The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to uphold its legal obligation to regulate the nearly half-billion gallons of toxic wastewater that petroleum refineries dump into the nation's waterways on a daily basis, according to an exhaustive study published Thursday.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a watchdog founded by former EPA enforcement attorneys, analyzed publicly available records and found that in 2021 alone, the 81 refineries across the U.S. that discharge into rivers, streams, and estuaries released 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids harmful to aquatic life; 15.7 million pounds of algae-feeding nitrogen; 60,000 pounds of selenium, which can cause mutations in fish; and other pollutants, including cyanide; heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc; and petrochemicals like benzene.
"Much of the water pollution from refineries is legal," EIP's report explains, "because EPA and the states have failed to set any limits on certain pollutants and have failed to update and modernize permit limits for other pollutants" despite the Clean Water Act's mandate that EPA does so. "But a portion of the problem is also illegal. As it turns out, EPA and state enforcement of existing permit limits for refineries is lax and rarely results in penalties for violations."
"Almost 83% of refineries (67 of 81) exceeded their permitted limits on water pollutants at least once between 2019 to 2021, according to EPA enforcement and compliance records," the report notes. "But only about a quarter of the refineries with violations (15 of the 67) were penalized during this period."
Other key findings of the report, titled Oil's Unchecked Outfalls, include:
- Wastewater discharged by 68% of the refineries examined (55 of 81) contributes to the "impairment" of downstream waterways—meaning they are too polluted to support aquatic life or allow for recreational uses like swimming or fishing.
- U.S. refineries are often old–averaging 74 years, but some dating back to the 1880s—and many have antiquated and inadequate pollution control systems. Most have also expanded over the last forty years, increasing both the volume and variety of pollutants they discharge. But EPA has not updated its standards for refineries since 1985.
- Two-thirds of the refineries examined by EIP (56 of 81) are located in areas where the percentage of low-income households within three miles exceeds the national average, and over half are located in areas where the percentage of people of color exceeds the national average.
- Sixty-seven refineries were flagged by EPA as violating permitted pollution limits 904 times between 2019 and 2021, including for dumping excessive amounts of cyanide, zinc, total suspended solids, ammonia, and oil and grease.
"Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability in the U.S., and too many release a witches' brew of contaminants to our rivers, lakes, and estuaries," EIP executive director Eric Schaeffer said in a statement. "This is because of lax federal standards based on wastewater treatment methods that are nearly forty years old."
"The Clean Water Act requires EPA to impose more stringent standards that reflect the advanced wastewater treatment methods available today," said Schaeffer, former director of civil enforcement at EPA. "After decades of neglect, EPA needs to comply with the law and set strong effluent limits for refineries that protect public health and environment. EPA and the states also need to start enforcing the limits that exist and penalizing polluters."
EIP identified which refineries are the top dischargers of key pollutants. When it comes to selenium, the Chevron El Segundo Refinery in California and the Motiva Port Arthur Refinery in Texas are the worst offenders, each dumping more than 12 pounds per day into local waterways. The Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in Illinois and the BP Cherry Point Refinery in Washington pour out more nickel than any other facility in the country. El Segundo is also the biggest discharger of nitrogen, at 4,351 pounds per day, followed by the PBF Delaware City Refinery’s 3,283 pounds per day. For total dissolved solids, the worst offenders are the ExxonMobil Baytown Refinery (347,345 pounds per day) and the Valero Corpus Christi Bill Greehey Refinery (291,527 pounds per day), both in Texas.
EIP also documented the worst refineries for permit violations from 2019 to 2021. The Hunt Southland Refinery in Mississippi exceeded its permitted pollution limits 144 times during that time period but faced just two Clean Water Act enforcement actions totaling $85,500. The Phillips 66 Sweeny Refinery in Texas, meanwhile, ran up 44 violations but was hit with just a single $30,000 fine.
"After decades of neglect, EPA needs to comply with the law and set strong effluent limits for refineries that protect public health and environment. EPA and the states also need to start enforcing the limits that exist and penalizing polluters."
"EPA's national discharge limits for refineries apply to just ten pollutants, including ammonia, chromium, and oil and grease," states the report. "These skeletal standards do not begin to address the variety and volume of dangerous contaminants found in the wastewater from refining processes."
For example, the report documents that refineries are "a notable source" of toxic "forever chemicals" (PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), in part because they use firefighting foams that contain them. Even though PFAS have been linked to numerous adverse health impacts, EPA's newly released plan for regulating industrial discharges does not establish limits on these synthetic compounds in refinery wastewater.
"EPA's current rules for refineries are almost 40 years old, based on outdated treatment methods, and do not even apply to most of the pollutants that refineries discharge," says EIP's report. "EPA needs to waste no further time and move quickly to update these standards and impose the more stringent discharge limits the law requires."
"The states and the EPA also need to penalize permit violations more consistently so that refining companies have an economic incentive to clean up waterways," the report continues. "Currently, most violations by refineries are not penalized at all, and when they are, the amounts are paltry compared to the profitability of the industry. More stringent enforcement will provide a financial incentive for violators to update their pollution control systems and improve their operations to protect public health and the environment."
Bruze Reznick, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, lamented that "once again, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye while oil and gas companies pollute our environment, including our sensitive marine ecosystems, and disproportionately harm our frontline communities."
"We must now put the spotlight on oil refineries' essentially unregulated water pollution and demand that EPA fulfill its duty under the Clean Water Act by setting, updating, and actually enforcing discharge limits for these refineries," said Reznick.
He was echoed by Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, who said that "it's high time for EPA to crack down on the toxic pollution from oil refineries that's threatening both wildlife and human health."
EIP researchers argued that "EPA's failure to require the cleanup of refinery wastewater is a part of a wider pattern."
"Most of the discharge limits in effect today for industries across the U.S. were established well before the end of the last century," the report points out. "According to the latest state water quality reports, about half of America's rivers, streams, and lakes, and a quarter of our estuaries are too polluted to support aquatic life, swimming, fishing, or to supply drinking water. The 1972 Clean Water Act promised to make all waters fishable and swimmable, but we are only halfway home to that goal more than fifty years later."