Outdated EPA Standards Allow Oil Refineries to Pollute Waterways

Neighbors of refineries can see the glowing flares and visible plumes of air pollution rising into the sky. But water pollution often happens at ground level, or below, out of sight for both local residents and environmental regulators. 

In a new report, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project tallied toxic discharges of unregulated pollutants self-reported by refineries and found that seven of the nation’s 10 worst polluters of total dissolved solids operated along the Texas coast. 

“Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability,” said Eric Schaeffer, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Texas is an industry state. I’m not surprised to see such big discharges.”

Schaeffer, a former enforcement director at the Environmental Protection Agency, said federal pollution standards dating to the 1980s allow refineries to dump liquid waste into public waterways. The organization analyzed unregulated discharges that the EPA does not address in its rules for refineries.

According to the EIP report, federal law regulates just 10 pollutants from refineries’ liquid discharge through standards last updated in 1985. EIP called on the EPA to update its rules and reduce water contamination from the refinery sector. 

“EPA’s failure to act has exposed public waterways to a witches’ brew of refinery contaminants,” the EIP report said.  

The report named Exxon’s Baytown refinery as the nation’s highest-volume water polluter of total dissolved solids, which include chloride and sulfates. Schaeffer said dissolved solids are highly saline, harmful to aquatic life and taxing on water treatment plants. 

Because dissolved solid discharges are not regulated for refineries, none of the pollution broke the law.

Data from the EPA shows that Exxon—which posted a record $58 billion profit last year—also discharges toxins including oil and grease, hexavalent chromium, benzene, chlorine, copper, zinc, sulfide, ammonia and more into Galveston Bay. 

Exxon did not respond to a request for comment. The oil giant’s Baytown plant is part of the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, which rings the waterways southeast of Houston, the so-called Bayou City, where more than 2 million people live. Refineries turn oil and petroleum gas into fuels, chemicals and plastics. 

While the bayous of West Houston are open for recreation, those in the largely Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of East Houston are walled off by refineries. The public never sees what happens on their banks.   

“It’s this complete unawareness that industry is even dumping into the bayous,” said Bryan Parras, an organizer with the Sierra Club who grew up in Houston’s East End. “It’s all ending up in the bay and the Gulf of Mexico where people swim and fish. That’s not talked about a whole lot.”

In order to reduce dumping, Parras said, inspectors could make unannounced visits to refineries, test their waste outflows and apply substantial fines when they violate permits. 

“It’s up to the regulators and obviously they haven’t been doing a good job,” Parras said. 

Enforcement of federal standards falls to the states. In Texas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issues permits for industrial projects to discharge toxins into air and water. EPA Region 6, based in Dallas, and the TCEQ declined to comment for this report. 

Other top polluting refineries for dissolved solids include a Valero facility in Corpus Christi, Exxon’s Beaumont refinery, Motiva and Total Energies at Port Arthur and Marathon on Galveston Bay. 

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Although most self-reported refinery water pollution is legal, even when operators exceed permit limits for regulated toxins they face slim consequences. 

According to the EIP report, the Phillips 66 Sweeny Refinery south of Houston exceeded its permitted pollution limits 44 times from 2019 to 2021, but was penalized just $30,000. Forty-two of the refinery’s 44 violations were for unpermitted cyanide pollution in the Brazos River, upstream from popular public beaches. 

“For far too long, Houston and the Gulf as a whole have been treated like a sacrifice zone, with the greatest burdens falling on low-income Black and brown communities,” said Kristen Schlemmer, legal director for Bayou City Waterkeeper. “The EPA is in the position to take action now.” 

Schaeffer said EPA’s effluent regulations for refineries are far out-of-date with existing wastewater treatment technology. He said the technology exists to reduce toxic dumping into waterways, but the EPA must update its regulations to compel companies to improve.

“You’ll find that some refineries do significantly better than others,” Schaeffer said. “What processes are they using and why can’t we use that to set the standards for the whole industry?”

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