Energy & Environment

Oil refineries emit unsafe levels of cancer-causing benzene amid insufficient EPA action: watchdog

An internal watchdog is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step up its actions to address emissions of cancer-causing benzene, saying that oil refineries have been releasing unsafe levels of the substance. 

The EPA has classified benzene — which can come from burning coal and oil— as a known human carcinogen. Refineries turn crude oil into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. 

The office of the EPA’s inspector general issued a new report Wednesday saying that out of 25 refineries that had excess benzene emissions at least one time between January 2018 and September 2021, 23 had at least one other instance of excess emissions, and 13 had at least 10 more instances.

Furthermore, the report said that of these 25 refineries, at least 18 later emitted the chemical at levels that present health risks. 

The report particularly pointed to a ​​Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery that was found to have emitted benzene at unsafe levels during 23 separate two-week sampling periods. It also said that a Total refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, emitted benzene at unsafe levels during 11 two-week sampling periods. 

Eric Schaeffer, former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, told The Hill that people described benzene emissions at this level as “posing a significant risk to people downwind.”

The watchdog report called on the EPA to “enhance oversight” of the facilities in order to prevent community exposure to the dangerous chemical. 

It said that oversight that was being provided by the agency and other authorities “has not always been sufficient.” 

“Although the EPA and delegated authorities have the authority to take enforcement action at refineries that do not identify and implement appropriate corrective action … enforcement-related actions by the EPA and delegated authorities were limited,” the report said. 

In an official response, The EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said that it agreed “in principle” with recommendations from the inspector general’s office. 

It took issue, however, with the report’s focus on two-week sampling periods, calling it “misleading” and saying that excess emissions of benzene may not necessarily be violations.

The EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation concurred with the recommendation that was addressed to it. 

Schaeffer, who is now the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said that inadequate staffing may be one reason for a lack of enforcement. He also said that his group is calling for stricter requirements for correcting excess benzene levels. 

“Right now that requirement to correct doesn’t come with a ‘by when.’ It’s too vague,” he said.