Air pollution monitors outside a pair of chemical manufacturing plants in Louisiana and Texas suggest that they have been releasing benzene, a known carcinogen, into nearby communities above an EPA action level that is supposed to trigger investigations and cleanup.
Monitors at the fence lines at ExxonMobil’s Beaumont Chemical Plant in Beaumont, Texas, revealed that the benzene readings averaged 16.3 micrograms per cubic meter over background levels from July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022 – more than 80 percent higher than the EPA action level of 9 micrograms per cubic meter.
At Shell’s Norco Manufacturing Complex in Norco, Louisiana, just west of New Orleans, the fenceline air monitors over this time period recorded an average of 9.9 micrograms per cubic meter over background levels– 10 percent above the EPA action level.
More than 32,000 people live within a 3-mile radius of these facilities, of whom 59 percent are people of color and 46 percent are living below the poverty line. In addition to increasing the risk of cancers including leukemia, benzene has also been linked to health problems like anemia, nervous system damage, and weakened immune systems.
Anne Rolfes, director of environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said Norco residents first detected benzene in their neighborhood with air sampling more than 20 years ago.
"Benzene is not a joke – it’s a known carcinogen that can lead to fatal illness," Rolfes said. "And yet here we are, with the same old problem that we had at the start of the century. It’s long past time for the EPA to get serious about stopping the problem. It’s clear that Shell will continue poisoning people until they are forced to stop."
As a result of exceeding the benzene action level, EPA required both chemical plants to perform analyses of the root causes of the excessive benzene readings and write up corrective action plans.
This process has not yet resulted in sufficient corrective action at the Shell Norco plant. According to more recent fenceline benzene data, Shell’s annual average remains above EPA’s threshold for action, and in fact increased to 16 micrograms per cubic meter over background levels for the period Oct. 12-26, 2022.
But the Beaumont Chemical Plant has shown improvements in recent months, with an annual average reading of 7.2 micrograms per cubic meter over background levels for the year ending on Oct. 18, 2022, according to company data.
The Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex produces ethylene, propylene, and butadiene to sell to other manufacturers for use in the production of antifreeze, tires, plastic food containers, trash bags, laundry detergent, cosmetics, adhesives, and hundreds of other products.
The Beaumont Chemical Plant – which is currently planning an expansion -- produces also building-block chemicals such as ethylene and propylene that are used in the plastics industry, as well as industrial lubricants and motor oils.
Public information about the annual average benzene levels at the perimeters of these chemical plants – which suggest potential health risks to downwind neighbors – have only recently become available because of law lawsuits that EPA filed against the facilities for air pollution violations.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed its enforcement action against Shell Chemical on February 8, 2019, for violating national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants and smog-forming volatile organic compounds at its manufacturing complex in Norco, Louisiana. DOJ filed a separate lawsuit against ExxonMobil on October 31, 2017, for similar violations.
The legal actions came with settlements, also referred to as consent decrees, that compelled the companies to install benzene air monitors around their plants and publicly report the results on their websites.
Over the last few years, EPA has required a total 13 chemical plants to install benzene air monitors at their fence lines through air pollution lawsuits and similar consent decrees. Of these 13, only four so far have enough data available on their websites to calculate the annual average required to compare their results to the EPA action level that triggers cleanup requirements.
The action level, 9 micrograms per cubic meter, is supposed to represent the amount of benzene added to the air over background levels. Exceedances are determined by subtracting the highest concentration from the lowest detected every two-week monitoring period, and calculating an average over the past 26 monitoring periods (about a year).
Of the four chemical plants that have reported a sufficient amount of data, half (the ExxonMobil and Shell plants) had annual averages that exceeded the EPA action level between July 1, 2021 , and June 30, 2022, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project for Oil & Gas Watch.
Up until this point, the amount of benzene air pollution flowing from chemical plants toward neighboring communities has often been a mystery. This is because most chemical companies were not required to measure the carcinogenic pollutant at their fence lines and make the results public.
This is unlike the oil refining industry, which is required to perform fenceline monitoring for benzene. Since 2018, all refining companies have been required to comply with a 2015 EPA rule that compels all refineries to install benzene monitors along their perimeters and report the results to EPA every three months. EPA then makes the data public, and the Environmental Integrity Project has been analyzing and collecting the information in a data map on its website.
That 2015 Petroleum Refinery Sector Rule grew out of a 2012 lawsuit that the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice filed against EPA on behalf of seven community and environmental groups, including Air Alliance Houston and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. The purpose of the legal action was to force EPA to adopt stricter standards to protect people living closest to oil refineries.
After monitoring at refineries over the last few years revealed that emissions from refineries posed a threat to human health, interest grew among community groups and environmentalists in setting up similar requirements at chemical plants.
However, EPA has yet to introduce regulations mandating that the chemical industry monitor for benzene along its fence lines, as it did for the petroleum refining industry. Instead of a broad rule for benzene monitoring at chemical plants, so far, the EPA and DOJ have been requiring the monitoring on a plant-by-plant basis, through consent decrees when the federal agencies sue companies for pollution violations.
Like the 2015 EPA rule for refineries, these consent decrees for chemical plants require companies to investigate and clean up benzene emission sources whenever fenceline monitors show that the annual concentrations of benzene exceed EPA’s action level of nine micrograms per cubic meter (excluding any contribution from offsite or non-refinery sources).
Based on data submitted to EPA through June 2022, 11 active refineries exceeded EPA’s regulatory “action level” threshold over the last year. These facilities, along with the chemical plants that have violated the action level threshold, are listed in the table below. Seven of the refineries and chemical plants exceeding the action level are in Texas, another five are located in Louisiana, and one is in New Jersey.
It should be noted that these readings at the fence lines of the facilities do not necessarily reflect the numbers at inside the homes of people living nearby, which could be lower.
The former Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery in Pennsylvania registered an average of 16.3 micrograms per cubic meter from April 2021 to March 2022, but it is not included in this list because they failed to submit data for the second quarter of 2022. It closed after a fire and explosion on June 21, 2019. The last benzene monitoring data submitted for the former PES site was in the first quarter of 2022, then the owners apparently stopped monitoring or reporting their data to EPA. Demolishing the former PES refinery for the new owners to redevelop the site will take about four years, and involve the removal of 100 buildings and 950 miles of pipe, according to reporting by WHYY public radio in Philadelphia. The new owners of the site, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, say that all of the on-site bulk benzene once in the refinery complex has been removed.
Two of the 11 refineries exceeding the EPA action level in 2021–2022, Total Petrochemicals in Port Arthur, Texas, and Chalmette Refinery in Chalmette, Louisiana, have both been above the action level since they started monitoring in 2018. While Total’s annual net concentration has decreased over time, Chalmette’s numbers have remained almost the same since 2018. Despite having corrective action plans in place, the same few emission sources at the Chalmette refinery continue to cause these higher benzene concentrations, according to a review of the company’s plans.
For more information regarding fenceline benzene monitoring at refineries, see EIP’s Benzene Pollution Story Map.
A spreadsheet of benzene monitoring data from chemical plants can be found here.
Lead photo: This October 2017 aerial image shows the Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex along the bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Photo by Alan Grinberg.
EIP Research Manager Keene Kelderman contributed to this report.