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Policy: Environment & Energy

Texas hearing to address oil refinery rules

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Photo - A teenage girl walks around the track of a park across the street from the Valero refinery Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. An Environmental Protection Agency rule to require refineries to monitor emissions of benzene is to be publicly debated Tuesday near Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
A teenage girl walks around the track of a park across the street from the Valero refinery Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. An Environmental Protection Agency rule to require refineries to monitor emissions of benzene is to be publicly debated Tuesday near Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Texas,Energy and Environment,Oil

HOUSTON (AP) — In the living room of a tidy, one-story home a few yards from Valero Energy Corp.'s massive oil refinery in the Houston neighborhood of Manchester, Areli Cuellar explained Monday why she no longer allows her children, 4 and 5, to play in the front yard.

The refinery's emissions "chip the paint off our cars. If they can do that, what are they doing to us?" Cuellar, 30, said.

Many Manchester residents like Cuellar — and others along the 54-mile-long stretch of chemical plants and refineries between Houston and the Galveston coast — fear the refineries are dangerous to their health. The area has the highest level of ozone in Texas. But others say they appreciate the money the expansive, city-like plants have injected into their communities.

That complicated relationship will likely come to the fore Tuesday, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will host a public forum in nearby Galena Park on proposed rules that would require stricter emission controls and monitoring standards.

Dozens of people are expected to testify about the health effects of living in such close proximity to the refineries, while industry representatives will repeat their claim that the new rules are financially burdensome and superfluous. The American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, has called the intended environmental benefits of the rules "questionable."

The EPA proposal would require refiners to place monitors on the fences of communities like Manchester to track emissions of the carcinogen benzene, upgrade storage tank and coke unit emission controls and regulate flaring.

EPA officials estimate such actions could reduce toxic air emissions by as much as 5,600 tons a year, directly affecting the 5 million people in the U.S. who live within a 32-mile radius of oil refineries.

The new rules are part of a consent decree resolving a lawsuit against the EPA filed by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of fenceline communities that argued the EPA was more than a decade late in reviewing and updating toxic air standards for oil refineries.

Though environmentalists consider the proposal modest, the suggested rules represent the federal agency's first attempt at monitoring refinery emissions, said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse.

"EPA has a responsibility under the Clean Air Act to continue to reduce hazardous emissions that Americans are exposed to, and these rules are steps along the path to start doing that," Cheuse said.

Valero community liaison Chip Gross did not immediately return a request for comment.

While Attorney General Greg Abbott has not said what action, if any, he would take if the new rules are passed, "there's a good chance federal laws on air pollution will be sorted out here," said Adrian Shelley of Houston Air Alliance.

Abbott, who is running to replace Rick Perry as the next governor of Texas, often touts his record of having sued the EPA 27 times during his tenure as Attorney General.

The hearing Tuesday is the second and final of the EPA's 60-day public comment period on the proposal. During the first EPA hearing in Wilmington, California, in July, a man brought a jar of black gunk he said was particulate matter from a refinery that had been collected from an adjacent neighborhood.

The EPA is not expected to take any action before the end of the year.

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