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Proposed EPA rule would reduce refinery flaring, require fence line monitoring of toxic chemicals
May 15, 2014 at 7:23 PM, updated May 15, 2014 at 7:24 PM

Refineries in Louisiana and around the nation would have to install state-of-the-art technology to reduce emissions from flares and could face fines for emissions during start-ups, shut-downs and malfunctions, under sweeping new rules proposed Thursday by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The new rules, which would also require monitoring emissions of some cancer-causing chemicals at refinery fence lines, are likely to apply to 19 refineries in the state identified by the federal Energy Information Administration. Those Louisiana refineries processed 3.3 million barrels of crude oil a day in 2013.

According to the EPA, the rules will apply to 142 large and 7 small petroleum refineries nationwide, and will reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants by 5,600 tons a year and of volatile organic compounds by 52,000 tons a year. The agency pointed out that exposure to toxic air pollutants like those released from the refineries "can cause respiratory problems and other serious health issues, and can increase the risk of developing cancer."

The refinery industry criticized the proposal Thursday.

"EPA's refinery rule proposed today comes with a high price tag but uncertain environmental benefits while emissions continue to fall under existing regulations," said the American Petroleum Institute in a statement.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, which would have to enforce new rules, said the agency wouldn't comment on the matter until after the rules are published in the Federal Register.

"If EPA changes the standards, we will enforce the new standards," said Greg Langley, DEQ press secretary.

EPA points out that the rules also will result in a reduction of 700,000 metric tons in carbon dioxide equivalents, a benefit to the agency's efforts to get industry to reduce greenhouse gases linked to climate change.

It also pointed out that about half of the people most at risk from refinery emissions are minorities, which is about twice the percentage of minorities in the general population. 

The new rules are the result of the settlement of a lawsuit filed against EPA by environmental groups in Louisiana, Texas and California over the agency's failure to review its refinery rules for more than 10 years, said Emma Cheuse, an attorney with Earthjustice. The group, along with the Environmental Integrity Group, represented several environmental organizations, including the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

EPA is required under the Clean Air Act to review whether its rules must be updated to account for the availability of new pollution control technologies for refineries and for specific refinery units that separate crude oil into products, such as catalytic cracking units, or that recover sulfur from oil.

A Jan. 13 consent decree filed with the U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals required the review of the standards be completed by Thursday. The rule is still subject to public comment, including public hearings in Houston and Los Angeles, with a decision on a final version of the rule expected by April 17, 2015.

"We believe this will lead to accurate public reporting of emissions and the monitoring will mean that violations will be caught and penalized in a timely manner," said Anna Hyrbyk, a program manager with the Bucket Brigade. She said if such fence line monitoring had been in place on June 14, 2012, residents near ExxonMobil's refinery would have known more quickly that potentially dangerous amounts of benzene were being released.

The company initially announced to the public that only 10 pounds of benzene were released, but repeated complaints from residents led to an investigation that revealed that a failure of a storage tank allowed napthalene containing benzene to leak into the refinery's sewer complex, knocking its treatment plant off line, and resulting in the release of more than 31,000 pounds of benzene.

"Over 59,000 people and 38 schools and day care centers are within 2 miles of that complex, and now there's a class action suit filed by the neighbors against the refinery for that accident," Hyrbyk said.

The American Petroleum Institute's director of scientific affairs, Howard Feldman, indicated the EPA proposal is unnecessary. 

"This rule is intended to evaluate what risk, if any, is posed to the public from refinery emissions," Feldman said. "But EPA has already concluded the risks associated with refinery emissions are low and the public is protected with an ample margin of safety. America's refineries have been reducing emissions for decades and will continue reducing emissions under existing regulations while making the cleanest fuels and helping to improve air quality."

EPA estimates the rules will require a capital investment of $240 million, and recurring annual costs of $40 million for all of the nation's refineries.

Representatives of several environmental groups in Texas and Los Angeles disagreed with the API assessment of the proposal. They said recent EPA studies in Houston have shown that estimates of refinery emissions have undercounted the amount of chemicals actually released in the air, based on fence line measurements.

"Their emissions are self-reported and based on calculations that have been found to be inadequate and on monitoring that has been found to be inadequate," said Adrian Shelley, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.

The refinery flare rules will require the flares to meet a high standard for "combustion efficiency," the ability to burn chemical emissions at temperatures high enough to destroy them. The rules also will require refineries to capture and recycle or otherwise destroy some of the gases and liquids before they get to the flares.

EPA concluded that technological improvements have resulted in equipment being available that will allow refineries to meet the new "maximum available control technologies" standards.

The rules also require using new technology to reduce emissions from storage tanks and from refinery facilties that manufacture petroleum coke, a high-carbon solid created from crude oil.

The new rules also eliminate existing exemptions to emission limits during the start-up, shut-down of refineries and during malfunctions, often called "upsets" by the industry.

Hyrbyk said the Bucket Brigade believes those changes will include eliminating exemptions for emissions during start-ups and shut-downs caused by hurricanes, a common occurrence in Louisiana refineries.

Source: nola / The Times-Picayunne

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