The day is etched in Lemont Taylor’s memory unlike any other. He met his doctor on Dec. 14, 2014 to go over lab results from an earlier visit. A few minutes and a couple dozen words later, Taylor’s life had changed.
“I was told I had stage four bladder cancer and 30 percent chances of survival,” he recalled. “I was in shock.”
A longtime resident of the Hillcrest neighborhood of Corpus Christi, Texas, Taylor, who is African American, believes growing up around refineries and chemical plants led to his ordeal.
“I blame the refineries, the emissions from these refineries,” said Taylor, 68, “From the tender age of 6 to the age where I am now. And they were unregulated back then. Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) didn’t come in until the mid-80s. Well, guess what TCEQ…we’d already been there since the ‘60s.”
A predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood, Hillcrest is dwarfed by a 15-mile industrial expanse known as Refinery Row on one side and oil tanks on another. From his window, Taylor could see CITGO, Flint Hills Resources and Valero refineries with their flame-tipped towers and futuristic mash-up of tanks and pipe.
In February 2014, 10 months before Taylor was diagnosed with cancer, CITGO was fined over $2 million for violating the Clean Air Act at its Corpus Christi East refinery. The company was convicted by a jury in 2007 of operating two open-top tanks as oil water separators ,without the required emission control equipment. The tanks emitted toxic gases, including benzene, a known carcinogen, over a period of more than eight years.
CITGO’s Corpus Christi East Refinery is among 13 refineries that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” for average annual benzene emissions in 2020, an April study by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project said. Its findings were based on benzene emissions measurements recorded along the refineries’ “fencelines” and reported to the EPA.
Responding to the study, CITGO said in a statement that only one of the fenceline monitors captured emissions over the limit in 2020. “Upon further investigation, it was determined that the monitor readings were affected by emissions resulting from an incident at a nearby plant not owned by CITGO,” the statement said. “If this third party incident had not occurred, the East Plant Refinery would have been below the action limit for the relevant time period.”
CITGO said that it continues working to improve performance at the refinery, and has recently implemented several projects that have further reduced emissions below action limits.
Two other Texas refineries, Marathon Galveston Bay in Texas City and Total Refinery in Port Arthur, were also among the 13. A total of five Texas refineries—Citgo East and Flint Hills Resources East in Corpus Christi; Marathon Galveston Bay; Total Refinery, and Chevron Pasadena Refining in Pasadena—were among 11 that exceeded the benzene action level in 2019.
A Clean Air Act rule that went into effect in 2015 requires refineries to install air pollution monitors at their boundaries to monitor benzene emissions escaping into neighboring areas. The refineries are required to investigate and clean up the emission sources if the benzene levels averaged above 9 micrograms per cubic meter over a year. The regulation is designed to protect neighborhoods next to refineries, many of which are lower-income communities of color.
Benzene is known for causing leukemia and respiratory ailments, and in high concentrations it indicates the presence of other air pollutants considered dangerous to human health.
Citing U.S. Census Bureau and EPA data, the study found that more than 530,000 people live within three miles of the 13 refineries flagged for excessive benzene emissions, 57 percent of whom were people of color and 43 percent of whom lived below the poverty line. The 2020 monitoring also revealed more communities at risk than in 2019, when 11 refineries exceeded EPA’s action level.
Taylor expressed pain and frustration in an interview that the City of Corpus Christ has allowed such cancer-causing emissions from the refineries to continue. He recalled seeing elderly Hillcrest residents falling ill back in the 1980s, adding that the city knew about the releases for decades.
“That’s the most disturbing thing, they knew that it was happening, and they did nothing about it,” he said. “They wanted profit over people. They wanted business over people and didn’t care about the residents.”
Rules Favor Refineries. Communities of Color Take the Hit.
More than a quarter of a million people, predominantly Black and Hispanic, live in communities adjacent to the five Texas refineries that exceeded benzene levels in 2019.
Valero Corpus Christi East, located next to Hillcrest, emitted the highest two-week average of 386 micrograms of benzene in May 2020, although it was not among the 13 refineries exceeding average annual benzene limits. Nearly 40,000 people are estimated to be residing next to the facility, almost 90 percent of whom are people of color with almost 60 percent living below the poverty line. The refinery said that the emissions came from offsite sources, the study found.
CITGO Corpus Christi East refinery’s highest two-week average benzene emission was calculated at 47 micrograms. Nearly 41,000 people live next to that facility, with 87 percent of that population people of color and almost 60 percent living below the poverty line.
Flint Hills Resources East, which shares the same industrial stretch as CITGO and Valero refineries, emitted 51.8 micrograms of benzene during its highest two-week spike of 2020. Some 7,000 residents live in its immediate surroundings, with 64 percent Black and Hispanic families and 40 percent living below the poverty line.
The 2015 EPA rule recognizes that significant concentrations of benzene may also signal the presence of a large cloud of other harmful toxins such as formaldehyde, naphthalene, ethyl benzene, toluene or xylene. Each of these toxins either present their own cancer risks, attack respiratory systems or contribute to smog formation.
But the rule does not require any response by emitters or regulators to such highly concentrated short-term emission bursts. Instead, the enforcement action is triggered only when average benzene emissions exceed 9 micrograms per cubic meter and can be traced to on-site facilities subject to the rule.
Events under 9 micrograms are disregarded as “background” emissions and refineries typically adjust their emission figures to a lower limit, often claiming that sources of emissions lay elsewhere, the report found.
The Environmental Integrity Project, based in Washington and founded by two former EPA attorneys, maintains that the 2015 EPA rule ignores the risks from such short-term benzene spikes, which may threaten the low-income communities that also often suffer from underlying conditions and compromised immunity.
These are the same communities hit hard by Covid-19, where residents who lack affordable health care already suffer from the kind of ailments that make them especially vulnerable to toxic air pollutants like benzene, the report said.
EPA estimates that inhaling benzene at a concentration as low as 1.3 micrograms per cubic meter over a lifetime could result in up to one additional cancer death per 100,000 people exposed to that level. As benzene levels rise, those risks increase proportionately.
“This data adds to the mounting evidence that communities of color and low-income communities suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution,” said Ilan Levin, Texas the Environmental Integrity Project’s Texas director. “It’s heavily communities of color, a lot of non-English speakers, especially here in Texas, in the Gulf. It confirmed what many of these communities have been complaining about for a long time.”
A successful lawsuit filed against the EPA in 2012 by the EIP led to the 2015 benzene monitoring rule. The actual monitoring requirements began in 2017, so the data has only been available since then.
Levin said the report shows refineries tend to downplay their emissions. “When we look at the data, we saw that they were actually recording very serious little spikes of benzene at their fenceline. But they use some of the loopholes in the rule to subtract some of the benzene from those numbers that went into their annual average. So, this rule is far from perfect,” he said.
The organization is asking EPA to take more enforcement action and to investigate the refineries and determine why the emissions are going up. Other recommendations include expanding monitoring at similar chemical and petrochemical facilities where benzene or other toxic substances are being emitted into nearby communities.
Taylor, who is also a member of community action group Citizens Alliance for Fairness and Progress, said the City of Corpus Christi has failed to serve and protect its citizens. “How could they let the refineries right next to people” continue operations, he said, “…knowing that it was toxic in the beginning. But it was a minority neighborhood. So, therefore they did not care.”
A spokesperson for Corpus Christi Mayor Paulette M. Guajardo said she was unavailable for comment.
‘We Need a Better Science’
Juan Flores, 42, a resident of Galena Park in suburban Houston, often finds himself wondering if living close to refineries and chemical plants emitting toxins led to his daughter’s cancer. Flores’ only daughter, now 5, was born with a tumor and went through chemotherapy and a round of surgeries.
“I’m not saying that pollution is what made my daughter have cancer. I can’t say that, I can’t prove that,” he said with a hint of frustration. “But it makes me wonder, you know, it could have been, or maybe it was, but I will not know that because you got to have proof.”
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Flores, a Mexican immigrant, said he lives on the north side of the Houston Ship Channel, a massive refining and petrochemical hub. The Chevron refinery in Pasadena, which is among those exceeding EPA action levels for benzene in 2019, is to the southeast, and to the north of that facility is the Kinder Morgan splitter, a refinery that processes only natural gas. “We can actually hear the alarms going off there,” he said, referring to the bells that sound when workers are needed to take precautionary maneuvers.
According to a Houston Chronicle report, a leak at Pasadena Refining led to the release of thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants, including some 8,000 pounds of cancer-causing benzene, in the fall of 2018. The same year the refinery recorded its highest two-week average concentration of benzene from one of its fenceline monitors, which was 6.5 times above EPA guideline for short-term exposure.
The following year, benzene concentrations from the Pasadena Refinery averaged 565 micrograms for the two-week period ending October. The EIP report flagged the event as “alarmingly high”—77 percent above the limit set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The 2019 “net average” for Chevron Pasadena Refinery was 30 micrograms, compared to the EPA’s action level of 9 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2020, the refinery’s net concentration stayed below the EPA-advised emission limit, according to an EIA report.
Tyler Kruzich, Chevron’s external affairs advisor, said that the company has conducted supplemental benzene monitoring and implemented elaborate networks of real-time sensors. “We have replaced or repaired equipment and adopted new operating procedures to mitigate known sources of emissions, he said, adding that “Chevron has remained in compliance with the fenceline monitoring requirements of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Refinery Sector Rule since acquiring the Refinery in May 2019.”
Elena Craft, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said the data highlighted chronic environmental racism prevalent in oil refining areas, particularly across the Gulf region.
“It shows disproportionate impacts in vulnerable communities, communities of color that are more susceptible to the multiple harms from the variety of compounds, chemicals and toxics,” she said.
Craft stressed the need for better science to understand the cumulative risks from toxic emissions that evade the present regulatory requirements. “A lot of times those large-scale benzene releases are not captured in part because some releases may occur further away from the regulatory monitoring station or they are not captured,” she said. Such instances make it difficult to understand risks to public health, she added.
Not enough, she said, is being done to protect the public. “There’s lots of evidence that we’ve underestimated the full extent of benzene exposure, particularly in some of these environmental justice areas,” she said.
While benzene is “not as prevalent of a pollutant as, say, ozone or particulate matter,” she said, there is still “the need for a federal standard for pollutants like benzene.” She said adequate protection really comes down to enforcing permits and scrutinizing violations when they occur, especially in the context of climate-induced weather events. “So, that really falls on the state regulatory agency in terms of how they manage or enforce those air permits that the facilities are operating under,” she said.
Along the Houston Ship Channel, Flores, along with other area residents, is pushing back against an air permit request from the Pasadena Refinery. It would allow the Chevron-operated facility to emit hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which the Centers for Disease Control describes as a chemical warfare agent used commercially for fumigating, electroplating, mining and chemical synthesis. Harris County, along with the residents, have asked TCEQ for a public meeting, which is expected in the next few months.
Chevron’s Kruzich said HCN emissions are present at all such facilities and that the Pasadena Refinery is in compliance with TCEQ requirements for safeguarding “human health and the envrionment.”
Flores worries about what more toxic emissions could mean for her daughter’s wellbeing. “It’s just always at the back of my mind. She’s been cancer free for four years,” he said. “That makes me wonder, like a doctor said, it could possibly come back. But as the years go by, the chances of that are smaller and smaller. But I mean, you never know.”