EPA Showdown: Who in Texas Wants Tighter Refinery Regulation?

Do Hydrogen Cyanide Leaks Show Weakness of Current Regs?

Houston's Ship Channel: home to refineries and petrochemical complex and site of EPA hearing

Dave Fehling

Houston's Ship Channel is home to one of the nation's biggest oil refining and petrochemical complexes and is the site of the EPA hearing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will set up its microphones for an all day hearing Tuesday in Galena Park, a community on Houston’s east side in the heart of the enormous Houston Ship Channel refinery complex. It’s the second of two such hearings with the first held last month in a similar community in Los Angeles.

At issue: new EPA rules that would make oil refineries invest in better equipment to reduce pollution emissions from storage tanks and to improve the efficiency of flares that burn emissions during plant “upsets”. Refineries would also have to increase fence-line monitoring to track exactly what pollution is blowing into adjacent communities.

What’ll it Cost?

The EPA says complying with the new requirements will cost refineries an estimated $240 million and would have a “negligible impact” on the price of gasoline and other products. The industry says the new rules will cost “billions” and aren’t needed.

“For example, in the Houston area, the concentrations of what are called the toxic compounds have declined by 87 percent over the last 27 years.That’s a very big drop,” said Howard Feldman, Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at the American Petroleum Institute.

But why not have more fence-line monitoring to show emissions are really as low as the industry contends?

“It’s just a question of how much money do you want to spend to measure something you don’t think you have an issue with,” Feldman told StateImpact Texas. He spoke at the hearing in Los Angeles and the industry will have representatives to testify in Galena Park.

Who’ll Benefit?

Dr. Brian Tison: "I do think that there’s much more that needs to be done to minimize emissions."

Dave Fehling / StateImpact Texas

Dr. Brian Tison: "I do think that there’s much more that needs to be done to minimize emissions."

But the EPA will also hear from Texans like Dr. Brian Tison.

“I think when you get the concentration of industry that we have here in Houston, it means that we have to be the most stringent. Because we definitely know we’re dealing with chemicals that have clear, public health harm,” said Dr. Tison.

Dr.Tison specializes in treating breathing problems at his office in southeast Houston. It’s across the street from the Brio Superfund site where a subdivision had to be bulldozed because the soil was so contaminated. Many of his patients live near or work in the refineries and chemical plants that are found on the southeast side of Houston all the way to Galveston.

“We definitely do see that patients who are closer to petrochemical plants do seem to come in more frequently with sinus and asthma complaints,” said Dr. Tison who plans to testify at the hearing. “Whenever I see patients who are missing school, patients who are missing work, who’ve really reorganized their life around air quality, it makes me want to be more proactive.”

Why’s it Needed?

A central issue behind the EPA’s new rules was concern that not nearly enough is known about the actual amount of toxic emissions from refineries. Data is often based on models and estimates and according to the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), can mean that data reported by industry to the government is far less than the actual amounts of pollution. In 2012, EIP and community groups in Texas, Louisiana and California outlined the deficiencies in a lawsuit against the EPA. The new rules address much of what the lawsuit alleged.

One particular concern was the reporting of leaks and spills of highly toxic chemicals. For example, hydrogen cyanide. The EIP lawsuit said “hundreds of tons” of the potentially lethal chemical were emitted from plants nationwide but went unreported in pollution estimates. Hydrogen cyanide is used in chemical weapons but is more commonly used to make synthetic clothing and other consumer materials.

Another group, Public Citizen, has been analyzing a national database for accidental releases and found 50 reported leaks of hydrogen cyanide in 2012 nationwide.

“And about 30 of those were in Texas.  So the majority of those were in Texas,” said Nancy Nusser with Public Citizen’s office in Austin. “This is an extremely dangerous situation because hydrogen cyanide as a vapor can be instantly lethal.”

None of the leaks killed people but an EPA document said a leak at a plant in Orange, Texas may have been what killed four birds “near the area of the release.” Environmentalists say it’s an example of why stricter monitoring is needed.

The refining industry says it’s spent $268 billion since 1990 for technology to reduce emissions.

“I think the industry has moved towards controlling emissions to the fullest extent that it can and putting in technologies that are all cost effective,” said the API’s Feldman. “So we are clearly trying to minimize emissions of all compounds right now.”


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