More Bad Benzene Numbers, And They're Probably Worse Than They Sound

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Oil and gas make the world go 'round, but refining the stuff can be deadly business. And according to a new report, the cancer-causing chemical known as benzene is on the rise.

Earlier today, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project released a study showing that benzene emissions from U.S. refineries climbed nearly nine percent between 2007 and 2008, according to numbers compiled by the EPA. Benzene is one of the longest-known human carcinogens and doctors say there is no known safe exposure level.

Sadly, the report states that the nine percent spike may in fact be the good news. The really bad news, it says, is that the refineries, which report emission numbers to the EPA, may be drastically underreporting how much benzene they are pumping into the air, meaning the spike could be much worse.

The report points out that the rise in benzene emissions came during a year when there was a decline in demand and many refineries cut production.

"The bottom line here," Environmental Integrity Project attorney Lisa Widawsky said in a statement, "is that we should have a much better handle than we do today on where we really stand with benzene emissions from refineries. We remain very concerned by several signs that industry is underreporting benzene pollution levels."

As evidence, the report points to several refineries that reported much higher levels of benzene to local regulators than to the EPA. Shell Oil's plant in Deer Park, for example, reported 56,494 pounds of benzene to the state of Texas, but only 15,593 pounds to the feds.

In December, the Houston Press published a report on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its poor enforcement of refineries that exceed the legal emissions limits for benzene and other carcinogens.

Clean-air advocates say that the road to reducing deadly benzene emissions is paved with technology, and in light of the report today are again calling for the use of more advanced sensing technology as well as more accurate reporting.


The folks at Shell emailed to say that the emissions numbers tabulated by the Environmental Integrity Project are misleading and that the company is not inconsistent with its reporting.

Here's what Shell spokesman Chris Bozman had to say:

"Shell Deer Park includes both a refinery and a chemical plant. Per federal EPA regulations and guidelines, the [EPA] data is reported separately to the EPA -- one for the refinery and one for the chemical plant. The 15,593 pounds noted ... is referencing only the refinery data.  The emission inventory report for [state regulators], however, is submitted per state regulation and guidelines as a combined document (refinery and chemical plant data as one amount).  The total of the emission inventory report (56,494) matches the two combined [EPA] reports for the Shell Deer Park refinery and chemical plant."

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