EPA, community activists put toxic oil refineries in a headlock
It’s not just coal that’s been getting the wind kicked out of it. Oil refineries will soon be feeling it as well, thanks to new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to scale back air pollution.
That’s good news for the climate, and for the people who live next door to these plants. African Americans are roughly twice as likely as the average American to feel the impacts of these refineries’ emissions, according to preliminary analysis from the EPA. Latino Americans and people who earn below the poverty line are also more likely to be exposed to oil pollution than the average American. Plenty of people represented in these groups came out to voice their support for the new rules, if not stronger ones, in recent public hearings.
“Numerous studies, including some of my own, have documented that poor people and people of color in the United States are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards in their homes, schools, neighborhoods, and workplace,” Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, said at one of the hearings last week (h/t Houston Defender). “Refinery pollution poses special health threats to community residents that generally have higher concentrations of uninsured – heightening their vulnerability.”
The EPA reports that its refined refinery regulations will reduce the toxic stew of benzene, toluene, and xylene released into the air by 1,800 tons annually. That’s on top of a 19,000-ton annual reduction of volatile organic compounds. It’s also clamping down on “startup-shutdown malfunctions,” or SSM, a decades-old loophole that allows companies to get away with saying, Hey, we can’t do anything about pollution from powering up or breaking down.
The proposed rules also reduce carbon dioxide emissions at these plants by 700,000 metric tons. (More on this in this EPA fact sheet.)
This all comes courtesy of a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice and the grassroots group Community In-Power Development Association, in Port Arthur, Texas, whose, leader, Hilton Kelley, has seen his share of refinery blasts and flare-ups lately. Their lawsuit demanded that EPA firm up its clean air rules to give oil companies less opportunities to wiggle out of compliance with emission standards.
“To its credit, the EPA realized it had a responsibility to people,” said Emma Cheuse, senior associate attorney at Earthjustice. “Some communities are bearing the brunt of pollution more than others, and that burden is falling too much on communities of color, and low-income communities.”
Fossil fuel industry groups such as the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers trade association, are enraged. Tell ‘em why you’re mad, son:
“Unfortunately, we are faced with a rule with significant costs but with little or no health or environmental benefits,” wrote AFPM’s regulatory affairs veep, David Friedman. “EPA estimates that this rule will cost $240 million, but our members estimate that it will cost in excess of a billion dollars. Of even greater concern is that the health benefit gains are insignificant by any measure.”
Insignificant, that is, unless you’re unlucky enough to live near an oil refinery. Residents of fenceline communities will have less risk of developing respiratory problems and cancer thanks to the controlled emissions, according to EPA.
“The industry doesn’t get it,” said Juan Parras, director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services. “All they’re looking at is the cost factor, and they don’t consider the cost factor on health issues related to their exposure to the community. Clean up, that’s all we’re asking.”
The EPA just extended the public comment period on the new air quality regulations for another 60 days. Next after that is finalizing the rules so these communities can finally start breathing more freely.