What you need to know about public health and safety risks from Utah’s refineries

*For a complete discussion of the health affects of pollution see “The Health Consequences of Air Pollution” on this site, under the heading Pollution and Health. References for this summary are listed at the end.

1. According the Utah DAQ’s official documents the refineries as a group are the second largest industrial source of pollution after Rio Tinto/Kennecott (RTK) in Salt Lake and Davis Counties. Specifically, RTK is responsible for about 30% of Salt Lake County’s overall air pollution. The Holly oil refinery itself emits about one fifth the amount emitted by RTK. Chevron and Tesoro each emit about 60% of what Holly does. However, see item #6 below. There is strong evidence that these official numbers severely underestimate the refineries emissions which are likely many times larger than those official numbers.
2. The refineries represent a serious safety risk. From 2000 to 2010 Utah’s five refineries have reported fires, explosions, chemical releases and spill, both large and small, on average once every nine days. Numerous serious fires and explosions have occurred in the last few years including one that damaged 271 homes on Nov. 4, 2009.

The safety risks are industry wide and nation wide. A letter from the US Dept of Labor to all the country’s refinery managers said, “In the last fifteen years, the petroleum refining industry has had more fatal or catastrophic incidents related to the release of highly hazardous chemicals (HHCs) than any other industry sector…We are particularly concerned that our inspection teams are seeing many of the same problems repeatedly.”

Rafael Moure-Eraso, the Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said, ““We have a problem with the refinery industry. We have decreasing staff levels, disinvestment in safety, a lack of training, and accidents or near-misses — indicators of catastrophe — being ignored.” U.S. refineries have sustained financial losses from accidents at a rate much higher than their overseas counterparts — four times as high, according to a 2006 report by Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurer. They indicated that the gap between refineries and those in other parts of the world was widening.

Russ Elveston, a forensic engineer and safety consultant retired from OSHA said, “All the units are working at higher capacity, higher pressure, higher throughput…hazards have increased simply because the units operating now produce more than they did 15 or 20 years ago. When there’s a release, the results tend to be a little more significant.” On April 2, 2010 the Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said, “The CSB has 18 ongoing investigations. Of those, seven of these accidents occurred at refineries across the country. This is a significant and disturbing trend that the refining industry needs to address immediately.” Michael Silverstein, head of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health and a former federal OSHA policy director said, “The regulatory scheme at both the state and federal levels is flawed. Right now, it’s a catch-me-if-you-can system, and the consequences of being caught are relatively small.”

According to a 2012 report from the Center for Public Integrity, refinery workers describe, “a climate in which safety takes a back seat to ramped-up production. Rather than schedule top-to-bottom maintenance outages, which take units out of operation for extended periods, equipment is being pushed hard, sometimes beyond its design life, the workers say. They have a term for it: ‘Run to failure.’”

“They’re managing their shareholders’ investments,” Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, which represents workers at five refineries in the Los Angeles area, said of the oil companies. “The price we pay is with our lives and our health.”

Despite a special inspection program launched by OSHA in 2007 — and mirrored by most states that have their own safety programs — problems continue to occur at refineries with stunning regularity. 24 of the 58 refineries examined by federal officials as of November 2010 had fires or explosions after the inspections were completed.

According to a 2010 City Weekly article, Utah refinery workers say, “Mind-numbing overtime is frequently part of the internal inspections because the operators lose profits while the facility is not in production. “Overtime is now the norm, much of it forced.” California maintains a steady presence at refineries rather than simply dropping in, inspecting and writing citations. Utah officially inspects refineries once a year, but many refinery workers say even that doesn’t happen.

3. Tesoro has had even more serious recent safety lapses. On Oct. 21, 2009 the SLC Tesoro refinery had a flare stack explosion. According to a refinery engineer who has consulted with UPHE that is a manifestation of severe incompetence, comparable to a surgeon amputating the wrong limb.

After a fire at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington April 2, 2010 that killed seven workers…an investigation revealed the exchanger that blew apart was put into service in 1972. Tesoro last examined welds on the device in 1998. This was the only time in the exchanger’s 38-year life that such an inspection had taken place. Moreover, it found, Tesoro had tested fewer than 20 percent of the welds and focused on areas least susceptible to damage. Company records indicate that a planned 2008 inspection by Tesoro never took place.

Washington issued the highest fine in the history of the state against Tesoro as a result of this explosion. Judy Schurke, director of the Washington state agency that overseas workplace safety and health said, “This explosion and the deaths of these men and women would never have occurred had Tesoro tested their equipment in a manner consistent with standard industry practices, their own policies and state regulations.” Lynne Baker, spokeswoman for the United Steelworkers, said, “The industry has known that to prevent such an incident from happening, any type of equipment in contact with high temperature hydrogen has to be maintained and inspected more so than in other processes. This was a preventable accident.”

4. Three of Utah’s refineries still use one of the most deadly chemicals known in large quantities even though there are safer alternatives that two thirds of the nation’s refineries have adopted. Despite decades-old warnings about the potential for mass casualties, 50 refineries across the nation still rely on a toxic chemcial known as hydrofluoric acid, or HF. At least 16 million Americans live in the potential path of HF if it were to be released in an accident or a terrorist attack, according to refinery owners’ worst case scenario reports.

Known for its ability to race long distances in a cloud, HF is extremely toxic. It causes lung congestion, inflammation and severe burns of the skin and digestive tract. It attacks the eyes and bones. Experiments in 1986 detected the acid at potentially deadly levels five miles from the point of release. In Utah Chevron, Flying J and Holly all use HF. The EPA requires that every refinery that uses HF calculate what a worst case scenario would look like if an accident involving HF occurred at their refinery. Chevron calculated that 1.1 million people would be at risk and the potential radius of exposure would be 22 miles. For Flying J, it was 376,000 people at risk with a radius of exposure of 11 miles. For Holly it was 216,294 people at risk with a radius of 11 miles.

On October 30, 1987, at Marathon Petroleum Company’s Texas City refinery. A piece of equipment came loose and fell on a vessel containing HF. Over the next 44 hours, tens of thousands of pounds of HF gushed out, drifting into nearby residential areas and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 people. More than 1,000 people went to the hospital. Nationally, there have been at least 29 fires at 23 refineries that use HF since the beginning of 2009. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board called a July 2009 explosion at Citgo Petroleum Corp.’s Corpus Christi, Texas, refinery “a significant near-miss” for a widespread release of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride (HF) into a community.

Trucks entering Utah’s “refinery row” are also carrying HF which puts the local community at serious risk from a possible trucking accident.

5. Oil refinery emissions are higher inside homes near refineries than outside those homes. Toxic pollution from oil refineries doesn’t stay outside, it seeps into nearby homes, and builds up. You can say that residents of South Davis County breathe refinery pollution with every breath they take.

6. Nationwide refinery emissions are many times greater than what is reported to government agencies and the EPA knows it. According to the Associated Press, April 22, 2010, “The nation’s oil and chemical plants are spewing a lot more pollution than they report to the Environmental Protection Agency — and the EPA knows it. Records, scientific studies and interviews suggest pollution from petrochemical plants is at least 10 times greater than what is reported to the government and the public.” How come? The United States is using outdated measuring devices, not the lasers, solar technology and remote sensors used by European countries and Canada. Internal documents from the EPA confirm that, and other reports state that real emissions could be anywhere from 3 to 100 times greater than what is reported, primarily because valve leaks are much greater than what these older methods are detecting. There is every reason to believe that Utah refineries are also vastly underreporting their real emissions.

7. Refinery pollution is uniquely toxic. Crude oils contain over a thousand different hydrocarbons and, depending on the source of the oil, vary greatly in the relative amounts of individual hydrocarbons and trace metal and sulfur content. Refinery emissions are highly contaminated by HAPs (Hazardous Air Pollutants) which are considered highly toxic in very small quantities. HAPs are primarily benzene-like compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins and heavy metals.

Benzene is officially considered a carcinogen by the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program, and the EPA. People who live near oil refineries have the double the risk for leukemia compared the rest of the population. Studies with pregnant animals show that breathing benzene has harmful effects on the developing fetus. These effects include low birth weight, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage.

Long-term exposure to benzene primarily harms the bone marrow, the soft, inner parts of bones where new blood cells are made. This may result in:

• Anemia (a low red blood cell count), which can cause a person to feel weak and tired.

• A low white blood cell count, which can lower the body’s ability to fight infections and may even be life-threatening.

• A low blood platelet count, which can lead to excessive bleeding.

Exposure to benzene near the US permissible limit is associated with sperm having the wrong number of chromosomes. Exposure to petrochemicals, specifically benzene, gasoline, and hydrogen sulphide is significantly associated with increased frequency of spontaneous abortion.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), one of the most serious components of refinery emissions, act as endocrine disrupting hormones in extremely small quantities. They can pass through the placenta and result in concentrations as high in a newborn baby as the baby’s own sex hormones. Endocrine hormones are likely the most powerful biologic agents known. Chemicals that mimick those hormones are known as “endocrine disruptors.” 1/1000 of previously recommended safe dosages of hormone mimickers are now known to create genetic malfunctions and precancerous conditions in in vitro cells.

The Endocrine Society, the official organization of the specialists, endocrinologists, made this official statement on the danger of endocrine disrupting chemicals in 2009. “Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure indeed, any level of exposure at all, may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses.” The main finding of a new report, three years in the making, published March 14, 2012 by a team of 12 scientists who study hormone-altering chemicals was: small doses can have big health effects, there are no safe doses for endocrine disruptors.

A recent article in the world’s most well respected medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, made this statement. “Mutagenic effects theoretically can result from a single molecular DNA alteration. Regulatory prudence has led to the use of “one-hit models” for mutagenic end points, particularly cancer, in which every molecule of a carcinogen is presumed to pose a risk. The carcinogens of concern in crude oil are benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).”

The article also said, “Pregnant women should particularly avoid dermal contact with oil and should avoid areas with visible oil contamination or odors.”

The proposed Tesoro expansion will increase their annual HAPs emissions by 9,000 lbs/ year. As a group HAPs are the deadliest, most toxic substances known and this may represent the worst of the public health consequences to refinery expansion.

8. Industrial emissions are even more toxic than traffic pollution.

see references below.

9. Children living near petrochemical industries have higher levels of PAHs in their blood than adults, contributing to more DNA damage. see references below.

10. Refinery expansions will increase local diesel emissions from hundreds of new trucks coming in and out of the refineries carrying new crude oil. Two new studies, considered the best ever done on the toxicity of diesel emissions, confirmed that long term exposure to even low levels of diesel exhaust raises the risk of dying from lung cancer: for local residents about 50% and for refinery workers about 300%.

1. Brody, J.G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Perez and R. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science with Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health, 99: S600-S609,

2. Barregard L, E Holmberg and G Sallsten. 2009. Leukaemia incidence in people living close to an oil refinery. Environmental Research 109:985-990.

3. Xing C, Marchetti F, Li G, et al. Benzene exposure near the US permissible limit is associated with sperm aneuploidy. Environ Health Perspect 2010;118:833-839

4. Xu, Xiping, Sung-Il Cho, et al.. “Association of petrochemical exposure with spontaneous abortion.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 55: 31-36. 1998.

5. Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., Howard J. Osofsky, M.D., Ph.D., and Maureen Y. Lichtveld, M.D., M.P.H. The Gulf Oil Spill. N Engl J Med 2011; 364:1334-1348April 7, 2011

6. Silverman DT, Samanic CM, Lubin JH, et al. The diesel exhaust in miners study: a nested case-control study of lung cancer and diesel exhaust. J Natl Cancer Inst. March 2, 2012. doi:10.1093/jnci/djs034.

7. Attfield MD, Schlieff PL, Lubin JH, et al. The diesel exhaust in miners study: a cohort mortality study with emphasis on lung cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. March 2, 2012. doi:10.1093/jnci/djs035.

These refinery expansion plans should be suspended for the following reasons:

1. A health study of what the refinery emissions are doing to the health of residents of South Davis County has never been done and should be done before expansion is allowed.

2. The three refineries that currently use hydrofluoric acid should be required to change to safer alternatives.

3. The refineries should be inspected regularly, not once every few years.

4. The refineries should be required to use remote sensing technology to detect the full extent of their fugitive emissions.

5. The state should adopt a policy that no net increase in refinery related pollution will be allowed.

Contact the EPA and Gov. Herbert’s office with your phone calls and e-mails about why these expansion plans should not be allowed to proceed as planned. The deadline

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