EPA Concludes Flares at Refineries and Chemical Plants Release Four Times More Volatile Organic Compounds than Reported

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that flares at refineries and chemical plants emit about four times more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) a smog-forming air pollutant than previously reported.  EPA also found that Fluid Catalytic Cracking Units at refineries emit more than 10 times more hydrogen cyanide per year, releasing more than 3000 tons more of this powerful neurotoxin each year than previously reported, and more than one third the combined total of all hazardous air pollutants refineries reported to the Toxics Release Inventory in 2013.

The new EPA guidelines were prompted by a 2013 lawsuit by the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of Air Alliance Houston, Community In-Power and Development, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.  EPA revised its methodology for estimating emissions from flares used at various industries, including refineries and chemical plants after determining that they release four times more VOCs than reported by industry in the past.  VOCs contribute to smog and include benzene and other carcinogens.  Although EPA is apparently informing reporters that these emission factors should not be used to estimate VOC releases from flares and oil and gas drilling sites, the agency has not made this distinction in the guidance it has published today or in previous versions.

“The VOC air pollution plume from flares is four times larger than we thought, and that multiplies their contribution to health problems,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.  “Based on this new data, flares deserve more attention from state and local regulators.”

The higher amounts of pollution mean that the public health toll from VOC emissions from refinery flares in terms of hospital visits, other health costs, and lost work days, likely exceeds $120 million per year, compared to about $30 million, based on prior EPA estimates.  These costs are most often borne by poor communities that can least afford it, and will be larger when chemical plants are added to the equation.

Until yesterday’s announcement, EPA’s guidelines for industry estimation of VOCs were based on data that were nearly 30 years old, even though the law requires the agency to review and revise its guidelines every three years.

The good news is that reducing emissions from flares is cost-effective and fairly straight-forward, said Sparsh Khandeshi, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.  One option is for industry to upgrade its facilities to recycle more gas instead of burning it up in flares.    “That saves the industry money, while also reducing air pollution that threatens people living downwind,” Khandeshi said.

Flares are emissions sources that convey hydrocarbon gas to a stack or pipe for combustion that are used by more than 100 oil refineries across the U.S., as well as thousands of drilling sites and chemical plants. The flames burn off excess gas released when the facilities are shut down for repair, when the gas does not meet industry specifications, or because drillers do not have the capacity to contain gas that rushes out of shale formations right after they are punctured.

“Members of industry have a saying, ‘What gets measured gets improved.’ Only by accurately measuring emissions can we reduce pollution and protect public health,” said Adrian Shelley, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.  “People have a right to know what they are being exposed to.  If new estimates show there is four times the pollution in the air than previously thought, how can we have any confidence that our health is protected?”

More than a decade ago, air quality monitoring above Houston revealed higher levels of smog (ozone) than could be explained by the self-reported emissions estimates of industries in the area.  Roughly 80 percent industries do not actually monitor emissions from their flares and other facilities, and instead rely on estimates using formulas – called “emission factors” — approved by EPA to comply with the reporting requirements of the federal Clean Air Act.  (Industries are not required to use these factors, and can instead choose to install monitors or use their own best engineering estimates. But the EPA guidelines serve as the benchmark for what estimates are valid).

In response to the unexpectedly high levels of air pollution in Houston, EPA studied the actual emissions of flares by examining infrared light passing through the plumes.  The federal agency then failed to act on the results of these studies for more than a decade.  So EIP and its allies sued EPA in May 2013 to force the agency to update its emissions factors.

Most refineries and chemical plants have been relying on the outdated EPA guidelines to determine whether their emissions are high enough to require a permit under the federal Clean Air Act.  The new emission factors – which indicate that VOC emissions are typically four times higher than previously reported – mean that more refineries and chemical plants across the U.S. will likely be required to obtain air pollution control permits and comply with federal limits for their emissions.

The revised EPA estimates mean that an estimated 500 flares at about 100 refineries nationwide are likely releasing up to 52,800 tons of volatile organic compounds every year (including benzene, a carcinogen) instead of 13,200 tons as calculated by EPA in 2014.

“It is critical that the EPA does all it can to help protect human health from dangerous toxins in the air that we breathe,” said Hilton Kelley, Executive Director of the Port-Arthur, Texas-based Community In-Power and Development Association. “There is a disproportionate number of polluting industries located in the city of Port Arthur, Texas.  So we would like to urge EPA to put all safeguards in place to help protect our children, our families, and our elderly.”

EPA has conducted studies that show its current emissions reporting guidelines for tanks and wastewater treatment plants used at refineries, chemical plants, and oil and gas facilities also underestimate air pollution by as much as tenfold. But the agency’s determination, released yesterday, did not address these problems, focusing only on flares and a few other processes found at refineries.

To read EPA’s new guidelines, visit: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/consentdecree/index_consent_decree.html


Tom Pelton, Director of Communications, Environmental Integrity Project (202) 888-2703 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org

Adrian Shelley, Executive Director, Air Alliance Houston (713) 528-3779 or adrian@airalliancehouston.org.

Anne Rolfes, Founding Director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade (504) 484-3433 or anne@labucketbrigade.org.

Hilton Kelley,  Executive Director of the Community In-Power and Development Association  (409) 498-1088 orHiltonKelley5011@gmail.com

Juan Parras, Director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (281) 513-7799 or parras.juan@gmail.com.