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.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

In Perspective: the Supreme Court’s Mercury and Air Toxics Rule Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision on EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) was disappointing to everyone working to protect public health by reducing emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.  But as we take stock of what this decision means, there are some important factors that make me confident we are still on track to reduce this dangerous pollution and better protect America’s children, families and communities.

Most notably – the Administration remains committed to finalizing the Clean Power Plan this summer and yesterday’s ruling will have no bearing on the effort to reduce carbon pollution from the largest sources of emissions.

Second – this decision is very narrow.  It did not invalidate the rule, which remains in effect today.  In fact, the majority of power plants are already in compliance or well on their way to compliance.  The Court found that EPA should have considered costs at an earlier step in the rulemaking process than it did.  The court did not question EPA’s authority to control toxic air pollution from power plants provided it considers cost in that step.  It also did not question our conclusions on human health that supported the agency’s finding that regulation is needed.  And its narrow ruling does not disturb the remainder of the D.C. Circuit decision which unanimously upheld all other aspects of the MATS rule and rejected numerous challenges to the standards themselves.

Third – this decision does not affect other Clean Air Act programs that address other sources and types of air pollution. It hinged on a very specific section of the Act that applies exclusively to the regulation of air toxics from power plants.  This is important to understand because it means that rules and programs that reduce other types of pollutants under other sections of the Clean Air Act—like ozone and fine particles (smog and soot) can continue without interruption or delay.

The decision does not affect the Clean Power Plan, which EPA will be finalizing later this summer and which will chart the course for this country to reduce harmful carbon from its fleet of existing power plants.   That’s worth repeating: The Court’s conclusion that EPA must consider cost when determining whether it is “appropriate” to regulate toxic air emissions from utilities under section 112 of the Act will not impact the development of the Clean Power Plan under section 111.  Cost is among the factors the Agency has long explicitly considered in setting standards under section 111 of the Act.

Fourth – America’s power sector is getting cleaner year after year by investing in more modern technologies.   Since President Obama took office, wind energy has tripled and solar has grown ten-fold. The Clean Power Plan will build on these current positive trends.  That means cleaner air in communities across the country, as well as a boost to our economy as we build the clean energy system of the future.

Finally – What’s next for MATS?   From the moment we learned of this decision, we were committed to ensuring that standards remain in place to protect the public from toxic emissions from coal and oil-fired electric utilities.  We will continue to work to make that happen.  There are questions that will need to be answered over the next several weeks and months as we review the decision and determine the appropriate next steps once that review is complete.  But as I’ve already noted, MATS is still in place and many plants have already installed controls and technologies to reduce their mercury emissions.

After nearly 45 years of implementing the Clean Air Act, there have been many more victories than defeats as we’ve worked together to clean the air and raise healthier children and families.  Despite the Supreme Court’s MATS decision, the agency remains confident that the progress we’ve made so far in improving air quality and protecting public health will continue.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.