13 U.S. Oil Refineries Release Illegally High Levels of Benzene

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A new list from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) shows that last year, thirteen U.S. oil refineries emitted more of the cancer-causing chemical benzene than was permitted by the government. This is an increase from eleven refineries that made the list in 2019. 

Why This Matters: These unlawful benzene emissions can cause disproportionate health issues, especially for the nearby communities, which tend to be predominantly poor, Black and Latino. For eight of these thirteen refineries, benzene levels exceeded the EPA guidelines by nine micrograms per cubic meter of air. 2020’s highest benzene emitter was Delek’s Krotz Springs, Louisiana refinery, which, on average, secreted over 31 micrograms per cubic meter, which is over three times the EPA’s standard. 

Ultimately, strengthening benzene regulations and punishing polluters lies with the federal government.  Benjamin Kuntsman, a staff engineer at EIP, told Reuters, “If the Biden EPA wants to act on its environmental justice promises, these neighborhoods near refineries are a great place to start.”

The Law: As NOLA.com wrote, A 2015 EPA rule requires oil refineries to install air pollution monitors on their fencelines to measure how much benzene is escaping into surrounding areas. If the annual average exceeds 9 micrograms per cubic meter, refineries must search for the cause and take steps to fix it.

During the Trump administration, an all-out assault on environmental regulations saw little enforcement of existing benzene limits. This led to activists from around the United States bringing a lawsuit against the government for failing to project the public from known carcinogens. 

Taking Action: In response to these dispiriting statistics, some oil refineries are attempting to address and correct the root causes of these benzene emissions. The EPA is looking to enforce its standards, telling the press that it was “committed to reducing benzene and other air toxic emissions from refineries and protecting those communities most at risk from air toxics.”

Louisiana, the state with the highest levels of benzene emissions, had five out of thirteen of the refineries on the EIP list. The state’s refineries— including Delek’s Krotz Springs refinery, the biggest benzene polluter — have indicated that they will implement measures to reduce benzene leakage. Delek, for example, has indicated that the 12-month benzene average will fall below nine micrograms per cubic meter by the summer. 

Meanwhile, Texas closely followed Louisiana in terms of its benzene discharge, with three out of thirteen refineries on the EIP list. One of these refineries, Citgo Corpus Christi East, maintained that their excess emissions were a result of a few one-off operational mishaps — but most companies assured the public that they would implement measures to monitor and reduce benzene in the future. 


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