Two years ago, the 23-year-old son of a friend of mine, who lived not far from the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in Wilmington, passed away after battling lymphoma.
A few months later, my 18-year-old nephew was also diagnosed with lymphoma. He was more fortunate than my friend’s son. My nephew survived.
My sister and her husband grew up in Wilmington — home to three oil refineries — and were exposed to oil refinery pollution all their lives. My family can’t say for sure that the pollution from a refinery killed my friend’s son or caused my nephew to get sick. But we suspect that exposure to certain pollutants released by oil refineries can damage human DNA, and that cancers, will appear in future generations.
We do know for sure that the pollution coming from refineries is hurting our health. We also know that benzene, a major toxin emitted by oil refineries, has been linked to lymphoma and other cancers.
Of the 16 operating oil refineries in California, three are in Wilmington, where I live. A fourth lies just north of us.
In fact, millions of Americans live near the more than 140 refineries that operate in 32 states and they breathe unsafe levels of hazardous pollution daily.
For years, we have been pressing for stricter emissions standards for refineries and better monitoring so the public and governmental agencies that are supposed to protect our health will know when legally permitted levels of toxins are exceeded.
Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listened to community groups by proposing national standards to reduce toxic emissions from refineries, including a requirement for fence-line monitoring to measure the air pollution, including benzene, that actually escapes into communities.
The proposed standards would eliminate more than 5,000 tons of toxic chemicals from the air each year. The standards would also eliminate 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide — the main contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change.
Monitoring the air quality at the fence line — the edge of a facility nearest to where people live, work and play — could help the public and governmental agencies know when air pollution spikes occur, so communities can get relief.
Also, the new safeguards will set requirements that are expected to reduce toxic air pollution that comes from flaring or burning off gas to reduce pressure. Too often, flares light up our sky in Wilmington, emitting toxins that we shouldn’t have to breathe.
Oil industry interests are already arguing that stronger air protection isn’t necessary.
But scientific studies conducted by the EPA estimate the new standards will help reduce the cancer risk for seven million people. Helping to prevent cancer will save lives and is necessary to us.
The oil industry claims emissions have been decreasing for decades. But a study by the Coalition For A Safe Environment found that flared emissions at the refineries in the Wilmington area increased every year between 2000 and 2011. We definitely need stricter standards to improve our air quality.
In fact, groups involved in fighting for better protection, like the Coalition for A Safe Environment, want to see a stronger fence-line monitoring requirement that requires use of the best technology for continuous measure of pollution at the fence line.
The EPA will hold a hearing on July 16 during the 60-day public comment period, which will allow the public to weigh in. We will urge the EPA to apply all the best-available information on what health and safety protections are working at some refineries, so people around the U.S. can finally breathe freely and without fear.