Refineries must monitor air quality in nearby communities, EPA says

ConocoPhillips Rodeo Refinery from our train
David Brossard/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Sept. 29, 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday released its first-ever rule requiring petroleum refineries to monitor air pollution in surrounding residential communities — a move that could lower the cancer risk from toxic emissions for more than one million Americans.

Levels of air pollutants including benzene, a known human carcinogen, are often higher in areas near oil refineries. They can cause respiratory problems and other serious health issues and are seen as a factor in the increased risk of cancer, according to an EPA statement announcing the new requirement.

Firms will be required to monitor emissions in so-called ‘fence-line’ zones — areas near heavy industry and deemed to be at highest risk from accidents. Such areas are often disproportionately poor and with a higher proportion of residents from minority communities.

“These updated Clean Air Act standards will lower the cancer risk from petroleum refineries for more than 1.4 million people and are a substantial step forward in EPA’s work to protect the health of vulnerable communities located near these facilities,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in the release.

The rule is a first for requiring continuous monitoring in fence-line communities and a first in mandating action to be taken if air quality standards were not met, McCarthy said.

The monitors must encircle refineries and be able to detect benzene at very low levels. The data must be posted on the EPA’s website. The rule will also “virtually eliminate” emissions from visible flares and pressure release devices, the EPA added.

Storage tanks and delayed coking units, some of which had no previous required controls, will be subject to emission reductions under the new rule, the EPA said.

Fence-line communities closest to refineries and other chemical plants are not only most at risk from pollution, but also see their home values degraded by the industrial activity. Some activists allege that companies intentionally locate their plants in economically deprived areas because they know residents don’t have the resources to put up a fight.

One such community is Boynton, in southwestern Detroit, Mich. — which abuts an expanding refinery operated by Ohio-based firm Marathon. Smoke stacks dwarf the close-knit, majority black neighborhood and a strong odor permeates the area, residents say.

Homeowners said they feel their health is threatened by the refinery’s emissions, and that property values have tanked since the plant expanded around the community — making it difficult for them to leave.

In an email to Al Jazeera earlier this year, Marathon communications manager Jamal T. Kheiry said the firm had reduced emissions at the refinery by more than 75 percent since 1999. He said that emissions from the plant are only a small percentage of the total pollution in the area.

Boynton’s zipcode, 48217, has been reported as the most polluted in Michigan, and the Michigan Department of Public Health said it found constantly elevated levels of cancer and mortality rates from cancer in Boynton.

“We’re overwhelmed with pollution, and I was feeling so downtrodden feeling like I was standing at the top of a mountain screaming and it wasn’t going to make a difference,” Emma Lockridge, a Boynton resident and longstanding critic of Marathon’s air pollution, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m looking at the refinery flaring right now,” Lockridge said. “I had reported it so many times and all I got were yawns.”

Lockridge welcomed the new rule because it, for the first time, publicly and officially acknowledged the impact on nearby communities, saying “It’s good someone’s finally thinking about the communities, the humans — you know?”

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