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3 Texas Refineries Continue To Emit Cancer-Causing Benzene Above Federal Limits

A flame burns atop a structure at an oil refinery. Several other structures surround it.
Gregory Bull/AP
A flame burns at the Shell Deer Park oil refinery in Deer Park, Texas.

Three refineries in Texas are under scrutiny for again exceeding federal limits for cancer-causing benzene emissions, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

A recently-enacted federal rule requires refineries to conduct fenceline monitoring for benzene, a toxic pollutant known to cause cancer. When emissions exceed a certain level, refineries are supposed to come up with a plan to reduce them.

But in an analysis of EPA data, the Environmental Integrity Project found three Texas refineries had benzene emissions above that federal threshold two years in a row.

The Total Refinery in Port Arthur had the highest levels of benzene at its fenceline, exceeding the EPA threshold by 86%, according to the report. It was followed by Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery, which was 68% over the federal action level, and CITGO's Corpus Christi East refinery, which was 22% over the federal level.

"The benzene is persisting at levels far above the limit," said Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "And we don't want that to happen year after year. The general idea is you get those big numbers, you've blown the action level. You have to fix it."

In a statement, a Total spokeswoman said the company was committed to meeting the EPA rules and that the refinery has made "steady improvements" to its emissions.

"We have identified the areas of focus and are aggressively working to address the issues," communications director Tricia Fuller said in a statement. "We are executing projects to control the sources we have identified, which will allow those units to consistently run below the EPA action levels."

A Marathon spokesperson said its Galveston Bay refinery continues to look for ways to drive down benzene emissions and it conducts additional air monitoring in the community that goes beyond the EPA fenceline requirements.

"These community-based monitors, which send data directly to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, show benzene levels well below the federal benzene action levels for any period corresponding to the fenceline monitoring data reported," wrote communications manager Jamal Kheiry.

A CITGO spokeswoman said after investigating the cause of the emissions, they determined it involved an offsite incident at another facility. “If this offsite incident had not occurred, the East Plant Refinery would currently be below the action limit,” read a statement from the company.

Statewide, there were signs of improvement. Last year, a total of six Texas refineries had exceeded federal benzene levels. Chevron's Pasadena refinery, for example, was more than three times over the federal action levels in 2019, but came in below the action level in 2020.

Under the rule, the refineries are required to measure benzene levels at the fence line every two weeks. If the annual average benzene levels exceed 9 micrograms per cubic meter, the companies are required to investigate the cause and take action to reduce emissions.

But Schaeffer said the EPA fenceline data doesn't tell the whole story. Since the monitoring requirement only applies to refineries, benzene that comes from other sources is subtracted from the reported numbers.

"Before calculating whether or not you’ve gone over the action level, there are a lot of things you can subtract from those benzene readings, if the benzene is coming from off site," said Schaeffer. "The issue there is if you live downwind and the benzene levels that are getting measured at a refinery fenceline are alarmingly high, whether they come from that plant or somewhere else, you want to see the problem fixed."

He said because refineries are often located next to other petrochemical facilities, it's important to think about the cumulative impact as well.

"We’re looking at the data from single plants, but if you take into account the fact that there’s a chemical plant next door, and another refinery just down the street, it really adds up," he said.

Pollution from refineries tends to disproportionately impact low-income, communities of color. Nearly two-thirds of those living within three miles of the seventeen refineries the report analyzed nationally are people of color and almost half live below the poverty line. In Texas, nearly 90% of those living within three miles of CITGO's Corpus Christi East refinery are people of color, according to the report. And about 60% are below the poverty level.

Katie Watkins | Houston Public Media