Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
An Artesia oil refinery is one of 10 in the U.S. releasing high levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene from its property, according to Environmental Protection Agency data compiled in a report from the Environmental Integrity Project.
Benzene is found in crude oil and used to manufacture plastics and pesticides. More than 3,000 people live within a mile of the Artesia refinery.
The HollyFrontier Navajo oil refinery in Artesia reported benzene levels at its facility perimeters which were four times the EPA’s action level. The facility had the second-highest levels in the country.
“These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a research organization that advocates for strong environmental regulations.
Refineries with chemical levels above the federal action level are not violating federal law, but must pinpoint and reduce the pollution.
Even though fenceline levels are high, federal data shows total benzene emissions from the Artesia refinery – which are due to normal production or equipment malfunctions – have dropped dramatically since 2010.
In an emailed statement to the Journal, HollyFrontier said the company would continue to reduce pollution.
“As part of our efforts, HollyFrontier permanently removed a tank from service that was found to be the primary cause of elevated levels at the fenceline,” the statement reads. “Since September 2019, the two-week sample data from a monitoring station near the out-of-service tank has averaged 2.2 micrograms per cubic meter, which is well below EPA’s action level of 9 micrograms … We recognize it is a privilege to operate in Artesia, where the Navajo facility has been a critical part of the community for 50 years.”
The Artesia facility has nearly 20 air quality monitoring stations at the property perimeter. Benzene is concentrated on the refinery’s west perimeter.
“These benzene levels are especially concerning given the proximity of the community to the west fenceline of the facility,” reads the Environmental Integrity Project report. “Businesses are located directly across the road from the fenceline, and Roselawn Elementary School is located just 0.2 miles directly west of the highest reading monitor.”
Prolonged exposure to the chemical can damage bone marrow, decrease red blood cells and lead to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA.
Fenceline benzene monitoring requirements went into effect in 2018.
A Philadelphia refinery had the nation’s highest perimeter benzene pollution. That site shut down after a June 2019 fire and has not reopened. Other refineries in the report are in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.