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KELLEY: Protecting Our Communities from Hazardous Air Pollution

Hilton Kelley | 8/13/2014, 3 p.m.
Hilton Kelley

Millions of African Americans and Latinos in the United States live near the 143 oil refineries operating in 32 states across the United States. Every day, as refinery smoke stacks spew toxin-filled clouds into the air, communities living near refineries breathe it in. They have no other choice but to breathe it because there is no other air around them.

For advocates like me who work to reduce this hazardous air pollution, the putrid, egg-like smell we notice near these refineries is a constant reminder that this air is not simply unhealthy but deadly. When you breathe in carcinogens for years, these poisons, which include Benzene, sulfur dioxide, lead and hydrogen cyanide, can kill you.

African Americans living near refineries are more than twice as likely to face a cancer risk from the pollution produced by these refineries, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s risk assessment released in June. Latinos, also, face a significantly disproportionate share of risk from this pollution.

My hometown of West Port Arthur, Texas is surrounded by eight major oil and chemical industrial sites, including oil refineries. It is not uncommon to find families where multiple members have lost their lives to cancer. And cancer deaths in Jefferson County, where West Port Arthur sits, are 40 percent higher among African Americans than they are for the average Texan, according to the Texas Cancer Registry.

Children in the predominantly Latino Manchester neighborhood of Houston have a 56 percent greater chance of getting leukemia than children who live elsewhere, according to researchers from the University of Texas’s School of Public Health.

By conservative estimates, oil refineries emit 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants each year. The actual emissions may be as much as 100 times more than what these companies report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Integrity Project found.

Now, there’s a possibility of meaningful change. For the first time in nearly two decades, following a lawsuit from an organization I founded, along with other environmental groups in Texas, Louisiana and California, the EPA has proposed updated standards that would reduce toxic air pollution by 5,600 tons each year. The proposed update, for the first time, includes a fenceline monitoring requirement, which would require oil refineries to measure their emissions of benzene at the edge of their property, right where this pollution goes into communities.

Although fenceline monitoring is a step in the right direction, the proposal does not go far enough. We’re asking that regulators require fenceline monitoring equipment that would provide a continuous measure of emissions in real time instead of monitoring equipment that would only provide a snapshot or long time average of emissions. We also want to see tighter controls of emissions and an actual limit on excessive flaring, to end the unnecessary burning of waste gas when large amounts of toxins end up in the air.

Monitoring and reducing emissions of carcinogens are not the only concern for communities that live near refineries. We also suffer from significantly higher asthma rates. In fact, the EPA has linked benzene to asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.