By Laura Sanicola
(Reuters) -Thirteen U.S. oil refineries released the cancer-causing chemical benzene in concentrations that exceeded federal limits last year, three more than in 2019, according to government data published by the green group Environmental Integrity Project on Wednesday.
The study is based on the second full year of data reported by U.S. refineries since the Environmental Protection Agency began requiring continuous monitoring of air pollutants around plants to protect nearby communities, many of which are disproportionately poor, Black and Hispanic.
“If the Biden EPA wants to act on its environmental justice promises, these neighborhoods near refineries are a great place to start,” Benjamin Kunstman, staff engineer at the Environmental Integrity Project, told Reuters.
According to the report, benzene levels consistently exceeded the EPA standard of nine micrograms per cubic meter of air at the fencelines of eight of the 13 refineries that EIP identified. The EPA requires facilities that exceed that threshold to take corrective action, the report said.
The group also found that one of the refineries exceeding the limits was the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions facility in Philadelphia, which was shuttered in 2019 but continued to pump out the chemical while its tanks were being emptied.
Last year the EPA said “it is important to note that benzene concentration levels monitored at the perimeter of a refinery do not reflect benzene levels in the community.”
The agency added that its limits are stringent “in order to provide ample opportunity for early action.”
The highest emitter of benzene in 2020 was Delek’s Krotz Springs, Louisiana refinery, which averaged more than 31 micrograms per cubit meter last year – more than three times the EPA’s action level, according to EIP.
“Delek is focused on serving as a good steward of the environment and supportive member of the communities in which we operate,” said a Delek spokesperson.
The spokesperson said Delek implemented a number of effective changes in September 2020 and anticipates the rolling 12-month average will fall below nine micrograms per cubic meter by this summer.
Four other refineries on the list were in Louisiana – PBF Chalmette, Phillips 66 (NYSE:) Lake Charles, Phillips 66 Alliance, and Shell (LON:) Norco. In Texas, Total Port Arthur, Marathon Galveston Bay, and Citgo Corpus Christi East exceeded the federal level.
The other refineries were Shell Chemical Mobile in Alabama, HollyFrontier Lovington and HollyFrontier Artesia in New Mexico, and Marathon Catlettsburg in Kentucky.
Marathon spokesperson Jamal Kheiry said the higher emissions were due to one of two one-time events last year, adding that its community-based monitors report benzene levels “well below” the federal benzene action levels for the corresponding periods.
“At both our Catlettsburg and Galveston Bay refineries, we continue to look for opportunities to reduce benzene emissions, Kheiry said.
Citgo said that due to the nature of its business “excess emissions can occasionally occur” and that the root cause of the emission that exceeded federal levels was determined to be due to an offsite incident not involving the company.
“If this offsite incident had not occurred, the East Plant Refinery would currently be below the action limit,” adding that the company is committed to safe and environmentally sound operations.
The other refiners did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.