EPA settlement could impact refineries, petrochemical plants

The US Environmental Protection Agency has reached an agreement to settle a lawsuit filed by community groups in Texas and Louisiana forcing it to review, and if necessary, revise formulas that refineries and chemical plants use to report toxic emission levels.

The proposed settlement, published in the Feb. 25 Federal Register, resolves a complaint filed on May 1, 2013, alleging that EPA failed to perform nondiscretionary duties mandated by the Clean Air Act to review, and where required, revise emission factors used by refiners and chemical manufacturers to calculate reportable toxic releases from their plants, EPA said.

Specifically, the lawsuit called for EPA to review the methodologies used to measure emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides (NOX) from liquid storage tanks, industrial flares, and wastewater systems.

Although the federal Clean Air Act requires EPA to review and update these emission factors at least once every 3 years, the consortium of plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit—led by Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of its clients Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power and Development Association, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy—allege that EPA has not reviewed some of these factors in over 20 years.

According to a Feb. 26 joint release from the plaintiffs, US refineries in 2010 reported releasing 37,895 tonnes of VOCs from flares, tanks, and wastewater treatment plants. Recent EPA studies, however, have measured actual emissions of volatile and toxic compounds from these refineries at levels 10 to 100 times higher than estimates based on the current methodology for calculating emission factors, the consortium said.

EPA’s failure to revise these factors has resulted in major shortfalls in reported emissions from refineries and petrochemical plants and has allowed “hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants to go unreported each year,” potentially exposing nearby communities to higher levels of pollution than the law allows, according to the plaintiffs.

“This consent decree is the first step for protecting communities from exposure to toxic emissions by making sure that what refineries emit is accurate,” said Anna Hrybyk, program manager for plaintiff Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

A future step would be to work with EPA to ensure compliance with these new factors by installing state of the art fenceline monitoring at all refineries, Hrybyk added.

Under the proposed consent decree, EPA has until Aug. 19 to review the emission factors methodology and issue either proposed revisions or a determination that revisions are unnecessary, with any final revisions to the methodology or a final determination that none are required to be issued no later than Dec. 19.

Any public comments on the proposed settlement decree are due to EPA by Mar. 27.

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