New EPA Rules Will Cut Visible Refinery Flares, Require Fence Line Monitoring

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By Mark Schleifstein, 

Most visible flare emissions of toxic chemicals at refineries nationwide would end and the refineries would have to install monitors on their sites and around their fence lines to measure for carcinogenic benzene gas, under rule changes announced Tuesday (Sept. 29) by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA officials said that when fully implemented in 2018, the rule changes will result in a reduction of 5,200 tons per year of toxic air pollutants and 50,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds. The rule changes also will result in a reduction in greenhouse gases equivalent to about 660,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide, EPA officials said.

The new rules apply to 142 refineries nationwide identified by EPA as "major source" facilities, which have the potential to emit 10 or more tons per year of any single air toxic or 25 tons per year or more of any combination of air toxics.

IMAGE: Flaring at Valero's Meraux refinery on Saturday, March 22, 2014. The photo was taken by a St. Bernard Parish resident and sent to | The Times-Picayune. The EPA adopted rules Tuesday (Sept. 29) that would dramatically reduce visible flaring and require fence line monitoring for benzene. (Courtesy of St. Bernard Parish resident)

On the list are at least 15 Louisiana refineries, including Motiva Enterprises facilities in Norco and Convent; ExxonMobil Oil Corp. refineries in Baton Rouge and Chalmette; Marathon Petroleum Co. LP, Garyville; Valero Refining in Norco and Meraux; Phillips 66, Belle Chasse; Placid Refining Co., Port Allen; and Alon USA Refining, Krotz Springs.

"These updated Clean Air Act standards will lower the cancer risk from petroleum refineries for more than 1.4 million people and are a substantial step forward in EPA's work to protect the health of vulnerable communities located near these facilities," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a news release announcing the rule changes.

"The act requires a healthy environment for all communities, and this rule delivers on EPA's commitment to environmental justice by reducing toxic air pollutants that impact families living near refineries by requiring, for the first time ever in an EPA air rule, monitoring of emissions at the fence line and corrective action if standards are exceeded," McCarthy said.

The EPA rule change was triggered in part by a 2012 lawsuit filed against the agency by the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Environmental Integrity Project and six other environmental groups. The groups argued that EPA had violated federal law by failing to update rules requiring the use of "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" by refineries.

The Bucket Brigade has issued reports for several years outlining toxic emissions released during accidents at refineries in the state, with much of the releases being funneled from process facilities during startup and shutdown operations to flares that are supposed to burn the chemicals to reduce the amount released into the air.

Many of the startup and shutdown flaring events were the result of weather problems, including hurricanes, and the Bucket Brigade contended that they were avoidable.

In its new rule changes, EPA agreed, requiring the refineries to reduce smoking flare emissions and similar releases of air toxics by pressure release devices "by requiring a comprehensive program of process changes and pollution preventure measures for these emission sources."

The rules require a minimum of three pollution prevention measures to be installed, the continuous monitoring of flares and pressure release devices and an analysis of any release events to determine their cause and to identify a remedy.

And refineries will have "a hard limit" of no more than three release events over three years for each device or flare.

The rules also require additional emission reductions for releases from storage tanks and "delayed coking units" at refineries.

EPA has estimated the new rules will require an initial capital cost of $283 million, and annual costs of about $63 million.

"The EPA estimates that these final standards will have a negligible impact on the costs of petroleum products," said an EPA fact sheet explaining the rules.

The American Petroleum Institute said the rule changes released Tuesday were much better than EPA's initial proposal, announced in 2014, but warned they could cost up to $1 billion, and that consumers will pay that bill.

"EPA analyses, supported by extensive industry monitoring data, show that air emissions from refineries are already at safe levels," said API Downstream Group Director Bob Greco in a Tuesday news release.

He said EPA took into account concerns raised by API and industry officials that resulted in more practical and cost-effective changes in the proposed rule.

"Despite these improvements, regulators need to be thoughtful about the additional impacts of new regulations and added costs to delivering affordable energy to U.S. consumers," said Greco. "Companies have already spent billions of dollars to reduce emissions by installing flare gas recovery and flare minimization systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and air quality continues to improve as a result of these voluntary programs and existing regulations."

Richard Metcalf, a spokesman for Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which represents most large refineries in Louisiana, warned that there may be problems with the accuracy of fence line monitoring, as the equipment could register emissions floating across the fence from other sources, such as ships or barges traveling along the Mississippi River.

And there's likely to be problems reinventing the refining process to reduce the size of the stream of gases flowing to flares, he said.

"When you're dealing with a 46-inch steam line, for instance, its hard to deal with something that big," Metcalf said. "You have a cascading set of valves you open gradually. I don't know if it will be reasonable."

But he said the industry already has been improving the efficiency of flares, which use a combination of oxygen and natural gas or other fuels to burn off toxic chemicals, turning thick black plumes into "wisps of black smoke."

"Flares are going to look different," he said. "You'll see more flame and only wisps of smoke."

The Bucket Brigade also has been pushing the state Department of Environmental Quality to force refineries to install fence line monitoring systems, like those required under the rule changes, so nearby residents would know the chemicals entering their neighborhoods.

As part of its development of the new rules, EPA officials conducted training sessions with residents and environmental groups, including the Bucket Brigade in New Orleans and other organizations in Oakland, Calif. 

"These trainings were designed to support the communities' ability to comment and participate in the regulatory process," said an EPA fact sheet released Tuesday.

While the new rule only applies to benzene, Bucket Brigade founding director Anne Rolfes said it was a good beginning. The fenceline monitoring rules go into effect in 2017.

But she also warned that the flaring, fence line monitoring and other rule changes will only be as good as their enforcement by the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

According to DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley, the agency has only been delegated by EPA to "implement and enforce" the refinery rules as they were amended through July 2, 2013.

"Our delegation is updated every several years, so these amendments will eventually be delegated to us," he said.

An EPA spokesman confirmed that it expects DEQ to enforce the fence line monitoring in 2017 and much of the remainder of the rules in 2018.

"We would expect LDEQ to enforce this rule as part of their federal delegation," said David Gray, a spokesman for EPA's Dallas regional office.

But Rolfes points out that her organization has had to go to court several times to require enforcement of EPA rules at refineries in Louisiana.

"It all relies on implementation," Rolfes said. "If the state Department of Environmental Quality continues to operate as poorly as it is now, who knows if these rules will result in improvements? But if it is implemented, it should mean that there are fewer flares, so if you live next to Chalmette Refining (ExxonMobil's plant) and Valero in St. Bernard Parish, or Motiva in St. Charles, you should see fewer flares and less exposure."

She said the same would hold true to residents of the Standard Heights community adjacent to ExxonMobil's huge refinery in Baton Rouge.

"That's across the street from the refinery with more accidents than anywhere else in the state, and it will benefit not just nearby neighbors, but everyone in Baton Rouge," she said.


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