrations of benzene in the air, which overwhelmingly impacts low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that are already overburdened by industrial pollution. The EPA classifies benzene as a “national cancer risk contributor” alongside toxic pollutants such as acetaldehyde, carbon tetrachloride and naphthalene.

The finding suggest that newer, well-funded oil refineries are taking steps to mitigate benzene pollution, while older refineries in states with little oversight and high levels of industrial pollution are exploiting loopholes in federal regulations that require companies to take cleanup action when benzene concentrations exceed the public health limit of nine micrograms per cubic meter at the facility’s property line.

Unsurprisingly, many of the worst offenders are located in the industrial corridors of Louisiana and Texas, where the fossil fuel industry holds massive political sway, environmental enforcement is sparse, and fiery explosions, deadly accidents and pollution leaks at fossil fuel refineries and petrochemical plants are common occurrences that often result in evacuation orders for nearby residents.

While overall benzene emissions were reduced nationally under the EPA monitoring program launched in 2018, by 2021 at least 25 refineries were unable prevent benzene concentrations from reaching levels so dangerous they require cleanup under federal regulations, including 13 where benzene concentrations at the refinery’s “fenceline” exceeded the public health limit for months on end, according to Andrea Martinez, the auditor who produced the report.

“As part of our audit, we took a deep dive into the nine refineries that had the worst benzene concentrations,” Martinez said in a podcast released with the report. “We found that the EPA took action against only one of those nine during the time period covered by our analysis, and [state regulators] had not taken enforcement action at any of the nine.”

Using more recent benzene data from 2022 and 2023, the Environmental Integrity Project, an independent watchdog group, released a list of 12 oil refineries and petrochemical plants that rank among the worst benzene polluters. Between April 2022 and March 2023, air monitors around the facilities — seven in Texas, four in Louisiana and one in Iowa — detected benzene between the facilities and surrounding neighborhoods at levels above the public health limit, which is supposed to trigger fossil fuel companies to take cleanup action.

Top polluters on the list include the Chalmette Refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana, and TotalEnergies Petrochemicals in Port Arthur, Texas, both located near residential areas known as environmental justice communities because they have long struggled with pollution on the outskirts of New Orleans and Houston, respectively. A refinery located in Clinton, Iowa, and operated by Dutch chemical giant LyondellBasell ranks fifth on the list. In 2021, the company agreed to reduce thousands of tons of air pollution under a settlement with the EPA and federal prosecutors.

Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA civil enforcement director who now leads the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA inspector general report highlights an “urgent need” for the EPA to “crack down” on oil refineries that are repeatedly putting “neighborhoods right down the street at risk.”

In 2015, legal action taken by a coalition of environmental groups and fenceline communities forced the EPA to impose new benzene monitoring and mitigation regulations. The rules require refineries to monitor for benzene and report quarterly data to the EPA, which then works with refinery operators to develop a cleanup plan when benzene levels exceed the public health limit.

“Some refineries have done just that, and their efforts have helped to reduce exposures to this deadly pollutant,” Schaeffer said in a statement. “But as EPA’s Inspector General reports, the benzene levels remain far too high at other refineries year after year. EPA needs to give these industry laggards a deadline for cleanup, or companies will stop taking these requirements seriously.”

A spokesperson for the EPA’s enforcement division told Truthout the agency had no additional comments to add to the report at this time.

The EPA inspector general report found a lack of follow-through at several oil refineries that continued to report elevated benzene levels despite creating cleanup plans, while data from other polluters went missing in apparent violation of the regulations.

Under EPA rules, refineries largely police themselves unless they violate pollution limits, setting up benzene monitors at the fenceline and regularly reporting the data to the EPA. However, simply allowing benzene concentrations to exceed the public health limit is not a violation of the EPA rules.

Instead, exceeding the limit simply triggers a “legal obligation” to bring benzene levels back down below the nine micrograms per cubic meter limit known as the “action level.” Martinez said refineries with average annual benzene concentrations above the “action level” may not be identifying the root cause of the problem, or they may simply be failing to plan and take appropriate action.

“For example, we looked at eight corrective plans submitted by four refineries and found that only one refinery managed to reduce and keep its benzene concentration to or below nine micrograms per cubic meter for ten subsequent weeks,” Martinez said. “The other three either never reduced their benzene concentration to or below nine micrograms per cubic meter within 10 weeks, or if they did reduce it, they exceeded that level once again in that same 10-week period.”

The EPA may only have a limited time to correct the benzene monitoring and cleanup program and make a meaningful reduction in pollution for residents living near the worst offenders. If former President Donald Trump or another Republican takes the White House in 2024, the EPA will likely see its budget slashed and leadership replaced by champions of industry. During his time in office, Trump pushed for sweeping environmental deregulation and pledged to “unleash” the fossil fuel industry with little oversight.

Martinez said most benzene emissions from refineries are “fugitive emissions” that come from “open sources” such as leaky tanks and equipment, rather than from a smokestack or vent. (Although, the fiery flares that regularly erupt from refinery stacks are sources of benzene and other pollutants as well.)

“The highest concentration of fugitive emissions outside of a refinery property boundary, which is referred to as the refinery’s fenceline, is likely to occur at ground level,” Martinez said. “As such, high concentrations of benzene outside the fenceline could pose risks to nearby communities.”

Like refineries, petrochemical plants are also a major source of benzene, and many are located in the Gulf South and the industrial corridors of other regions. The 2015 EPA rules focus on oil refineries, and the EPA did not create the same benzene regulations for all chemical plants. However, several Gulf South chemical plants are under court orders or consent decrees that require the companies to monitor and report benzene in the air and make efforts to protect nearby residents.

“The Office of Inspector General made six recommendations to the EPA, including that the agency issue guidance regarding what constitutes a violation of the regulations and a strategy on how to address refineries that do not reduce their benzene concentrations to or below the action level,” Martinez said. “We also recommended that the agency investigate the gaps in monitoring data that we identified in our report, as well as periodically review submitted data for such gaps in the future.”