Refinery Pollution Worse in Communities of Color

Oden Taylor, EcoNews Intern

While it is clear that big oil pollutes the air, how does it affect the water and the creatures that depend on it? On Jan. 26, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) published a report entitled “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls: Water Pollution from Refineries and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Failure to Enforce the Clean Water Act.” The EIP is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws.” 

The report demonstrates a clear connection between industrial pollution and poor health outcomes for all forms of life that are forced to interact with these chemicals. Not only does water pollution from refineries clog public waterways with harmful algae, it also corrodes drinking water intakes with industrial salts. Even worse, certain toxic metals such as selenium or chromium can settle at the bottom of freshwater rivers, lakes and estuaries for hundreds of years.  

“Although petroleum refineries are well known as major sources of air pollution, they also discharge nearly half a billion gallons of wastewater every day into rivers, streams, and estuaries. That’s enough to fill 712 Olympic swimming pools every 24 hours with wastewater loaded with toxic metals, ammonia and other forms of nitrogen, oil and grease, industrial salts and other dissolved solids,” according to the EIP’s report.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was originally enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, but was later significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972. The intent of this policy was to require the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the discharges of dangerous and harmful refinery pollutants by engaging the best available water treatment methods. Within the CWA is also a clause requiring these regulations to be assessed and tightened every five years to match the most up-to-date treatment technologies. 

According to the EIP’s report, these standards for refineries have not been updated since 1985 and “apply to only a small handful of pollutants”, not reflecting the advancements in treatment methods or the “expansion and modification of refinery operations over the last four decades.”

Not only have these standards not been updated, according to the EIP’s report, when states have tried enacting their own limits on refineries the EPA has also failed to enforce state-sanctioned discharge limits and rarely penalizes violations. 

“Most refineries are located in heavily industrialized areas, close to other petrochemical plants, tank farms, and export or import terminals, which also contribute to air and water pollution,” the EIP’s report says. “Because of this, the surrounding waterways that receive wastewater are often overburdened with pollution.”

The report goes on to explain that these refineries nearly always border low-income neighborhoods or communities of color, who suffer through “the brunt of water pollution, oil spills, air pollution, leaks, and explosions.” Those with the lowest incomes who “have less access to recreational opportunities and are more likely to rely on fishing for food” or have to drink from downstream water sources are most affected.

 The closest oil refineries to Humboldt County are located in San Francisco. The Bay region’s four oil refineries – Valero Benicia Refinery, Chevron Richmond Refinery, PBF (formerly Shell) Martinez Refinery, and Phillips 66 Rodeo Refinery, have the capacity to process 691,200 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the EIP’s report. 

“In 2021, as part of the refining process, they dumped into Bay tributaries at least 1.2 million pounds of total nitrogen, 209,968 pounds of suspended solids, 54,404 pounds of ammonia, 32,298 pounds of oil and grease, 1,436 pounds of nickel, 1,057 pounds of selenium, 525 pounds of arsenic, 271 pounds of lead, 196 pounds of cyanide, and 142 pounds of hexavalent chromium,” according to the EIP’s report. 

Between the years of 2019 and 2021, the four refineries had a combined 50 water pollution violations, according to EPA Enforcement and Compliance Online data. 

“Especially noteworthy is selenium, a toxic pollutant that has shown up in high levels in Bay area fish, clams, and birds,” according to the EIP’s report. “Local environmental organizations have sued Bay refineries to reduce selenium discharges and prevailed in winning large fines. The state of California, unlike many other states, includes limits for selenium in water pollution control permits. But elevated selenium levels remain an ecological hazard in the Bay.”

Ben Eichenberg, a staff attorney for San Francisco Baykeeper, focuses on oil spill prevention and refineries and raw oil restructure, evaluation, policy analysis and litigation. San Francisco Baykeeper is a non-profit organization that defends the health of San Francisco Bay, its watershed, and Bay Area residents by holding polluters accountable. According to Eichenberg, San Francisco Baykeeper is advocating for California agencies to take a closer look at these water impacts from refineries. 

“All of these refineries have outfalls where they discharge refinery process wastewater, as well as stormwater directly to the bay or in the street,” Eichenberg said.  

Eichenberg said he fears that with sea-level rise due to global warming, groundwater tables will be pushed higher and, in the process, they will interact with more of these harmful pollutants. Eichenberg said we must stop only looking at the present moment and think more about the future of these industries and our planet. 

“We’re in a transition period here, and refineries and oil companies are looking at their bottom lines and what they’re going to do in the future, but I don’t think regulators and communities are looking forward with quite the same clarity of vision,” Eichenberg said. “What I worry about is that profits will start to run out, or regulations will catch up with refineries that are going to shut down and they’re going to leave this legacy of pollution unless we put real measures into place now to make sure that when the refineries close and as they get phased out, they clean up all this pollution that’s left behind.”

Though we don’t have to worry about pollution from oil refineries here in Humboldt, Humboldt Bay is no stranger to pollution. According to the Humboldt Baykeeper, the main pollutants in Humboldt Bay include dioxins, bacteria, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and mercury. 

“One focus of Humboldt Baykeeper’s Toxics Initiative is the past use of wood preservatives at dozens of lumber mills that once lined the shores of the Bay and its tributaries,” states the Humboldt Baykeeper’s website. “The mills used the chemical pentachlorophenol (also known as ‘penta’), which led to the release of contaminants such as dioxins and furans. Accidental spills and illegal dumping of these chemicals resulted in soil and water contamination.”

Executive Director Jen Kalt of the Humboldt Baykeeper said that in Humboldt, those most affected by the water pollution are Indigenous people and low-income people who rely on seafood from the Bay. 

“Humboldt Bay was listed as Impaired by PCBs under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act in 2002, based on levels of PCBs found in fish tissue,” according to the Humboldt Baykeeper’s website. “PCBs have been demonstrated to cause a variety of serious health effects, including cancer and serious effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.”

Although we don’t have exactly the same issues with pollution as the Bay Area, we still need to remember the danger of possible pollutants, past and present, and do our best to preserve the ecosystem for all forms of life that depend on it. 

As we march toward a cleaner future, we must ensure that as big industrial polluters go out of business, we, the residents and taxpayers, aren’t left to deal with the fallout to clean up their messes and suffer the health consequences of their greed.