Refining Environmental Justice

By Matt Tejada

Before joining EPA, I spent more than five years in Houston working to protect the health of the many low-income and minority communities along the Texas Gulf Coast who share their neighborhoods with oil refineries. I cannot think of a single fenceline community from my work that does not have numerous health and environmental challenges facing local residents. And while toxic emissions from refineries are not responsible for all of those challenges, the risk from refinery pollution is an ever-present part of living in these places.

A new rule we’re releasing today helps reduce these dangerous emissions – a major victory for environmental justice but more importantly for the communities living and working along the fencelines of refineries.

The rule will reduce visible smoking flare emissions and accidental releases. For the first time in a nationwide rule, it will provide important emissions information to the public and neighboring communities by requiring refineries to actually monitor emissions at key sources within their facilities and around their fencelines. The rule also increases controls for storage tanks and cokers, parts of refineries that many folks rarely think about because they have just become part of their neighborhood background. The pollution reduced from these two types of units is very significant.

The final “Refinery Rule” – as many EJ stakeholders likely know it by – will reduce 5,200 tons per year of toxic air pollutants, along with 50,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds. That is thousands of tons of pollution that will not be coming out of our nation’s refineries every single year. The emission reductions from this final rule will lower the cancer risk from refineries for 1.4 million people. That’s not just good for the communities that live in and around refineries — it’s outstanding. And, not just for the communities, but for the folks who work inside the refineries, as well as stakeholders in the broader community whose regional air quality would otherwise be impacted by some of these pollutants.

This rule means a lot to me personally after all the time I spent in those communities in my home state of Texas. It’s one of the biggest steps we’ve taken to protect environmental justice communities under Administrator McCarthy’s leadership. But it’s not the only one – we’ve also worked to create a Clean Power Plan that protects the needs of the most vulnerable Americans, changed the way we prioritize environmental justice in our rulemaking, created EJSCREEN to help communities learn about their environmental risks, and – just this week – released new Worker Protection Standards that keep farmworkers and their families safer from over-exposure to pesticides.

As someone who has worked on the community side of these issues, I know the importance of listening to stakeholders and communities who provide valuable input as we develop rules. The final rule incorporates community feedback and has been strengthened from proposal stage to final, accounting for important concerns expressed by the very people living on the fenceline who we are trying to protect.

Our work to increase that protection is far from done, but this final Refinery Rule is a major step forward in controlling pollution from refineries to protect the health and well-being of those who live near them and it leaves the door open to continue to introduce technology as it advances and offers even greater protection. Because here at EPA we don’t see environmental justice as something to be achieved in one action – but as something we are committed to continually advancing in everything we do.

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