Report Shows 5 Refineries in LA Above “Action Level” for Cancer-Causing Benzene

Air Pollution, Refinery, Louisiana” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit watchdog focused on environmental regulation, released a report naming 5 oil refineries in Louisiana as above “action level” for benzene, a Group A carcinogen. The report, titled “Environmental Justice and Refinery Pollution: Benzene Monitoring Around Oil Refineries Showed More Communities at Risk in 2020” explored the relationship between cancer-causing releases and proximity to poor and Black and brown communities. 

13 facilities were named in total, spanning six states–Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. According to the report, of the more than 530,000 people living within a three mile radius of the refineries, 57% were people of color and 43% were living below the poverty line.  

At the top of  the list of refineries was the Delek refinery in Krotz Springs, Louisiana, roughly 45 minutes west of Baton Rouge. The facility’s 2020 benzene levels were 246% over “action level,” jeopardizing the health of a daycare for low-income children and a public library, both located less than a mile away. 

Image courtesy of the Environmental Integrity Project

Other Louisiana facilities listed were the Shell Norco Refinery, Chalmette Refining, Phillips 66 in Lake Charles, and the Phillips 66 Alliance in Belle Chasse.

In response to the report, Anne Rolfes of Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting communities from hazardous industrial pollution, said “We are in a calamitous situation here in Louisiana… Almost a third of our refineries have this problem. My guess is that it’s more refineries than 5.”

This assumption is echoed by Eric Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at the EPA. He mentioned a “loophole that allows refineries to avoid counting emissions from benzene storage tanks and other non-refining equipment – even though neighbors are exposed to all of these toxic emissions.” These other sources of benzene are currently not included in annual reporting done by refineries. If the EPA took these additional sources into account, the report showed that 17 refineries were over “action level.” Another concern about the reporting process is that it represents an annual average and does not take into account hazardous, short-term spikes in benzene levels. 

Rolfes blamed the LDEQ (Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality) for allowing these hazards to persist in Louisiana communities: “Our department of environmental quality is clearly incompetent and it should lose its delegated authority that the environmental protection agency granted our state agency to run the air program.” 

She’s not alone in finding the LDEQ lacking. In January of 2021, a management audit of LDEQ showed that they were ineffective in properly identifying facility violations and enforcing regulations.

Rofles added, “It’s called an “action level” for a reason and yet obviously it has triggered no action by the state department of environmental quality.”  

The report only crystalized what residents of fenceline communities already know– that the refineries are harmful and cause cancer. This point is emphasized by the resident-named Cancer Alley, the 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is home to industrial facilities of all kinds. 

Although overwhelming evidence, community experience, and a recent UN condemnation from experts on Contemporary Forms of Racism support the reality of Cancer Alley, (REP) Senator Bill Cassidy recently disagreed, instead pointing to “cigarette smoking and obesity.” His rejection of evidence is especially jarring considering that he was formerly a medical doctor. Unfortunately, he joins a long line of state agencies and politicians who have sold out the people of Louisiana for industrial profits– and campaign donations.

Residents who have been failed by local authorities for decades now look to the EPA to take action.

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