Despite several studies suggesting toxic emissions from refineries are underestimated, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continually failed to review and revise emissions factors for health and life-threatening pollutants.
Now, five environmental justice groups are suing the agency for failure to comply with the Clean Air Act. The groups, the Environmental Integrity Project, Air Alliance Houston, Texas Environmental Advocacy Services (TEJAS), Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. (CIDA), and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, assert that EPA failures are leading to undue health and safety risks for the Gulf Area population.
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA Administrator is required to review and (if necessary) revise the emissions factors used to estimate emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from emission sources at least once every three years. However, according to the notice of intent preceding the lawsuit, “EPA has not reviewed emission factors for flares since 1991,” for wastewater treatment systems since 1998, and emission equations for tanks since 2006.
Said TEJAS executive director Juan Parras, “EPA needs to protect public health and the environment, and there are no excuses to further delay long overdue action to revise inaccurate emission factors consistent with scientific studies.”
An emissions factor is, “a representative value that attempts to relate the quantity of a pollutant released to the atmosphere with an activity associated with the release of that pollutant.” Restated in plain English, emissions factors express how many units of a pollutant are released per unit of activity. The EPA’s example is “kilograms of particulate matter per megagram of coal burned.”
Because they are not as accurate a form of measurement, emissions factors are only used to estimate pollutant emissions when source-specific test data is not available. Still, emissions factors are used to calculate about 80 percent of air emissions from almost all industrial sectors. This data is critical to the creation and enforcement of regulations: emissions data help establish emission limits, guide enforcement priorities, and measure compliance with air quality standards.
CO, VOCs, and NOx are proven to have adverse effects on human health. CO and NOx affect the respiratory system, while VOCs have a nice long list of effects listed on the EPA website. Health problems caused by VOCs include:
“Eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.”
In my last piece I reviewed the compliance failures of the Lyondell Chemical Co. and its current impacts on the Manchester, Houston community. By all measurements, the Lyondell refinery is spewing dangerous pollutants into the air. However, the studies spurring the lawsuit suggest many refinery emissions may be several orders of magnitude larger than originally thought.
For example, in 2008 the National Physical Library conducted a Differential Absorption Lidar Study (DIAL) and found that the average emissions measured using DIAL exceeded estimated emissions calculated while using standard procedures. The tests were performed simultaneously. The DIAL test calculated higher emissions for all measured units, at some points measuring more than eight times the pounds per hour calculated by the standard tests.
DIAL tests were also used to calculate benzene and VOC emissions in the Houston ship channel area. Benzene is a known human carcinogen, and poor air quality is thought to contribute to childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases in the area. Again, the DIAL measurements were significantly higher.
The City Houston Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention reported,
“The comparison of benzene emission factor estimates to the DIAL measured emissions produced potential underestimated emissions ranging from a factor of 5…to a factor of 93…”
Though the EPA must review emissions factors under the Clean Air Act, the question remains as to whether or not the agency will issue new standards. DIAL, while more accurate at measuring non-point pollution, may prove to be a cost prohibitive implementation. Penalties for Clean Air Act violations are often relatively low compared to the potential for increased profits, a disparity that must be corrected if companies are to clean up their acts.
And, even with strict EPA control, refinery accidents are frequent.
“According to industry’s own reports,” said Anna Hrybyk, program manager for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “refinery accidents average 5 per week in Louisiana. Fines and enforcement actions strong enough to clean up and prevent these accidents are rare because the outdated emissions factors so severely underestimate actual pollution.”
Additionally, the EPA often delegates enforcement to state environmental agencies, many of which are overworked and/or let things slide. The EPA remains oversight, however. In the end, the agency has the responsibility to impose sanctions against states for failure to comply with federal regulations.
Image credit: polluted air scene on Shutterstock