The Houston skyline is seen from the Valero Houston refinery on August 28, 2023. Brandon Bell/Getty Images
For decades, communities living in the shadows of the nation’s petroleum refineries were in the dark about the quality of the air that they breathed. Residents in places like Port Arthur, Texas, and Artesia, New Mexico, could sense their exposure to toxic pollution on days when the air was thick with the sweet smell of benzene, a carcinogen. But access to information on the actual levels of chemicals in the air — data that could help vulnerable individuals make critical decisions regarding their health — was largely unavailable.
That changed in 2018, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, began requiring refinery operators to monitor concentrations of benzene around the fencelines of their facilities — and, crucially, to publish the results of those measurements online. Since then, benzene concentrations near the country’s 118 refineries have trended downward. However, a lack of enforcement and a dearth of monitoring data has still left some communities behind, according to a new report from the Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, the EPA’s internal watchdog.
The report authors analyzed data from 18 refineries that exceeded the federal benzene “action level” — the level above which operators are required to take corrective measures — between January 2018 and September 2021. They found that 13 of them continued to violate federal standards in 20 or more weeks after their initial violation. Many of these refineries, the report noted, are located in and around neighborhoods of color. The report raises doubts that merely asking companies to collect and report their own data as well as analyze the causes of their own violations, as the 2018 fenceline monitoring requirement did, will lead them to keep their toxic emissions below permissible levels.
Environmental advocates argue that such measures must be accompanied by robust enforcement action from the EPA. 09-18-23