Latest Oil and Gas

Houston refineries in the spotlight at EPA hearings



They saw the dust, of course. It dirtied their cars, their windowsills, their playgrounds. And even if they removed the grime, it returned. For years, that was life in Galena Park, a refinery town along the Houston Ship Channel.

What they couldn’t - and still can’t - see is the cancer-causing pollution released by the refineries into the air.

And so this week, scores of people from Galena Park and other communities near refineries urged the Environmental Protection Agency to require more aggressive measures for reducing harmful emissions. The proposed rules include the first federally mandated monitoring of the facilities’ fence lines for the human carcinogen benzene.

The hearing at a Galena Park community center was the second of two held nationally on the proposed rules; the other was in Los Angeles. Industry groups told the EPA that the 870-page plan would be too costly and provide few public health benefits.

But those living near Houston-area refineries told the EPA that they are overburdened with foul air. Even if the facilities are not solely responsible for the pollution, operational changes are necessary, they said.

‘‘I’m here to remind you that there are humans involved,” said Yudith Nieto, who lives in Manchester, an east Houston neighborhood near refineries. “We are not just secondary to their investments.”

Galena Park City Commissioner Juan Flores, 36, said the community’s air quality has improved since his dust-filled childhood. But he said the EPA should impose the stricter rules because he has seen too many neighbors his age or younger with cancer.

‘‘You don’t know why, but you wonder if it’s the air we are breathing,” Flores said. “We need more monitoring.”

The EPA proposed the rules in May as part of an agreement resolving a lawsuit filed by nonprofit environmental groups on behalf of people living near refineries in three states, including Texas, which has 27 refineries, five within 25 miles of Galena Park.

The groups argued that the EPA used decades-old methods to estimate refinery emissions. As a result, the agency had no reliable data to develop pollution controls, limit emissions or guide enforcement.

Of particular concern are flares, which burn off pressurized gases during startups, shutdowns and equipment malfunctions.

The advocacy groups say regulators overestimate the equipment’s operating efficiency and ultimately underestimate its releases of toxic chemicals.

Real-time monitoring

The proposal includes performance requirements for flares to ensure that waste gases are properly destroyed. Also, the rules would force operators to upgrade pollution controls for storage tanks and for delayed coker units, which convert residual oil into higher-quality products.

For many people living near refineries, the plan’s most important requirement is fence-line monitoring of benzene, which is colorless and a natural part of gasoline and crude oil.

But some told the EPA that they would prefer to know benzene levels in real time, not with a six-month lag, as the agency proposes.

‘‘The intent is good, but we would like to know the information right away,” said Arturo Blanco, who leads the city of Houston’s pollution control bureau. “With the information, you can do something about it.”

How to best monitor?

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency intends to provide data over longer periods because the rules package’s purpose is to limit chronic exposure to the hazardous chemical. Even low benzene levels can be harmful over time, she said.

Alex Cuclis, a former refinery engineer, questioned whether fence-line monitors were the right approach. A lot of the pollution can blow by the monitors without being measured, he said.

Instead, the agency should consider using vans equipped with measuring tools that can move around the region to find benzene hot spots.

Regulators, oil refiners and people living in places like Galena Park “all need technologies that actually measure leak rates,” said Cuclis, who now works as a scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center.

Cuclis said studies show that actual measurements reveal emissions levels up to 15 times greater than the EPA’s estimates.

Industry points to cost

Industry, meanwhile, told the EPA that the rules are not justified because the health risk is already low.

‘‘Our members estimate that it will cost in excess of a billion dollars,” said David Friedman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. “Of even greater concern is that the health benefit gains are insignificant by any measure, meaning this rule will have financial impacts to the economy with essentially no measurable benefits.”

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, agreed, saying the rule would have “little justifiable results.”

‘‘Unfortunately, it would seem all this rule does is limit the operational flexibility these refiners possess and duplicate the amount of reporting requirements,” said Green, whose district includes Galena Park.

The EPA is set to finalize the rules in April 2015.

First Published August 6, 2014 8:00 PM

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.



Advertisement