In the Shadow of Oil Refineries, We Must Protect Texans’ Health

Source: flickr.com/podruzny/

Source: flickr.com/podruzny/

Refineries cast a long shadow along the Texas Gulf Coast: its emissions of cancer-causing compounds leave overburdened communities facing serious health concerns, even as the industry resists implementing commonsense, protective policies. The shadow, however, need not be so dark for much longer. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to strengthen long-overdue emissions standards for petroleum refineries, which is a critical step toward securing healthier air quality for millions of Americans.

Refineries are a major source of extremely harmful air pollutants including neurotoxins, hazardous metals, and cancer-causing pollutants. Exposure to these compounds can cause lung disease, skin disorders, headaches, and immune system ailment, as well as increase the risk of cancer. Refineries nationwide reported about 22,000 tons of hazardous air pollution in 2010, and many of the largest polluters are right here in Texas. These numbers come to life when you walk the streets of communities like Galena Park or Port Arthur and meet the families who live and work in the shadow of refineries every day.

Shadows of major incidents in the past continue to linger over communities living close to these refineries. Take for example the 2001 Koch Petroleum Group felony admission for lying about excessive pollution. The facility released more than 15 times the permissible limit of cancer-causing benzene in Corpus Christi. Or reflect on the 2005 Texas City BP refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170.

While refineries are a part of the local economy, these facilities also have an obligation to protect the health and environmental rights of individuals who live and work nearby.  EPA is obligated to undertake this rulemaking under the Clean Air Act, which requires the Agency to regularly review and revise emission standards for refineries and other industrial sources. EPA’s proposed rule will bring us one step closer to that goal by requiring a set of feasible, low cost measures that will reduce hazardous pollution from refineries and bring critical health protections to their neighbors.

One part of the proposal would establish an air pollution monitoring system on the fence line of a facility, so that stakeholders, from municipalities to residents to industry, can measure how much hazardous air pollution is emitted. This data will help shed light on the full extent of the problem and associated health risks.

Another part of the proposal would eliminate the free pass on pollution, known as exemptions, currently in place for certain events at the facility, such as startups and malfunctions. For those inhaling these air toxics, there is no free pass. Ever. Considering the severe public health risks of refinery pollution, the public deserves to be protected – without exemption.

Although we all use petroleum products, only a few of us pay the full cost in terms of our health. The communities most at risk from refinery pollution, those that are close by, are disproportionately Latino and African-American. These neighborhoods are overburdened by clusters of refineries and other industrial plants – as evidenced by driving around towns like Pasadena or even looking at a map. The fence line communities also tend be low-income, which can often mean limited access to health care and less access to the political power needed to ignite change.

EPA’s proposed rule would secure these important health benefits at minimal cost. The measures in the proposed rule are projected to have a negligible impact on the cost of petroleum products, which is great news for consumers. In fact, the annual compliance costs for the standards are estimated at much less than one percent of company sales. Given the vital health benefits at stake, failing to move forward with strong standards is an option we can’t afford.

The common-sense standards proposed by EPA will strike a better balance between healthy industry and healthy communities. Join EDF in taking action today by telling EPA that you support strong standards for petroleum refineries. Those living in the shadows of refineries can soon breathe a sigh of relief.

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