CHALMETTE, La. — An oil refinery in Chalmette was one of the highest producers of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, in the country last year, according to government data compiled by an environmental nonprofit group.
The report, compiled by the D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, highlighted the ten refineries in the U.S. that emitted benzene into the air at levels higher than what Environmental Protection Agency standards allow.
Benzene is a carcinogen even in small amounts. Long-term exposure can cause leukemia and other blood-related illnesses.
Readings from Chalmette Refining, owned by PFB Energy, had a concentration of 12.3 micrograms per cubic meter. That number is higher than the threshold established by the EPA and is the eighth-highest of more than 100 refineries with benzene monitors in place around the country.
According to the report, about 4,500 people live within a mile of the refining facility. About 30% of them are below the poverty line.
Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality has set an annual benzene emissions limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA's standard is 10 micrograms.
In a response to WWL-TV, a PFB Energy spokesperson said new equipment designed to reduce benzene emissions will be operational at the refinery by the end of March.
Both the PFB Energy spokesperson and a spokesperson for the EPA pointed to the fact that the 10 microgram standard is not designed as an indicator that a community is in danger.
"The action level is a stringent level (more stringent than many state standards) in order to provide ample opportunity for early action," the EPA spokesperson said. "Should exceedances be ongoing, this may be a flag for EPA to do further analyses regarding potential community risk."
In an undated post on the Chalmette Refining website, the company reaffirms that their annual average benzene readings are below the state's standards.
An EPA rule that took effect in 2018 requires refineries to do fenceline monitoring around the perimeters of facilities like Chalmette Refining and to submit a corrective plan if benzene levels are ever detected above the 10 microgram standard.
Results higher than the EPA's standards are not a violation of federal law, but the Environmental Integrity Project emphasized the health dangers associated with benzene in a statement.
“These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
In total, four of Louisiana's 17 oil refineries were named in the report.