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Report: High carcinogen level a public health hazard in Artesia

The HollyFrontier Navajo Refinery in Artesia in December 2020. This facility and one in Lovington exceeded federal action levels in 2020 for fenceline benzene pollution. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Artesia is known for oil and gas production, and a beloved high school football program.

The city of about 12,000 people in southeast New Mexico is also home to an oil refinery that emits high levels of the carcinogen benzene.

The Environmental Integrity Project compiled U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fenceline benzene emissions data to conclude that refineries in Artesia, Lovington and 11 other U.S. sites exceeded the federal action level last year.

Benjamin Kunstman, an Environmental Integrity Project engineer and report author, said the pollution emitting from the facility perimeter to the surrounding area is a public health hazard for nearby residents.

“Benzene is everywhere at refineries,” Kunstman said. “It can also be an indicator that other hazardous air pollutants are present as well.”

Artesia’s HollyFrontier Navajo Refinery, which has 650 employees and can process 100,000 barrels of crude oil every day, began monitoring benzene pollution at storage tanks near the facility’s perimeter in 2017.

EPA and New Mexico Environment Department air quality experts inspected the facility in October 2019.

The inspectors’ “areas of concern” ranged from tank and control device design flaws to “unauthorized emissions at some tanks,” according to the EPA inspection report.

September 2020 EPA data shows the refinery’s annual fenceline benzene concentrations had dropped to 9 micrograms per cubic meter, which is the EPA limit.

In an emailed statement to the Journal, a HollyFrontier spokesperson said the company enhanced comprehensive monitoring in late 2020 and earlier this year.

“In addition, HollyFrontier took a number of other measures at the Artesia refinery to address potential benzene sources,” the statement said. “As a result of these and other actions, all two-week sampling data since January 2021 show benzene levels are currently less than half of the EPA action level.”

Companies must investigate the problem and submit a cleanup plan to the EPA when fenceline benzene measurements spike.

HollyFrontier has removed some storage tanks and used tracer chemicals to track leaks in past years.

Kunstman said recent improvements at the Artesia refinery are “encouraging,” but federal and state agencies should keep a closer eye on facilities that record high pollution levels year after year.

“A lot of these facilities continue to be above the action level, even though they’ve been required to submit multiple root cause analyses and corrective action plans,” Kunstman said. “Clearly some of these plans are not adequate.”

The Environmental Integrity Project report credits high annual benzene levels at the HollyFrontier refinery in Lovington to a large offsite oil spill in the spring of 2020.

Other refineries that reported high benzene levels last year included five in Louisiana, three in Texas and facilities in Alabama, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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