Report questions US refinery emissions estimate

Jun 22, 2004 02:00 AM

Allegations that the levels of chemical emissions from oil refineries and chemical plants are seriously underestimated added a new wrinkle to the question of expanding US refinery capacity in order to increase the gasoline supply. At a time when $ 2-per-gallon gasoline has oil-industry executives and political analysts talking about the need to build new refineries, a report issued by a coalition of environmental organizations alleged that refineries, chemical plants and other heavy industry have been producing far more air pollution than the public had been led to believe.
"The public is being exposed to far more toxic air pollution than the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges for the record," said Kelly Haragan, counsel for the Environmental Integrity Project. "Its time that EPA and the states deal with the problem of inaccurate and flawed reporting of toxic releases."

The thrust of the report is that the EPA has required only minimal monitoring of the chemicals released by refineries, which has resulted in a false picture of success in reducing emissions of substances such as benzene that can cause cancer.
"The goal of this report," Haragan said, "is to try to get more-accurate data so we can get these facilities cleaned up."

The report was quickly dismissed by the industry representatives, who argued that they were following the letter of the law and that they do indeed diligently monitor the quality of the air around refineries and have sunk large amounts of sweat and capital into environmental upgrades of both their plants and the fuels they produce.
"Toxic emissions have declined in part because of actions taken by the refining industry," the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association said. "First, advanced technology and management systems at refineries and petrochemical facilities have lowered emissions. And second, the introduction of new refinery products -- namely cleaner gasoline -- has reduced the toxics profile of cars and trucks.”
"Ironically, if environmentalists intend to push for an even greater regulatory burden on refineries, they may complicate the smooth introduction of newer, cleaner fuels," the NPRA said.

The NPRA took issue with several aspects of the report, the authors of which freely conceded was based on data that was not specific to individual plants; however, the debate over methodology will no doubt pale in comparison to the report's stark contention that a lot more needs to be done to ensure the safety of refineries.
"While we're all talking about the technical details, there are people out there right now who are going outside and smelling these emissions and are being exposed to these chemicals," pointed out Eboni Cochran of Rubbertown Emergency Action in Louisville, Kentucky. "We need to keep that in mind."

The report issued by the four green groups was based on work performed by Texas state regulators who matched up emissions data reported voluntarily by plant operators in the Houston area with air-sample data collected in the same region by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2000. What the analysis found, the environmentalists contend, was a serious discrepancy between the two sets of data.
"They (NOAA) flew through some isolated plant plumes (emissions clouds)," said John Wilson, director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, adding that the government scientists found the industry data was "off by a factor of five."

While the oil industry was prepared to argue the validity of the reports findings, the authors of the reports echoed Cochran's contention that the preciseness of the findings weren't as important as the fact there were major differences between the Texas study and the figures reported by the oil and chemical companies. They argued that the EPA was too chummy with industry and was blandly allowing companies that handle large amounts of dangerous toxins to virtually police themselves with only minimum requirements for actually taking air samples.
"The EPA has revised their rules to only require monitoring that occurs more than once every five years," Haragan scolded. "Such infrequent monitoring is clearly inadequate for tracking compliance and means that more sources (plants) will be using emission calculations and estimations, rather than actual monitoring, to report emissions."

Haragan and her colleagues wanted their report to be more of a catalyst for action in Washington rather than being the last word on refinery emissions. What is needed, they said, are increased requirements for emissions monitoring so that smokestacks as well as leaks and other unintentional chemical releases are stone-cold accurate and, more importantly, reduced as much as possible.
The oil industry has heard calls for more environmental controls many times in the past and has responded accordingly, although usually not without a period of venting about the costs of the upgrades, which firms and their shareholders have to bear. There may be even greater justification for grumbling in the case of the report since the industry was following the rules established by the EPA -- not without some significant input from the industry -- and was at a point when $ 2-a-gallon gasoline was clearing the way for a possible significant expansion of the refining sector for the first time in 30 years.

Source: United Press International
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