For the first time, federal environmental regulators will require refineries to install air monitors around their facilities to detect low levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, a move officials said will result in cleaner air and will provide people living nearby with better information about pollution coming into their neighborhoods.

“This is a big step forward for people and families living near these facilities,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Across the country, 6.1 million people live within 3 miles of a petroleum refinery. The new rule will not only improve air quality but will encourage refineries to run more efficiently by cutting down on leaking valves or other unplanned releases of pollution, McCarthy said.

EPA will launch a database and manage the information collected from these air monitors, as well as make the results publicly available. Refineries that exceed set levels of releases will be required to correct the problem.

The rule changes were prompted by a 2012 settlement of a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of groups in California, Louisiana and Texas including the New Orleans-based Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

Environmental groups applauded the regulations, which included new requirements that facilities reduce pollution from refinery flares and tanks.

The American Petroleum Institute said although the final rule is better than what was initially proposed, implementation of the new rule will cost far more than EPA estimates.

“Companies have already spent billions of dollars to reduce emissions by installing flare gas recovery and flare minimization systems to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and air quality continues to improve as a result of these voluntary programs and existing regulations,” API Downstream Group Director Bob Greco said in a written statement.

EPA estimates that the costs to the 150 refineries around the country, 17 of those in Louisiana, will be about $283 million. API estimates that the new regulations could cost refineries up to $1 billion.

Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the fence-line monitoring requirement was a result of communities raising concerns. Each refinery will need to put up air monitors that encircle the facility, as many as 12 to 24 monitors for each site depending on the size, she said.

Environmental groups in Louisiana have pushed for years for this kind of reporting, arguing it will keep facilities accountable and provide communities with better knowledge of what might be coming into their neighborhoods.

“We’ve literally been asking for this kind of regulation for 30 years,” said Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. “It’s a really wonderful gift for the communities.

Wilma Subra, owner of Subra Company and a consultant to LEAN, said the end result will be a much better quality of air and quality of life for people who live near refineries in the state.

“Benzene is the most toxic substance a refinery releases,” she said. The robust monitoring included in the federal rule will give communities another tool in determining if what they smell or experience in their neighborhoods is connected to a facility release, she said.

Louisiana Bucket Brigades’ founding director Anne Rolfes, whose organization puts out a yearly report on Louisiana refineries and pollution, also applauded the new regulation, while chastising the federal agency for taking so long to implement it.

“It’s unbelievable that it took so much work and so many years to get tighter regulation on a chemical — benzene — that we know causes cancer and leukemia,” Rolfes wrote in a news release.

Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Gregory Langley said staff needs to review the 745-page final rule before anyone could comment on what it might mean for the state or the agency.

Benzene can have any number of effects on people, depending on the concentration or the length of time someone is exposed. Long-term exposure mainly affects the blood by causing a decrease in red blood cells and can have bad effects on bone marrow, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High levels of benzene over a length of time also can cause cancer.

The required air monitors will need to be in place within the next two years and take continuous samples that will then be averaged over two-week periods. Those two-week averages will be publicly reported four times a year and be averaged for a final yearly reading.

Some industry representatives, along with environmental groups like Earthjustice and Environmental Integrity Project, find fault with the two-week average benzene measurements, saying they aren’t as useful as real-time monitoring.

Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said a two-week or annual average doesn’t tell the facility much about when or how much was released, which makes it difficult to trace back the source.

Years ago, as part of ozone pollution reduction work, DEQ mandated fence-line monitoring in the Baton Rouge area to help find where certain ozone components were coming from, Metcalf said. Those real-time monitors allowed facilities to see a release as it was going on and identify the problem.

A lot of facilities already have real-time monitors operating, so there maybe could be a way for EPA to approve certain existing real-time monitors, Metcalf said.

“Some places have more robust systems already than what the rule asks for,” he said.

The new rule also includes requirements for reductions to allowable releases of toxic air pollution through additional pollution controls on flares, pressure relief devices, storage tanks and delayed coker processes. Also for the first time, refineries will be required to have continuous monitoring set up on things such as flares and pressure relief valves.

Metcalf said that in the next few weeks, industry will review the final rule and will have a better idea of what the additional requirements could mean.

The rule, when fully implemented in 2018, is estimated to reduce 5,200 tons of air toxic pollution per year and 50,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds, which are a component of the air pollution ozone. New and tougher ozone pollution standards are expected to be announced later this week, and metropolitan areas around Louisiana are at risk for not meeting those new standards.

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