Over the line: Leukemia-linked chemical above EPA limit at Marathon in 2020

·10 min read

Jul. 10—CATLETTSBURG — The magic number is 9 micrograms of benzene — a chemical linked to leukemia — and the Marathon Plant in Catlettsburg was one of 13 refineries in 2020 that exceeded that average, according to a report released last April.

In an April 28 report released by the Environmental Integrity Project — a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan watchdog group concerned with environmental regulation enforcement — the Catlettsburg facility had a rolling average of 13.8 micrograms of benzene for 2020, a 344% jump from its 2019 readings.

According to a Marathon spokesman, the levels were a result of two "non-routine operations" at the docks along the Big Sandy, a conclusion that is borne out in raw data obtained from the EPA by The Daily Independent.

Two monitors along the Big Sandy consistently read high and captured these spikes — both were near the dock. In the winter of 2020, a reading of 134 micrograms was captured by a monitor in a two-week period, while in the fall of 2020 another spike recorded a reading of 166 micrograms over another two-week period.

It isn't the first time the plant has been identified with benzene discharges — in 2014, the company agreed to a $2,860 fine for an August 2013 discharge. In 2017, it agreed to pay a $3,160 fine for a 2015 discharge, as well as purchasing $31,644 worth of equipment for fire departments in England Hill, Catlettsburg, Big Sandy and Cannonsburg.

In the first quarter of 2021 — the latest EPA reading available — the plant did not exceed the benzene limit.

What is benzene?

Benzene is a chemical found in both crude oil and refined gasoline — it is widely used as an industrial solvent, used in plastics, resins, nylon and fiber, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

It is one of the top 20 chemicals in terms of production volume, the registry notes. However, the registry states that cigarette smoking accounts for half of the national exposure to the chemical.

According to Ben Kuntsman, an engineer who worked on the EPI's report, because benzene is so ubiquitous in the oil refining process, it serves a good indicator for other chemicals released at oil refineries. Citing the federal register published in 2014 on a rules change for refineries, Kuntsman pointed out that benzene is "an expected component" in the refining process.

The chemical is classified by the EPA as a carcinogen, with folks working in industries using benzene being put at the highest risk for leukemia. EPA estimates put those breathing .13 to .45 micrograms of benzene over an entire lifetime at a 1-in-a-million of contracting cancer from it. When raised to 13 to 45 micrograms, those odds increase to one-in-10,000 — again, over an entire lifetime.

Analysis of CDC on leukemia data from 2013-17 showed the national rate of contraction of leukemia to be 14 cases per 100,000 people and six deaths per 100,000. Kentucky statewide is pegged at 16.1 new cases per 100,000 and 7.2 deaths per 100,000 during that time. Boyd County's contraction rate was the same, while the death rate was slightly higher, at 10 per 100,000 people during that time period.

When looking at two refineries in Louisiana and one in New Mexico, it showed the same story — the contraction rates were about on par with the state average, while the death rates were elevated by one or two people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was contacted for this story, but did not reply to inquires regarding how benzene could affect those living near an oil refinery. The Marathon spokesman issued the following statement:

"We are committed to the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors and we make significant investments to minimize our emissions, as evidenced by our more than 90% reduction in criteria air pollutant emissions over the past 10 years."

The spokesman also stated facility had been recognized by OSHA for employers that maintain low injury and illness rates below the national rates for their industries.

But Dani Parent, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and a Catlettsburg native, said it isn't uncommon for people in the area to mistrust the air they breathe and the water they drink.

"There is a mistrust there and its not surprising," she said. "My grandfather told me stories of swimming in the Ohio River with an oil sheen. Information like this is key to getting change that will make people safer and allow for more accurate measurements and preventative maintenance."

In 2015, the Clean Air Act rule was implemented for refineries to install air pollution monitors along the fence line to measure benzene. Taking measurements over a two-week period, the numbers are aggregated into a "rolling average" — some plants, like the Catlettsburg facility may have one-off events that skew the numbers. Other plants are leaking like a sieve.

Data first became available in 2019, which showed the local refinery at level of 3.1 micrograms — Kuntsman notes in California, that's still above the state regulation, but one-third of the national regs.

In order to publish the report, Kuntsman and another researcher manually downloaded thousands of reports from refineries across the country from a public ally available EPA database called Web Fire (the same source The Daily Independent used to obtain raw data). From there, they uploaded the data into an Excel sheet, in order to suss which ones exceeded the 9 microgram level for benzene over the course of a year.

The refinery

According to the report, the Catlettsburg plant ranked seventh out of 13 refineries identified with "actionable levels" (above 9 micrograms) of benzene emissions. The highest level, Delek Krotz Springs in Krotz Springs, Louisiana, measured 31.1 micrograms in 2020 on the rolling average, while the lowest was Phillips 66 Alliance in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, which measured at 9.4 micrograms.

For six of the refineries that hit the list (excluding Catlettsburg), the monitors that hit the most consistent for elevated levels were near transportation points, such as railroads and barge docks.

Kuntsman chalked it up to a few different factors.

"First, onsite fugitive emissions may be more common close to transportation access points due to loading and unloading of chemicals and product," he said. "If not properly monitored or controlled, loading activity can result in fugitive losses to the atmosphere. In addition, there are cases in the facility reports that cite to off-site emission events along the transportation corridor."

That's exactly what happened at the New Mexico Holly Frontier refinery. In 2019, the refinery maintained a rolling average of 3.6, which jumped to 11.8 in 2020. The reason, according to EPA in a note submitted in the EPA read-outs, was due to a crude oil pipeline rupture nearby.

Other causes at refineries relate to storage tanks — one refinery in Texas had an issue not only with its barge, but its tank, and submitted an action plan to the EPA to fix it.

The 2013 and 2015 discharges Marathon paid fines on were unrelated to the docks, according to a Marathon spokesperson.

"We disclosed these events to the EPA and took action to enhance our benzene containment and avoid events such as those in 2013 and 2015," they responded.

Like leak points, the number of incidents could also vary widely — the Catlettsburg facility showed about three two-week periods showing above 9 microgram readings, at least five refineries showed readings more than 10 of those readings.

Total Refining, located in Port Arthur, Texas, showed 20 above 9 microgram readings. Most of its monitors were picking up elevated readings near barges and pipes.

The Delek Krotz Springs refinery in Louisiana showed a large frequency in leaks as well, again along the river.

The intensity of the emissions can vary as well — while Catlettsburg's highest emission was recorded at 166, making it third on the list in terms of the number of micrograms of benzene in a two-week period. Only Holly Frontier's reading and a Valero refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, (386 micrograms) showed larger emissions during a two-week period.

The impact

According to data compiled by the EIP, most of the refineries detailed in the report are near areas with high concentrations of poverty and high poverty rates. Looking at the population within miles of the refinery, the report estimates a total of 687,087 people across the country are living in these areas — 62% of them are minorities and 44.7% are below the poverty line.

The same report states that within 3 miles of the Catlettsburg refinery there are 11,538 people — while only 3% are people of color, 44.6% live below the poverty line.

While the EIP looked at a 3-mile radius in terms of populations most likely to be affected by the emissions, Kuntsman said it's hard to pinpoint the impact because dispersion of the chemicals in the air due to wind conditions.

"Dispersion highly depends on atmospheric conditions like wind speed, direction, meteorological conditions and inversions, so typically it isn't easy to generalize (the impact) with a standard distance," he said. "One potential way to test community exposure is by implementing thorough pollution monitoring in the community. However, a main drawback is that unless the community monitoring network is extensive, several monitors can't be considered representative of potential exposure for all the surrounding community."

Parent said one challenge in trying to bring awareness to the environmental impact is issues the either/or proposition of jobs vs. the environment. In an area where deindustrialization has rocked the population, criticism of a major employer can be seen as a threat to some of the last good-paying jobs in the area, Parent said.

"It's the same playbook we've seen with coal and lumber and the chemical plants, it's the idea that we have to make these sacrifices to our health in order to have job growth," she said. "If you look closely, the jobs are usually minimal and many people are coming in from out of state to work them."

Parent continued, "Part of this is there needs to be a plan for a just transition, there needs to be a structure in place to make sure people aren't left behind in a green economy. We need jobs and we need both social justice and environmental justice."

Kuntsman said he believes "the minimum to taking steps forward" is for the EPA to "take a close look at these refineries where fence-line concentrations are consistently at and above levels."

"The rule requires the facility to conduct a root-cause analysis and corrective action," Kuntsman said. "For high-priority facilities that continue to measure unsafe levels, EPA should consider all tools at their disposal, including enforcement actions for facilities with persistent problems."

Kuntsman added that as long as facilities are meeting their regulatory responsibilities, it shouldn't be a choice between clean air and good-paying jobs.

"When industry fails to do this, it is the EPA's responsibility to pass regulations, enforce the law and reduce the risk for the people living by and impacted by these facilities. While this benzene analysis is only one piece of a much larger picture, the vast majority of refineries are below the action level for benzene," he said.

Both Kuntsman and Parent said one obstacle for the everyday citizen fixing to understand what is in the air around them is access to EPA data. Sure, it's online, but it's hard to understand, according to Parent.

"If you really want a good understanding, you have to comb through these reports with all these numbers, then talk to people in the field to get a good idea of what the data means," she said. "With people working and raising families, who has time to do that?"

(606) 326-2653 — henry@dailyindependent.com

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting