It is not uncommon to see news stories describing the harmful effects reported by people living near oil refineries. Unfortunately, what we see in the media is only a fraction of the real hazards that people living near oil refineries experience on a daily basis.
If you work in an oil refinery or live near one, it is important to know the hazards and how you can reduce the risk of an injury or illness. It is also important to understand your legal rights if you are injured or become ill due to an oil refinery. Below, the petrochemical injury lawyers at Kherkher Garcia, LLP explain the hazards, common illnesses and injuries, and what you can do if you suffer an injury or illness.
Exxon Oil Refinery Violates Clean Air Act
Communities around Beaumont, Texas have experienced the detrimental impact of oil refineries for many years. Residents near the Exxon Mobil refinery consistently report bouts of headaches, congestion, sinus problems, and a sickening smell in the air. The smell may be due to the release of sulfur, which can smell like rotten eggs. But the symptoms residents experience are a sign of a much more serious problem.
The Exxon Mobil refinery in Beaumont processes crude oil. The plant regularly releases as many as 135 chemicals, many of which are toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing). In 2017, a report revealed that this plant is routinely in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act, with violations dating back nearly two decades.
In 2000, residents near the plant filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But nothing was done. In fact, the EPA did not respond to the complaint. Seventeen years after the first complaint, the EPA announced minor changes. With the upcoming expansion of the refinery, however, residents feel like their voices continue to be ignored while their health suffers.
In 2005, the Obama administration did make overarching pollution reduction plans, which resulted in a supposed 70% reduction in pollution emissions from plants like the one in Beaumont. However, the community near the Exxon Mobil plant has consistently been on the watch list for higher-than-safe levels of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide. Research also suggests that there are lulls and spikes in the amount of emissions, often spiking well over the federal guidelines.
What is the Clean Air Act?
The Clean Air Act is a federal law that was first enacted in the United States in 1963 and has since been amended several times. Its purpose is to regulate and reduce air pollution by setting national air quality standards for common pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.
The Act also establishes a permitting program for industries and facilities that emit pollutants, sets emission standards for motor vehicles and other sources, and requires states to develop plans to achieve and maintain the national air quality standards. The Clean Air Act has been successful in reducing air pollution levels and improving public health. However, challenges remain in meeting the more stringent standards for some pollutants and addressing new sources of pollution such as greenhouse gases.
Hazards of Living Near an Oil Refinery
Living near an oil refinery can present several hazards to human health and the environment. The situation in Beaumont above is just one example of an entire community put at risk. There are numerous communities in the U.S. who are experiencing the same hazards and potential for injuries and illnesses.
For those living near an oil refinery, some of the hazards include:
Oil refineries emit large amounts of air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, including asthma, and increase the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
Oil refineries discharge wastewater containing toxic chemicals into nearby water bodies, which can contaminate drinking water sources and harm aquatic life. The Environmental Integrity Project estimates that 81 refineries in the U.S. released 1.6 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways, including:
- Dissolved Solids
What is most alarming about this data is the fact that the EPA does not set limits for refinery discharge or pollutants like benzene, selenium, cyanide, mercury, and more. The limits that are in place are nearly 40 years old with no updates.
Fire and Explosion
Oil refineries store large quantities of flammable materials, which can pose a significant risk of fire and explosion. Accidents at oil refineries can cause injury or death to workers and nearby residents, as well as extensive property damage. Oil refinery explosions in recent years continue to make headlines for their damage and destruction:
- In 2005, multiple explosions occurred at a refinery in Texas City during restarting one of the hydrocarbon isomerization units. Fifteen workers were killed, and nearly 200 others were injured.
- In 2018, a Calgary, Canada based refinery exploded injuring more than three dozen people and causing thousands of nearby residents to evacuate. This explosion was found to be due to inadequate safeguards during maintenance.
- In 2020, a Marathon refinery near Los Angeles exploded and erupted into fire causing massive damage and panic nearby. While no injuries were reported, it goes to show how widespread the danger really is.
Oil refineries can produce significant noise pollution, which can disrupt the lives of nearby residents and cause hearing damage.
Oil refineries emit foul odors that can be unpleasant and may cause health problems for people who are sensitive to certain chemicals.
Spills or leaks from oil refineries can contaminate soil with hazardous chemicals, which can harm plants, animals, and people who come into contact with the contaminated soil.
Injuries and Illnesses Linked to Nearby Oil Refineries
Individuals who work at an oil refinery know the risks of the job. However, workers and those living near a refinery should not have to worry about the careless or negligent actions of those in charge or other employees. Nearby communities also should not have the worry of pollution and developing illnesses in their homes. Sadly, lax oversight and adherence to safety standards often results in injuries and illnesses to those in and near oil refineries. Some of the more alarming injuries and illnesses include:
Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
Oil refineries can produce a range of toxic chemicals as byproducts of their various processes. Some of the most common toxic chemicals produced at oil refineries include:
Benzene is a highly toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic chemical that is used in the production of plastics and other materials. Benzene is produced during the refining of crude oil and is released into the environment during various stages of the refining process. Long-term exposure to benzene or benzene pollution include:
- Birth Defects
- Menstrual Defect
- Immune System Suppression
Toulene is a solvent that is used in the production of paints, coatings, and other chemicals. Toluene is also a highly toxic and flammable chemical that can be produced during the refining of crude oil. Long-term exposure to toluene can cause:
- Kidney Damage
- Liver Damage
- Nerve Damage
- Central Nervous System Toxicity
- Cardiac Abnormalities
- Bone Marrow Dysplasia
Another solvent that is used in the production of various chemicals and materials. Xylene is highly toxic and can be released into the environment during the refining process. Xylene is an irritant that can cause symptoms almost immediately. Symptoms of general exposure include irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Long-term exposure can lead to:
- Loss of Muscle Coordination
Formaldehyde is a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical that is used in the production of plastics, resins, and other materials. Formaldehyde can be produced during the refining of crude oil and can be released into the environment during various stages of the refining process. In relatively small doses, formaldehyde generally does not cause serious illness. Indivdiuals who are more sensitive, or who suffer prolonged exposure may experience:
- Shortness of Breath
- Throat and Nose Cancer
Sulfur Dioxide is a highly toxic gas that is produced when sulfur-containing compounds in crude oil are burned during the refining process. Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, such as:
- Shortness of Breath
- Lung Damage
Lead is common in oil refineries during the process of making new chemicals. It can also be released as a by-product into waterways and the ground. Lead is dangerous, especially to children, and can have lifelong effects on those with significant exposure. In children, lead exposure can cause:
- Brain Damage
- Slowed Development
- Learning Disabilities
- Behavioral Problems
- Speech and Hearing Problems
In adults, lead poisoning can also cause serious health effects, such as:
- Kidney Damage
- High Blood Pressure
- Brain Damage
- Reproductive Damage
Exposure to certain toxins certainly increases cancer risk. For families living near oil refineries, the risk of certain cancers may be significantly higher. Research published in 2020 in JNCI Cancer Spectrum reports that “proximity to an oil refinery was associated with a statistically significantly increased risk of incident cancer diagnosis across all cancer types.” Examples of the findings include:
- Individuals within 10 miles of an oil refinery are more likely to develop lymphoma than those living 21-30 miles away.
- Closer proximity to an oil refinery was correlated to a more serious stage of cancer at diagnosis.
- Individuals living within 10 miles are more likely to be diagnosed with metastatis and/or systemic disease.
- Researchers note air pollutants like benzene, toluene, and xylene as contributing factors to the increase in cancer risk.
The most catastrophic incidents that happen at oil refineries are explosions. The number of explosions each year has decreased significantly since the 1990s, but the risk still remains. Refineries use very flammable and toxic chemicals to process crude oil and related products. Couple this with exposure to heat, weather elements, or human error and the risk for an explosion is quite significant.
When oil refinery explosions occur, they almost always result in loss of life and numerous injuries. The dangers are the explosion itself, crumbling infrastructure, fire, smoke inhalation, and toxic air pollution. Some of the more common injuries in explosions include:
- Penetrating Injuries
- Crush Injuries
- Ear Damage/Rupture
- Brain Injuries
- Blast Lung
- Broken Bones
- Internal Injuries
The impact of an oil refinery explosion is often felt for miles around the refinery. Communities are often forced to evacuate, and many people who are completely unrelated to the refinery often experience injuries, trauma, and the effects of pollution.
What to do After Oil Refinery Injuries
Living near an oil refinery can pose significant health and environmental risks, and residents should take steps to minimize their exposure to pollutants and monitor their health closely. Unfortunately, oil refineries often do not abide by safety and health standards. As a result, those working in the refinery, and those living nearby, are at risk for injuries and illness.
If you or someone you love is battling an injury or illness related to an oil refinery accident, incident, or proximity, Kherkher Garcia wants to hear from you. It is never too soon after such an injury to explore your legal rights and options you may have to hold those responsible accountable. We can help!
Find out more about our petrochemical injury lawyers and how we can help you by calling us at 713-333-1030. Start your free consultation and find out how we can help you recover compensation and get the justice you deserve.