Jan. 6 (Reuters) – A deadly form of soot pollution from U.S. refineries has gone unregulated for decades amid a dispute between the U.S. oil industry and federal environmental officials over how to measure it, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents reviewed by Reuters.
The delay in tackling condensable fine particle emissions means this pollutant is being released from dozens of facilities across the country without control, adding to a host of other contaminants from oil refineries that the researchers say. researchers, have a disproportionate impact on the health of the poor. and minority communities living nearby.
The lack of a federal standard has led at least one regional air quality regulator in California to attempt to tackle these emissions, an effort that has sparked litigation with oil refiners there. find.
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Condensable fine particles are a form of soot that leaves the stack as a gas before solidifying into particles as it cools. The EPA first proposed a method to measure it in 1991, when it was proven to be at least as damaging to human lungs as normal soot, which is solid when emitted.
The agency says even short-term exposure to fine particles of soot can lead to heart attacks, lung cancer, asthma attacks and premature death. Scientific research cited by the EPA estimates that, combined, condensable and solid soot cause more than 50,000 premature deaths per year in the United States, findings disputed by the industry.
But the EPA refused to place limits on the condensable form of the pollutant. The oil industry and its main lobby group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), say the agency has failed to come up with an accurate test to quantify it, according to EPA disclosures and interviews with independent test companies, API managers and the business group. members.
The industry says the tests currently in use may overestimate the amount of condensable soot emitted by refineries under certain conditions, a flaw the EPA has recognized.
“Expensive renovations or new control devices should not be required based on the results of a faulty method,” the major US oil company Chevron Corp (CVX.N) told Reuters.
Setting a national limit on pollutant emissions without consensus on how to measure these emissions is impractical as it would invite industry to challenge justice, according to regulators and chimney test analysts.
The EPA said in a statement it is still conducting research on how to reliably measure condensable soot, but has not commented on the timeline to complete the effort.
Delays are dangerous, said Greg Karras, an environmental scientist who has worked for nonprofit groups seeking to cut emissions from the refining industry.
“It is inappropriate to wait more than 30 years to protect people from this form of pollution while you are trying to perfect a test,” Karras said.
If condensable soot were eventually regulated, it would force nearly all of the country’s 135 oil refineries to invest in new pollution control equipment, based on current emissions estimates using the contested test method of the EPA.
SAN FRANCISCO STRENGTHENS
Soot is made up of particles several times smaller than a grain of sand that can enter the lungs and bloodstream if inhaled. The EPA regulates the solid forms of soot, which are easily measured by filtering the emissions from the chimneys. But since condensable soot is gaseous in the chimney, it is more difficult to quantify.
The EPA’s current test for condensable soot, called Method 202, uses probes and glass tubes placed inside refinery stacks to collect samples of the gas stream. It shows that individual U.S. refineries can emit up to hundreds of tonnes of pollutants per year, sometimes accounting for nearly half of a refinery’s total soot emissions, according to a Reuters review of regulatory documents filed by oil companies.
The material reviewed by the news agency dates from 2017 to 2021 and includes the results of Method 202 tests that some refineries have ordered to meet local requirements or as part of a dispute.
The API, however, says the test can produce erroneous condensable soot readings if the samples react with other chemicals that are typically present in a refinery.
The EPA has recognized that pollution levels could be overestimated using Method 202, according to agency disclosures. The EPA revised Method 202 in 2010 in an attempt to eliminate this bias. But the review did not fully address industry concerns about potentially skewed results due to the presence of other compounds in refinery stacks, particularly ammonia, according to a 2014 EPA memorandum. consulted by Reuters.
The EPA Ohio National Risk Management Research Laboratory, which is responsible for finding scientific and technical solutions to environmental problems, is now working with API to resolve problems with Method 202 while exploring an alternative methodology, the EPA told Reuters.
The long-standing problem emerged last year when regulators in the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes nine counties around the city of San Francisco, passed the country’s toughest soot regulations in the country. aim to reduce pollution in the neighborhoods around its group of oil refineries. .
States and regions in the United States often have the power to impose their own pollution limits as long as those rules are as stringent, if not stricter, than federal regulations.
The new Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) limits include condensable soot and force the industry – despite its objections – to use Method 202 to quantify such soot emissions. The agency maintains that the test is accurate and that condensable soot measurements are not affected by the presence of ammonia in a stack if a refinery is operating properly. The stricter soot standard will come into effect in 2026 to give oil companies time to adjust.
Refining companies Chevron and PBF Energy Inc (PBF.N) are challenging new BAAQMD regulations in Contra Costa County Superior Court, according to a civil lawsuit filed in September. The companies say the rules would force them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pollution control equipment for their Bay Area refineries.
“API and our members support policies at the federal level that follow the science to lead to emission reductions, but the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is using the wrong approach,” said Ron Chittim, vice president of policy in API endorsement, in a statement to Reuters.
Chevron estimates it would cost $ 1.48 billion to install a wet scrubber at its refinery in Richmond, Calif., A pollution control approach the BAAQMD wants the company to use.
The BAAQMD estimates that its restrictions would halve the annual number of soot-related deaths in the region. Soot-related deaths currently average up to 12 per year at Chevron’s Richmond refinery and up to six deaths per year at PBF Energy’s refinery in Martinez, Calif., According to the regulator’s estimates.
Refiners disputed these figures in comments submitted to BAAQMD staff. The industry says the numbers do not take into account the lifestyle choices of people who died, such as smoking, and argues that the health benefits of reductions in soot production are overstated.
A BAAQMD spokesperson declined to comment further, citing an ongoing litigation.
It remains to be seen whether other California air quality districts, other state regulators or the federal government will follow the Bay Area’s lead.
The EPA under Democratic President Joe Biden has said it is considering lowering its existing limits for soot pollution after the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump refused to do so. But the agency did not say whether it plans to crack down on condensable soot.
In Texas, which has the largest number of refineries in the country, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has said it has no plans to tighten restrictions on particulate matter, a spokesperson said.
Elsewhere, recent test results at two refineries seen by Reuters showed that condensable soot made up a significant portion of the overall soot generated by these operations.
In Delaware, at the Delaware City refinery owned by PBF, 48% of the soot measured was condensable soot, according to the results of a stack test carried out in May by an outside consulting firm as part of compliance routine installation to federal air quality regulations.
PBF declined to comment.
At the Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 17% of the soot measured was condensable, according to an August stack test filed with the Environmental Quality Department of the Louisiana.
Exxon declined to comment on the battle over Method 202. The company said it “continuously optimizes our processes to minimize emissions and improve energy efficiency.”
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Reporting by Tim McLaughlin in Boston; edited by Richard Valdmanis and Marla Dickerson
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.