10 U.S. Oil Refineries Are Emitting Dangerous Levels of Cancer-causing Chemical Benzene: Report

A new report analyzing government data put the spotlight on 10 oil refineries in the United States—including six in Texas—that are emitting dangerous levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, into the environment.

The report, published by the Environmental Integrity Project, inspected data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities,” said Eric Schaeffer, who is the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.  “EPA in 2015 imposed regulations to better monitor benzene and protect people living near refineries, often in working-class neighborhoods. Now, EPA needs to enforce these rules.”

In 2012 the Environmental Integrity Project, in conjunction with Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against the EPA, urging the agency to take stricter measures against refineries that emit disease-causing pollutants, endangering those who live in nearby communities. This is particularly hazardous for African American and Hispanic people, many of whom reside in the neighborhoods situated near these refineries, the report notes.

The EPA in 2015 responded with the Clean Air Act regulations, which took effect the following February. Among these regulations included a rule that refineries had to measure their average benzene concentration around their facility perimeters starting in January 2018. Locations with a benzene concentration exceeding an average of 9 micrograms per cubic meter of air over a one-year period had to figure out the root cause and rectify the problem to lower the toxic emissions.

Benzene Levels After EPA Regulations

Following the first year of the program’s implementation, the EPA conducted an analysis of the monitoring reports and shared the findings. The Environmental Integrity Project’s report highlights findings reflective of the third quarter of 2019, ending on Sept. 30, at which time at least 10 refineries still had benzene concentrations exceeding the 9 micrograms per cubic meter maximum.

Refineries with Fenceline Monitored Benzene Levels above EPA Action Level*

Facility City State Net Concentration (micrograms per cubic meter) % Greater than EPA Action Level
Philadelphia Energy Solutions Philadelphia PA 49.0 444%
HollyFrontier Navajo Artesia Artesia NM 36.0 300%
Total Port Arthur Refinery Port Arthur TX 22.3 148%
Pasadena Refining Pasadena TX 18.0 100%
Flint Hills Resources Corpus Christi East Corpus Christi TX 16.1 79%
Chevron Pascagoula Pascagoula MS 13.8 53%
Valero Corpus Christi East Corpus Christi TX 13 44%
Chalmette Refining Chalmette LA 12.3 37%
Shell Deer Park Deer Park TX 11.1 23%
Marathon Galveston Bay Texas City Texas City TX 10 11%

Table recreated per Environmental Integrity Project
*Per the report: “It is also necessary to note that the annual averages assessed in Table 1 show the net benzene levels at the fenceline, which represent the difference between the highest and lowest concentrations at the fenceline. The actual fenceline benzene concentrations in the air will instead be the sampling measurements, without the subtraction for background. The actual benzene levels in adjacent neighborhoods can be higher or lower than the measurements at a refinery’s boundary line, depending on multiple factors that include emissions from nonrefinery sources, weather conditions, wind direction, and distance from the facility.”

Benzene is either colorless or portrays a light yellow color. Its scent is slightly sweet. In addition to cancer, exposure to the chemical may also result in nausea, headaches, anemia, and death in extreme cases.

“Long-term, or chronic, exposure to benzene can affect the human blood system and increase the risk of cancer. Benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen, with the potential to cause leukemia,” according to the report.

An associated press release notes, “EPA cautions that the fenceline monitoring action level it established in 2015 is not directly tied to ambient air standards or health-based risk analysis. However, the 10 refineries shown in the table above have long-term benzene concentrations that are more than three times higher than California’s long-term exposure limit for increased risk of blood disorders and other disease. When compared to other benchmarks established by EPA, some of the highest emitting refineries on the list of 10 could represent an additional cancer risk of 4 in 10,000, when considering lifetime exposure.”