EPA To Revisit Tighter Refinery Emissions Rules
October 22, 2009
Federal environmental regulators will reopen the possibility of tighter controls for harmful emissions from refineries, tossing aside part of a last-minute decision by the Bush administration that concluded the potential health risks did not require additional rules.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's reversal comes in response to Houston Mayor Bill White, who argued that the January decision failed to fully consider the risk of cancer for those who live near a refinery emitting toxic chemicals, such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene.
In a letter and in testimony to the EPA, White asserted that the agency's risk analysis underestimates the exposure of nearby residents to cancer-causing chemicals because it relies on industry-reported emissions estimates. What's more, it fails to include the impact of flawed data, which is compounded in areas with multiple refineries, such as Greater Houston.
The agency now plans a new study of the potential risks of emissions from the nation's 153 refineries. It may call for new pollution controls.
The process could take three years, officials said. But city leaders and some environmentalists said it may be worth the wait, considering the EPA, under federal law, could take up to eight years before revisiting the issue.
The result, said Elena Marks, director of health and environmental policy for White, will be "a new, fresh and honest review" of air toxics.
But Jeff Holmstead, who served as the EPA's air chief in the Bush administration, said it would not be a surprise to see the agency reaffirm the earlier decision after more study.
The initial conclusion that current refinery emissions didn't pose a health risk "was not a political decision by the Bush administration," said Holmstead, now head of the environmental group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. "It was a staff-driven exercise based on the strength of the science."
The EPA's acceptable health risk is generally one additional cancer case per one million people. In areas near a refinery, the agency allows 30 additional cases per million.
But Houston officials have argued that the standard doesn't adequately protect public health, particularly in East Harris County, which is home to five refineries.
They note that a number of studies have shown underreporting of emissions by factors of as much as 15. The compounded error may be significant in places with more than one refinery.
While Wisconsin has one refinery and Texas has 30, the increased risk to Texans is more than 30 times the risk to Wisconsin's residents because of the concentration of facilities, White said in a letter to the EPA.
The agency said his arguments played a role in the decision to re-evaluate the risks from refinery emissions.
Marks said the reversal is "by far the greatest legacy of our work" in the environmental area. The White administration ends in December because of term limits.
Matthew Tejada, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, cautioned that the EPA's change in direction represents a first step.
"It sounds good," Tejada said, "but we'll have to see what the EPA proposes."
Source: Houston Chronicle
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