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El Paso Challenges Oil Refinery Permit

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EL PASO – Fred Borrego wants Marathon Petroleum to test the soil in his neighborhood, a district of small homes, churches and businesses around the company’s 97-year-old refinery in south-central El Paso.

“What’s in the ground?” said Borrego, a lifelong resident and president of the San Juan neighborhood association. “We’d like to see what’s in our soil in our neighborhoods where we grew up. We’re worried about the effects of 90 years of the refinery being there.” 

Borrego, accustomed to the refinery’s towering flare at night and the smell of oil in the air, said he has verbally asked company representatives to do soil testing—with no success. But Marathon Petroleum in December filed a 10-year renewal request of its operating permit, set to expire in June, and Borrego sees a chance to force the company to provide some answers to him and other community members. 

El Paso County commissioners voted on Jan. 8 to seek a contested case hearing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) over the renewal. If the TCEQ grants El Paso’s request, the county and the company will air their differences before an administrative law judge. Contested case hearings rarely lead to permits being denied or revoked but can result in technical modifications to address local concerns. 

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“The overriding issue is safeguarding the health of the community,” said Commissioner David Stout, whose district includes the refinery and who proposed the county vote. 

“For far too long, in my opinion, the approach has been very unbalanced, deeply unbalanced, and El Paso leaders have been willing to sacrifice the health of certain communities,” Stout said during the Jan. 8 meeting. “The area surrounding the refinery represents one of those community sectors that I’m referring to.”

Forty-four percent of residents in the zip code where the refinery is located live below the poverty line and 94 percent identify as Hispanic, according to U.S. Census data. Beyond Borrego’s demand for soil testing, what’s in the air has been a constant concern for the community.

The facility refines up to 133,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the nearby Permian Basin into petroleum. Marathon’s operating permit allows the refinery to emit thousands of pounds of pollutants annually, including volatile organic compounds, benzene, and hydrogen sulfide. It is one of the two largest industrial polluters in El Paso County, based on TCEQ data. 

Marathon Petroleum spokesperson Jamal Kheiry said its application permit is not seeking an increase in emissions at the refinery and aims to consolidate several pre-existing permits. 

“Over the last several years, the El Paso Refinery has reduced emissions of ozone precursors, particulate matter (both PM10 and PM2.5) and greenhouse gasses by significant percentages due to the hard work of our employees and the proactive steps being taken to ensure we continue to achieve emissions reductions,” Kheiry said.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates other emissions have increased: Actual emissions—as opposed to permitted emission levels—rose in recent years for some pollutants, notably benzene as well as hydrogen sulfide, which was recorded at a 10-year high in 2022.

Industry Concentrated in Southside of El Paso

Veronica Carbajal, an El Paso environmental attorney, was among those who urged the county commission to seek the hearing.

Carbajal, who is a candidate for city council, said from the Marathon Refinery to Interstate Highway 10 to the international bridges into Ciudad Juárez, the southside of El Paso bears a disproportionate burden of pollution. Carbajal is seeking office to represent a district that includes the refinery. 

“The southside should not have to bear the heaviest weight of our economic progress,” she said in an interview. “We owe that part of our community the respect and the dignity it deserves.”

While Texas’s largest oil refineries are located on the Gulf Coast, the Marathon Refinery is larger than other West Texas and New Mexico refineries. Located some 200 miles west of the prolific oilfields of the Permian Basin, the refinery was originally two facilities, one built by Chevron in 1928 and another by Texaco in 1931. The two sites combined in 1993 into one refinery, which was later purchased by a company called Western Refining. Marathon bought the refinery in 2018.

“The southside was red-lined,” Carbajal said, in reference to the practice of denying mortgage loans in certain city neighborhoods. “That’s how you have the refinery right next to schools, houses, community centers. To undo all of that environmental racism is going to take a lot of courage.”

Borrego said he grew up in the San Juan neighborhood, watching the refinery’s flare with some awe. It wasn’t until he was a young adult that he learned flaring could be harmful to his health. Borrego now owns a machine shop near the refinery, and he said sometimes his employees complain about its overwhelming fumes. 

Borrego said previous meetings hosted by the TCEQ to discuss Marathon permits did not lead to changes. “Everybody goes and voices concerns but it doesn’t matter,” he said.

“Is there a point where they work on their emissions?” he said. “Let’s bring down the emissions.”

Marathon Petroleum's El Paso Refinery is in a residential neighborhood three miles east of downtown. Credit: Martha Pskowski/Inside Climate News
Marathon Petroleum’s El Paso Refinery is in a residential neighborhood three miles east of downtown. Credit: Martha Pskowski/Inside Climate News

According to EPA data, Marathon reported 135,007 pounds of air toxics released at the refinery in 2022. This was the highest reported total since 2014. This included 72,902 pounds of ozone precursors. Ozone exposure can aggravate lung diseases including asthma and emphysema. The American Lung Association ranks El Paso as the 14th worst city for ozone pollution in the country. 

Benzene emissions also rose to 6,229 pounds in 2022, the highest total reported since 2016. Chronic exposure to benzene has been linked to increased rates of leukemia. Hydrogen sulfide emissions were at the highest level in a decade—1,283 pounds—in 2022. Long-term exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause eye irritation, headaches and fatigue.

Stout said his commission office has worked with Marathon on some community projects. According to a Marathon factsheet, the company has provided $194,000 in grants to El Paso for public safety and first responders. It has also given charitable donations to local organizations including the El Paso food bank and a housing nonprofit called Rebuilding Together. 

The company reported an adjusted net income of $3.2 billion for the third quarter of 2023. 

Stout said community projects are routine for a corporation of Marathon’s size. He said additional pollution controls or emissions reduction technology wouldn’t “break the bank” for Marathon. 

Contested Case Hearing Not Guaranteed

The public notice of Marathon’s permit application was published on Jan. 4, which set the clock ticking on TCEQ’s 15-day deadline, expiring Jan. 19, to submit contested case requests. 

After all public comments are received, TCEQ will file a Response to Comments document to everyone who submitted comments or hearing requests. Once this document is issued, the public will have another 30 days to request a contested case hearing before the agency’s executive director makes a final decision.

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TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann said there is no right to a hearing for permit renewals like Marathon’s current application but the agency could grant a hearing based on the company’s compliance history. Under state law, the hearing may be granted if the company committed violations that are “unresolved and that constitute a recurring pattern of egregious conduct that demonstrates a consistent disregard for the regulatory process.” If TCEQ grants the hearing request, the case would be referred to the State Office on Administrative Hearings. 

The Marathon Refinery has received five notices of violation from the TCEQ based on emission reports dating back to 2018, according to agency data. 

In its Jan. 8 vote, county commissioners authorized $20,000 for attorney fees and $20,000 for an adviser to help craft the TCEQ request.

Other neighborhood associations near the refinery, City Council representative Alexsandra Annello, state Sen. César Blanco and state Rep. Lina Ortega have also asked for a public meeting on the permit renewal. 

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