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EPA proposes stricter emission standards for oil refineries following lawsuit

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FORT WORTH, Texas - Texas environmental advocates are applauding a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to reduce oil refinery pollution by forcing operators to adopt new technology that better monitors and controls emissions.

If adopted, the rule would mark the first change to the industry's emission standards in nearly two decades.

The EPA's 870-page proposal is part of a consent decree that resolved a lawsuit filed by non-profit environmental attorneys with Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of people directly affected by emissions from refineries in Louisiana, Texas and California.

The changes would compel operators to monitor benzene emissions along their fence lines, upgrade storage tank emission controls, ensure waste gases are properly destroyed and adopt new emission standards for delayed coking units. Operators would also have to make the results of monitoring publicly available.

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President Charles T. Drevna said in a statement Thursday that the risk of air contamination "does not justify" new EPA controls.

However, Adrian Shelley, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston said that operators' self-reported emissions are "vastly undercounted," and that more sophisticated controls will not only spare communities from exposure to toxins but will also reduce production costs by more quickly notifying operators of leaks.

The founder of Community In-Power Development Association in Port Arthur, Hilton Kelley, said the fence line monitoring would be "critical" to helping people protect themselves from health risks in one of the most polluted cities in Texas.

The EPA will take comment on the proposals for 60 days. It also plans to hold two public hearings near Houston and Los Angeles and will finalize the standards in April 2015.

The suit filed in 2012 accused the EPA of shirking its duties under the Clean Air Act by neglecting to review and possibly revise refinery emission standards every three years. The EPA hasn't implemented new emission standards since 1995.

The suit also said that mainly low-income and minority people share fence lines with refineries, and are therefore at disproportionate risk of air-quality-related illnesses.

The EPA will take comment on the proposals for 60 days. It also plans to hold two public hearings near Houston and Los Angeles, and will finalize the standards in April 2015.

Environmental groups claim that some 150 petroleum refineries nationwide emit more than 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants annually, including chemicals that are linked to cancer such as benzene and toluene.

The EPA says the proposals would reduce toxic air emissions by an estimated 5,600 tons per year.

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