EPA investigation documents high levels of cancer-causing benzene
Updated: Jun 16
In April, 2021, the EPA National Enforcement Investigation Center (NEIC) conducted fenceline air monitoring over the course of three days in Pascagoula, Mississippi. According to the report, the levels of benzene at multiple sites, including MS Phosphates, Chevron Refinery, and First Chemical, ranged from 25 ppb to 217 ppb.
Benzene is a known as a class A carcinogen. This means that there is sufficient data that shows exposure to the pollutant causes cancer in people. Out of the 188 hazardous pollutants EPA has identified, benzene is one of the most regulated.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and Earthjustice in 2012, the EPA passed a new rule that included requiring refineries to measure the average benzene concentration at locations around the perimeter of the plants. The rule also set the maximum limit of benzene detected at the fenceline at 9 ppb measured as an annual rolling average. Companies that exceed this limit must conduct a root cause analysis and submit of an action plan to reduce emissions.
In 2019, EIP examined the publicly available monitoring reports for more than 100 refineries across the country. According to their investigation, the Pascagoula Chevron Refinery was one of ten refineries that exceeded the 9 ppb. The facility's average was 13.8 ppb. By 2022, the refinery reported a reduction in benzene annual rolling average (6.13 ppb) and is now in compliance with the EPA limits.
The NEIC investigation does, however, lead us to wonder whether Chevron is accurately reporting their annual rolling averages. The monitoring and reporting is conducted by the facility. Is it possible to manipulate the data? This is certainly a question we have for the EPA if they will respond to our request for a meeting. The EPA never directly contacted us about investigation or the results. We learned about it through someone we know. We reached out to the EPA about nine months ago when we received a copy of the report to request a meeting. We hope to learn more about why they decided to investigate Pascagoula, what the results of their investigation means for us and our health, and what they plan to do next.
Still, even if Chevron is accurately reporting their data, 6.13 ppb is still very concerning. Many environmental and health advocates argue that the EPA limit is too high. In fact, the state of California and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR -- a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) agree. California has set a limit of 1 ppb, and ATSDR sets chronic exposure risk at 3 ppb. Chevron's current levels are 2 to 6x greater than these limits. The Environmental Integrity Project lists the Pascagoula refinery as one of 56 refineries nationwide that pose a series health risk.
Benzene, however, is not the only pollutant we are concerned about. According to the EPA Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), Chevron releases about 1 million pounds of toxic pollutants a year, roughly 54 different hazardous pollutants, at least 12 of which have been linked to cancer. In 2015, the amount of pollutants reached as high as 2 million pounds. In addition to benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOC), Chevron also releases large amounts ammonia and hydrogen cyanide, both of which can cause immediate health impacts, such as burning of eyes, nose, and throat (many residents report these symptoms regularly) and long-term impacts that affect the heart, lung, blood, and brain (issues that have been documented as part of our neighborhood health study).
It is our hope that the EPA will reach out to us, and that this investigation will lead to more action. We are cautiously optimistic about the current EPA's commitment to environmental justice and their plans to fund long-term community air monitoring projects. It is difficult to get too excited because the science is expensive, funding is given out through competitive grant process and/or made available to local governments and state agencies that generally won't apply for it, and is conditional depending on the political makeup of the White House and Congress. The EPA or the delegated state authorities (MDEQ) are not legally required to test the air in fenceline communities. It is not hard to imagine why. If they did, they would be forced to shut down many companies, force them to pay a high price for the health impacts, and/or move a lot of people. Over 6 million people live near an oil refinery.
It is generally up to us to investigate. We are currently in the process of looking for experts and money to conduct our own long-term community air monitoring project. We recently joined the Anthropocene Alliance, and they have helped us get connected to folks. Hopefully, in the next few months, we will begin our project to find out for ourselves how much benzene we are being exposed to.