Louisiana refineries are among the top U.S. water polluters, report finds
The Citgo Lake Charles refinery was one of multiple facilities in Louisiana mentioned in an Environmental Integrity Project report as a significant water polluter. (Photo courtesy of Citgo)
Water contamination linked to oil and gas refineries is just as bad as the air pollution they produce, according to a new report. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) listed multiple facilities in Louisiana among the worst offenders in its report titled “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls.”
The group also calls out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to enforce federal standards in the Clean Water Act. Refineries that surpass limits on harmful wastewater pollutants are rarely cited or fined, according to the EIP report.
Its research also highlights that the EPA has failed to regularly update its standards to reflect the ability of technology to reduce contaminants in water.
“ ..The standards for refineries have not been revised in nearly four decades, since 1985, and apply to only a small handful of pollutants,” the EIP report said. “These weak and outdated standards do not reflect advances in treatment methods or the expansion and modification of refinery operations over the last four decades.”
The EIP report breaks down the worst pollution offenders based on toxic materials found in the water near the refineries.
The Phillips 66 Alliance refinery near Belle Chasse was the worst in the nation based on the amount of ammonia it released into the water. It was one of five Louisiana facilities ranked in the top 10 for ammonia contamination based on EPA data from 2021. The other five are in Texas.
Fish and other living organisms in the water cannot get rid of toxic ammonia, leading to contamination of their organs and eventually death.
The Valero refinery in Norco ranked second in the U.S. for its ammonia releases. “Valero’s Norco refinery has outdated federal permit limits that allow it to discharge 1,855 pounds of ammonia per day, on average, into the Mississippi River,” according to EIP. In 2021, its average ammonia discharge was 546 pounds per day, at an average concentration of 14.18 mg/L – “well above what many other refineries have already demonstrated is feasible,” the EPI report said.
The Phillips 66 refinery in Lake Charles was the fifth worst ammonia polluter. Citgo’s refinery in Lake Charles was seventh, and the PBF refinery in Chalmette was eighth.
Phillips 66 closed its Alliance refinery after it was flooded by Hurricane Ida in August 2021.
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Nitrogen, selenium and nickel
Three Louisiana sites were also among the worst for releasing nitrogen into the water. Too much nitrogen can lead to algae blooms, which can choke off life underneath the surface.
Citgo Lake Charles, Phillips 66 Alliance and PBF Chalmette ranked eighth through 10th, respectively, for their ammonia contamination.
A spokesperson for Phillips 66 referred the Illuminator to the American Petroleum Institute (API) when asked for the company’s reaction to the EIP report.
“The natural gas and oil industry is committed to protecting the health and safety of its employees, the communities in which it does business, and the environment,” API vice president of downstream policy Will Hupman said in an email. “Our industry takes seriously its obligation to protect our nation’s waters and adheres to strict local, state and federal requirements to ensure water is properly treated and tested prior to leaving a facility.”
The Marathon refinery and Garyville and the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge refinery were listed among top water polluters for the heavy metal selenium, at eight and 10th, respectively. Selenium has been found to be harmful to ecosystems and aquatic life.
“We operate our refineries in compliance with stringent local, state and federal regulations, and are always working to improve environmental performance,” an ExxonMobil spokesperson said in an email.
None of the other companies that own the Louisiana refineries listed in the EIP report responded to questions from the Illuminator.
High levels of nickel pose the same threats, and two Louisiana refineries ranked in the top 10 for releases of the heavy metal – Marathon Garyville and fourth and Phillips 66 Lake Charles at seventh.
Chlorides and sulfates violations
ExxonMobil Baton Rouge and Shell Norco were ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, based on the amount of total dissolved solids they release into water. This category covers salt compounds such as chlorides and sulfates found in oil during the refining process.
“High salinity or dissolved solids can harm fish, make water unsuitable for irrigation, negatively affect the taste of water and can be costly for plumbing systems,” the EIP report said.
The report also compiled the 10 worst refineries for permit violations based on the number of times they were found to have exceeded EPA wastewater limits. The Calumet refinery in Shreveport ranked seventh with 32 violations from 2019 to 2021.
The EPA took action on just two of Calumet’s violations in Shreveport, which equaled the highest number of sanctions against all of the facilities listed among the top 10 violators.
The Environmental Integrity Project cited several deficiencies in how the EPA enforces Clean Water Act policy. For example, the agency has chosen not to update its effluent limits for refineries despite the ability of improved technology to better detect contaminants.
The act requires EPA to publish a schedule every two years for when the agency will conduct its reviews and revisions of its effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs). The reviews are supposed to be annual and must take place at least every five years.
“However, EPA’s review process is broken,” the EIP report said. “The result is that some ELGs are never updated, and for others, decades pass before they are reviewed.”
Another shortcoming the group noted is that there is no EPA limit for refineries for wastewater discharge of benzene, a known carcinogen used as a solvent at petrochemical facilities. The agency did not set a national limit for benzene in refinery wastewater because the agency decided in 1982 technology was already effectively controlling it, according to EIP’s report.
As a result, the Environmental Integrity Project said few refineries monitor their wastewater for benzene. Out of more than 70 U.S. refineries, only 14 monitor for the substance and just five have benzene limits in their water pollution control permits.
The EIP report also noted the absence of EPA standards for refineries to track the release of polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.” PFAS have been linked to increased risk of hormonal problems, cancer and other health problems in people.
The EPA has said it will update national standards for PFAS at metal finishing facilities as well as organic chemical and plastics sites – but not for refineries.
Read the EIP report here.
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