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Report reveals elevated benzene levels at 10 U.S. oil refineries

Air monitoring data suggests 10 U.S. oil refineries emitted benzene at concentrations above EPA limits in 2019. File Photo by Pattie Steib/Shutterstock
Air monitoring data suggests 10 U.S. oil refineries emitted benzene at concentrations above EPA limits in 2019. File Photo by Pattie Steib/Shutterstock

Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Air monitoring data analyzed by scientists with the Environmental Integrity Project suggests at least 10 oil refineries in the United States have been emitting benzene at levels above EPA limits, so called EPA "action levels."

The oil refineries aren't breaking the law, but according to EPA rules, owners of the facilities must investigate the cause of the elevated emissions and work to reduce them.

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"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," Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.

Previous studies suggest prolonged exposure to benzene can have negative effects on the blood and nervous systems. Research shows communities exposed to elevated benzene levels are likely to experience elevated cancer rates.

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"EPA's Integrated Risk Information System indicates that inhaling benzene concentrations as low as 13 micrograms per cubic meter over a lifetime is likely to cause one additional cancer case for every 10,000 people exposed," according to the new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

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Air monitors along the fence line at the HollyFrontier Navajo Artesia refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, recorded a two-week net sampling period concentration of 998 micrograms per cubic meter.

Most of the offending refineries identified by the new report are located in Texas and Louisiana, but one of the worst benzene emitters is located in Philadelphia.

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"The refinery with the highest benzene levels at the end of the third quarter of 2019 was the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Pennsylvania, whose annual average net concentration was nearly five times the EPA standard," according to the report.

In 2012, the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the EPA on behalf of communities adjacent to the fence lines of polluting oil refineries. Benzene is one of several hydrocarbons emitted when petroleum refineries convert crude oil into gasoline.

"Often these working-class neighborhoods have high proportions of African-American and Hispanic households," report authors wrote.

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In 2015, the EPA adopted rules mandating oil refineries measure benzene emissions using systems of air monitors along their fence lines. Several challenges to the rules by industry groups proved unsuccessful and refineries were forced to begin monitoring benzene emissions in 2018.

"EPA in 2015 imposed regulations to better monitor benzene and protect people living near refineries, often in working-class neighborhoods," Schaeffer said. "Now, EPA needs to enforce these rules."

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The Total Port Arthur Refinery in Texas was one the refineries found to have exceeded EPA action levels.

"We are committed to comply with EPA rules," a spokesperson for the refinery told The Hill. "We take seriously our responsibility to reduce our environmental footprint. Our refinery employees live and have families in this community."

Benzene is one of the most widely monitored air toxins, as it is released through a variety processes.

"Benzene is found in the air from emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations, and motor vehicle exhaust," according to the EPA.

In addition to more serious health problems, such as leukemia, exposure to benzene is also known to cause dizziness and headaches, as well as eye, skin and respiratory tract irritation.

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