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10 US oil refineries exceeding limits for cancer-causing benzene in 2109, EPA report finds

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

At least 10 US oil refineries have been emitting cancer-causing benzene above the federal government’s limits, according to a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project.

The group reviewed a year of air monitoring data recorded at the fence lines of 114 refineries, as reported to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The facilities are not breaking the law, but they are required by EPA to analyze the causes of the emissions and try to reduce them.

Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said while some refineries have made improvements, others are still releasing benzene at harmful rates.

“Benzene comes with elevated cancer risk but also lots of non-cancer issues that are harder to quantify,” Schaeffer said. People can get sick from low levels in the long term or high levels in the short term.

Benzene is just one of multiple dangerous pollutants emitted by refineries – which turn oil into gasoline and other products. Studies have shown the populations living around refineries – often people of color and low-income families – to have worse asthma and other respiratory problems.

Benzene harms cell processes. It can keep bone marrow from producing enough red blood cells and can damage the immune system and increase the risk of infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Over the long term, benzene exposure causes other problems, including cancer, according to the Department of Human Health and Services.


The data is being collected and reported for the first time following a 2012 lawsuit by the Environmental Integrity Project and seven community and environment groups.

The highest-emitting refinery, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Pennsylvania, shut down in June after erupting in explosions and fires. It was polluting benzene at five times the government’s limit. Most of the other benzene polluters – six out of the top 10 – are in Texas.

The second-worst refinery is the Holly Frontier Navajo refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, where levels were more than three times the EPA’s “action level” of 9 micrograms per cubic meter, which requires companies to address the pollution.

The federal agency collects data from a number of air monitors around a plant. It takes the average for each station and then uses the highest of those numbers to determine a refinery’s benzene level.

The researchers found concerning spikes outside of the time range they analyzed as well. One monitor in June and July of 2018 detected benzene in a concentration of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter at the distance of about three football fields from an elementary school.

The community within a mile of the Artesia refinery has 3,318 residents, 74% of whom are Hispanic and most of whom live below the poverty line. Schaeffer said the extremely high levels led to public pressure and action from the government.

Corey Williams, the policy and research director at Air Alliance Houston, said in many cases people living near the refineries and other industrial facilities know they might be dangerous but haven’t always had proof.

“I think it’s something that a lot of people have come to accept as part of living in the energy capital of the world,” Williams said.

An EPA spokesperson said that “it is important to note that benzene concentration levels monitored at the perimeter of a refinery do not reflect benzene levels in the community”, and that “the federal action level is intended as a benchmark to flag when emissions are higher than expected, so that facilities can look for the cause and take early action.”

“Should exceedances be ongoing, this may be a flag for EPA to do further analyses regarding potential community risk,” the spokesperson said.


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