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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
Alejandra Martinez

EPA’s inspector general says agency isn’t enforcing benzene pollution rules at refineries in Texas, nationally

A Deer Park neighborhood next to Highway 225, which borders the refineries, petrochemical plants and industrial storage tanks that line the Houston Ship Channel. In 2019, air quality inspectors found that high levels of benzene emissions had wafted across the highway and into residential areas of Deer Park in the weeks after the ITC chemical fire was extinguished.
A Deer Park neighborhood next to Highway 225, which borders the refineries, petrochemical plants and industrial storage tanks that line the Houston Ship Channel. (Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune/Public Health Watch)

A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general found that the federal agency is failing to enforce federal pollution limits on benzene emitted from refineries, including nine in Texas.

The report published earlier this week found that the EPA has not ensured that petroleum refineries that exceed benzene concentration limits at their fence lines take actions to reduce emissions of the invisible hydrocarbon, which is known to cause cancer after repeated exposure.

The report says that from January 2018 to September 2021, 25 of 118 refineries that submitted benzene monitoring data to the EPA exceeded benzene pollution limits at least once during that time period, including refineries in Corpus Christi, Pasadena, Port Arthur and Texas City. Thirteen exceed pollution limits repeatedly, the report says.

When those limits were exceeded, according to the report, enforcement actions were limited, partly because of insufficient air pollution analysis at the refineries and incomplete data submitted by companies.

In Texas, the EPA has given the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, power to enforce such limits. Refineries are required to submit benzene fence line monitoring data to the TCEQ.

The inspector general’s office recommended that the EPA give clear instructions to its delegated authorities, like the TCEQ, on what counts as breaking pollution limit rules and how to spot missing information from refineries.

Ilan Levin, Texas director for the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental organization, said that the report “gives ammunition to those who do want to try to clean up cancer causing pollution.”

The report also noted that regulatory agencies find the pollution limits challenging to implement because the level that triggers an alert does not automatically lead to a violation.

Levin describes the EPA’s benzene limit like a car’s engine light. It’s a warning to regulators that benzene levels are high, but regulators can’t always issue a penalty for it.

The report recommended that the EPA come up with a plan to deal with refineries that don't lower their benzene levels after exceeding the federal limits.

The EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said it plans to fix these issues and expects to complete the inspector general’s recommendations by next year.

Benzene is emitted from various sources at refineries, such as storage tanks, equipment leaks, and wastewater. It’s known to cause cancer after repeated exposure and can irritate the throat and eyes. When inhaled in large quantities over a short period, benzene can affect the central nervous system and cause symptoms including dizziness, a rapid heart rate and headaches.

Eric Schaeffer, the Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director, said in a press release that the report “highlights an urgent need” for the federal agency to crack down on oil refineries that are “putting neighborhoods right down the street from these plants at risk.”

Schaeffer, the former director of civil enforcement at EPA, said “the benzene levels remain far too high at refineries year after year. EPA needs to give these industry laggards a deadline for cleanup, or companies will stop taking these requirements seriously.”

Along the Houston Ship Channel, chemical plants, refineries, and smokestacks are surrounded by a string of communities — many of them predominantly communities of color — and studies have found that residents have experienced adverse health impacts from pollution coming from their industrial neighbors.

In 2019, a group of chemical tanks caught fire in a massive blaze that burned for days at Intercontinental Terminals Company’s Deer Park facility.

A Texas Tribune investigation revealed earlier this year that hundreds of people experienced symptoms of benzene exposure — including dizziness, a rapid heart rate and headaches — and that elevated levels of benzene remained in the air for weeks after public health measures were lifted.

The inspector general’s office looked at benzene pollution data to measure the effectiveness of rules issued in 2015, when the federal agency began requiring petroleum refineries to monitor benzene concentrations outside their fence lines.

If a company’s annual average concentrations exceed the 9 micrograms per cubic meter, a level that EPA says is safe to breathe, the company is required to investigate the cause of the excess emissions and take corrective actions. The report says companies don’t always follow through with that requirement.

"[The report] confirms what communities have been saying for a long time and adds to the growing evidence of pollution," Levin said. "I hope it can lead to some better protections and for some of these refineries to cut their cancer causing pollution."

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.

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