< class="art-postheader">How Oil Refineries Get Around Pollution Laws

During the Gulf Oil Disaster, many Big Oil advocates claimed that crude oil is “safe” and “natural.”  On the contrary, crude oil contains a carcinogen called benzene. This toxin is labeled a “Class A” carcinogen by the EPA (which means they know without a doubt that it causes cancer). It makes up 1% of all crude oil and 5% of gasoline vapors.

Even though 1% or 5% doesn’t sound like a lot, benzene is so toxic that one measuring cup evaporated into a large football stadium would expose everyone present to ambient air levels that are 3.3 times higher than the OSHA safe-air standard and 6.6 times the NIOSH safe-air standard. This means you can poison everyone who is attending a football game with only six gallons of unsealed crude oil, or one and a half gallons of an uncorked bottle of gasoline.

Meanwhile, oil refineries in Corpus Christi, Texas, dumped over 70,000 tons of benzene in 2007 alone.

“But we have pollution regulations!” you say. “How is Big Oil getting away with this?” you ask.

For starters, refineries have ambient air monitors installed in certain locations throughout the refinery. However, many refineries don’t get full coverage from these monitors–there are gaps in the monitoring network. Where there are gaps, benzene emissions cannot be monitored or reported. This is one of the reasons benzene emissions are likely under-reported.

Furthermore, these ambient air monitors only report annual benzene averages and don’t report peak exposures, which adversely affect everyone living within a 30 mile radius of an oil refinery. It’s disingenuous to say that because the annual benzene average was x, high level exposure never occurred. That would be like saying it never gets hot in Florida because the average annual temperature is in the 60s. That’s ridiculous.

Refineries also tend to underestimate emissions from safety flares–the flames that are intended to burn off excess vapor leaks. EPA-approved methodologies assume that all toxic substances are burned by the flares, but scientific studies show that in reality, this is not necessarily true.  A remote sensing study performed by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and conducted at BP’s Texas City refinery showed that only 50% of toxins were burned by a safety flare, while the other 50% were released into the air.

Finally, many sources of benzene leaks are not measured or reported to the EPA at all. Refinery coker ponds emit toxic pollutants such as benzene, toluene, and ethyl benzene. These ponds are filled with waste water that has been used to clean the coker units. Benzene evaporates from the waste water, or sometimes seeps into the ground and contaminates groundwater. The EPA has been slow to create regulations for controlling benzene emissions from coker pond areas.

Remember, the government knows that benzene is a carcinogen–there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you live within 30 miles of an oil refinery and you’re concerned about harmful benzene emissions, contact the EPA. Also, write your local congressperson and ask him or her to crack down on Big Oil pollution. Refuse to vote for candidates who receive large percentages of their campaign funds from Big Oil.

Find out more about the legal thriller, Black Oil, Red Blood here. A portion of the proceeds benefits Gulf People Helping People. Read for fun and help out a good cause.