Environment

A Marathon oil refinery in eastern Kentucky is one of 13 refineries across the country that released harmful levels of a cancer-causing pollutant, according to a report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.

Fence line readings for benzene jumped 233% between 2019 and 2020 at the Catlettsburg Marathon refinery near Ashland, and were 11% above action levels designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Benzene is a common pollutant found in oil and a known human carcinogen. The increase in benzene levels at the Catlettsburg Marathon refinery is likely the result of two leaks from March and October, said Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project executive director. 

“When you get concentrations that high, you really need to get in gear and get on top of it and try and fix it,” Shaeffer said. 

Communities living near the fence lines of heavy industry bear a disproportionate pollution burden compared to those who live farther away. Nearly 12,000 people live within 3 miles of the Catlettsburg refinery, 44.6% of whom live in poverty, according to the EIP report

The Catlettsburg refinery was one of two Marathon refineries included in the report. The other was a refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. A Marathon spokesman said the releases were the result of “one-time events” that have since been addressed. 

“At our Catlettsburg refinery, we continue to look for opportunities to reduce benzene emissions, as we do at all 13 of our petroleum refineries across the country,” said Jamal Kheiry in an email. 

The EPA measures air pollution at the fence lines of oil refineries under the Clean Air Act. The benzene levels were measured under the 2015 Clean Air Act rule, which requires refineries to investigate and clean up sources of benzene emissions when air monitoring shows annual concentrations exceeding EPA action levels of 9 micrograms per year. 

Data from the fence line monitors indicates the benzene emissions are actually higher than what is reported because refineries are allowed to subtract any benzene emissions thought to originate from offsite or storage tanks, according to the report. 

“And the agency should tighten up its regulations to close a loophole that allows refineries to avoid counting emissions from benzene storage tanks and other non-refining equipment – even though neighbors are exposed to all of these toxic emissions,” said Schaeffer, who previously worked as a director of civil enforcement at the EPA. 

A Delek corporation refinery in Krotz Springs, La., topped the list of the 13 refineries, averaging more than 31 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter, more than three times the EPA’s action level. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.