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  • 2023 January 27 13:42

    Lax oversight allows U.S. refineries to pollute waterways

    A national study of water pollution from oil refineries reveals that EPA is failing in its legal responsibilities to regulate the half billion gallons of wastewater a day that pours out of U.S. refineries, loaded with nitrogen, industrial salts, cyanide, arsenic, chromium, selenium, and other pollutants, according to Environmental Integrity Project.

    Eighty-one refineries across the U.S. that discharge to waterways released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids (which can be harmful to aquatic life) in 2021, along with 60,000 pounds of selenium (which can cause mutations in fish), and 15.7 million pounds of algae-feeding nitrogen (as much as from 128 municipal sewage plants), among other pollutants, according to public records examined by the Environmental Integrity Project in its report “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls.”

    The federal Clean Water Act requires EPA to set limits for pollutants from industrial sources and update them at least every five years as treatment technologies improve. But EPA has never set any limits for refinery discharges of many pollutants, including selenium, benzene, cyanide, mercury, and many others. And EPA has also failed to update the few limits that were established nearly four decades ago, in 1985.

    One of the report’s conclusions is that much of the water pollution from oil refineries today is legal, because EPA and most states have failed to regulate it. But illegal pollution is also a major problem.

    EIP’s review of EPA enforcement and compliance data found that almost 83 percent of U.S. refineries (67 of 81) reported violating their permitted limits on water pollutants at least once between 2019 to 2021. But less than a quarter of the refineries with violations (15 of the 67) were penalized during this period.

    Among other conclusions of EIP’s report are the following:

    Wastewater discharged by 68 percent of the refineries examined (55 of 81) contributes to the “impairment” of downstream waterways – meaning they are too polluted to support aquatic life or allow for recreational uses like swimming or fishing.

    U.S. refineries are often old – averaging 74 years, but some dating back to the 1880’s – and many have antiquated and inadequate pollution control systems. Most have also expanded over the last forty years, increasing both the volume and variety of pollutants they discharge. But EPA has not updated its standards for refineries since 1985.

    Two-thirds of the refineries examined by EIP (56 of 81) are located in areas where the percentage of low-income households within three miles exceeds the national average, and over half are located in areas where the percentage of people of color exceeds the national average.

    Sixty-seven refineries were flagged by EPA as violating permitted pollution limits 904 times between 2019 and 2021, including for dumping excessive amounts of cyanide, zinc, total suspended solids, ammonia, and oil and grease.




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