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Residents, advocates ask EPA for stricter emissions standards at oil refineries, public data

William Fontenot of the Sierra Club in Louisiana shows a photo he took of a 1989 explosion at an Exxon Refinery in Baton Rouge at an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Galena Park, Texas. The EPA is considering a rule that would force refineries to monitor emissions of benzene. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

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William Fontenot of the Sierra Club in Louisiana shows a photo he took of a 1989 explosion at an Exxon Refinery in Baton Rouge at an Environmental Protection Agency public hearing, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, in Galena Park, Texas. The EPA is considering a rule that would force refineries to monitor emissions of benzene. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

GALENA PARK, Texas - Environmental advocates and residents living near oil refineries asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday to force petroleum companies to adopt stricter emissions standards and publicly release emissions data to help reduce communities' exposure to a cancer-causing chemical.

By midafternoon, about 60 people had addressed the federal agency during a hearing on the EPA's proposal to compel refineries — for the first time — to monitor and report emissions of benzene to nearby communities.

"I really didn't know the extent of the dangers of being exposed to all these fumes. Finding out what you're really breathing, it's scary. Still, better to know than be kept in the dark," said Maricela Serna, a Galena Park city commissioner.

The new rule also would compel refiners to purchase and place monitors to track emissions of the carcinogen into those communities, upgrade storage tank and emission controls on coker units, where crude oil is pumped at the beginning of the refining process, and reduce flaring.

Residents from Texas, California, Louisiana and Michigan attended the hearing in suburban Houston. It was the second and final public hearing resulting from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of U.S. communities near oil refineries. The suit, filed against the EPA, argued that the federal agency was more than a decade late in reviewing and updating toxic air standards for refineries.

Theresa Landrum travelled to Texas from Detroit to testify about the "toxic soup" she said she and her neighbours are exposed to from living alongside a refinery. A cancer survivor, Landrum said she lost her mother, father and brother to cancer she believes was caused by refinery emissions.

"The fenceline monitoring will help us determine what is coming out of those stacks," she said.

Adan Vazquez said that in winter, "snow flurries look like ash" because of a refinery near the Houston Ship Channel less than a mile from his Pasadena, Texas, home.

Kelly Haragan, who directs the University of Texas School of Law environmental law clinic in Austin, echoed the opinion of many environmental experts, saying that the EPA's proposed rules are important but insufficient.

While applauding fenceline monitoring of benzene emissions as a "wonderful concept," Haragan asked the EPA to also monitor other toxins and provide the data in real-time. The monitors the EPA has proposed would release data to the public two weeks after it is collected.

The EPA cannot use real-time monitors because they are less perceptive to low concentrations of benzene, according to EPA spokeswoman Alison Davis.

Haragan also asked the EPA to revise the 1 in 10,000 cancer risk from benzene emissions it currently deems acceptable, which Davis said EPA will consider in its review after the public comment period ends August 29.

On that standard, Matthew Todd of the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, testified Tuesday that EPA has determined that fenceline communities are shielded with an "ample margin of safety" from refinery emissions.

Todd added that air quality nationwide has improved significantly since major revisions to the Clean Air Act were made in 1990, in part because of billions invested by oil and gas companies to improve the "environmental performance" of facilities, operations and products.

EPA officials estimate the rules could reduce toxic air emissions by as much as 5,600 tons a year, directly affecting the 5 million people in the U.S. who live within a 32-mile radius of oil refineries.

In accordance with the terms of the lawsuit, a final EPA rule must be issued by April 2015.

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