Artesia's Navajo Refinery listed among nation's most benzene polluting oil and gas sites

Study shows Navajo with high emissions of cancer-causing pollutant

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus
  • Environmental Integrity Project used EPA data at multiple refineries across U.S.
  • Navajo Refinery in Artesia was ranked in nation for heightened benzene emissions.
  • Refinery pollution appeared to impact low income communities and people of color

Artesia’s largest employer could be releasing dangerous chemicals into its air. 

In the summer of 2018, an air monitoring state near the Navajo Refinery in Artesia reported a concentration of cancer-causing benzene more than 100 times the minimum level where the federal government requires action.

Data showed a benzene concentration up 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter (m3) of air at the facility, less than a quarter mile away from Roselawn Elementary School.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires operators take action if benzene levels exceed 9 micrograms/m3.

Liberty Swift, spokesperson for HollyFrontier owner of the refinery, said the company is dedicated to following federal regulations and reducing pollution amid the reports.

"We recognize it is a privilege to operate in Artesia, where the Navajo facility has been a critical part of the community for 50 years. As the largest employer in Artesia we understand the importance of community and worker safety as well as transparency, including compliance with state and federal regulations," Swift said.

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The Navajo Refinery located in Artesia process 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day from around the Permian Basin.

What is benzene?

Benzene, a colorless gas has a sweet odor and his highly flammable.

It’s identified as a natural part of smoke from crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.

If inhaled at high concentrations, benzene can halt the body’s production of bone marrow, leading to anemia, per the Centers for Disease Control.

It could also damage the immune system, reducing levels of antibodies and white blood cells.

Within minutes or hours, benzene can cause tremors, dizziness or death.

In the long-term, benzene can cause people to develop leukemia.

And as oil and gas booms throughout southeast New Mexico, with Navajo as the region’s only refinery for lucrative Permian Basin crude oil, production and the risk of pollution could continue to grow.

“That refinery is not only an eyesore,” said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner with New Mexico WildEarth Guardians. “It’s a part of the bigger problem in southeast New Mexico related to the fracking industry.”

More:New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham: Permian Basin oil and gas a main driver for policy

A nationwide problem

At the Navajo refinery, a recent study showed the second-highest levels of the chemical in the nation.

The study conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) using EPA data from 100 refineries across the country showed Navajo Refinery had an average net fence line concentration of 36 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter of air, about 300 percent the EPA’s standard, as of September 2019.

The monitoring station near Roselawn showed readings in June and July 2018 of a concentration of 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

Holly Frontier, the company that operates the refinery said a single storage tank was likely to blame.

MORE:Navajo Refinery to be expanded, oil and gas landfills going in across the Permian Basin

Swift said in a statement that the tank was taken out of service and levels subsequently declined by 30 percent by the end of 2019.

Data from one of the company’s air monitoring stations near the tank read an average of 2.2 micrograms, based on two-week sample data since September 2019.

“HollyFrontier is conducting fenceline monitoring for benzene at its Navajo Refinery in Artesia, N.M., as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s refinery sector rule. Monitoring conducted by the Navajo Refinery identified annual average benzene emissions at the fenceline above the EPA’s action level,” Swift said.

“HollyFrontier developed and implemented several actions that substantially reduced benzene emissions and will help in reducing emissions below the EPA’s action level. We will continue our comprehensive monitoring at the Navajo facility, in accordance with federal regulations.”

MORE:Carlsbad leaders demand state support as community struggles to adapt to oil and gas boom

But Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EIP said he was doubtful a singe tank would solve Navajo’s pollution problems.

After the findings, the EPA conducted an inspection at Navajo Refinery, reporting 26 “areas of concern” ranging from broken valves and other equipment failures, with concentrations of up to 500,000 parts per million of volatile organic compounds.

“Benzene levels can shift around, and I’m pretty skeptical that all the benzene problems would be solved by one tank,” Schaeffer said.

MORE:Oil, natural gas facilities coming to Permian Basin; coronavirus threatens oil prices

Flames and smoke emerge from the Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex in Philadelphia, Friday, June 21, 2019.

Navajo fell second in the report for benzene pollution only behind a facility in Philadelphia owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions.

That refinery had benzene levels at 49 micrograms per cubic meter, about 444 percent higher than the EPA action level.

Staff at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions declined to comment for this story.

Behind Navajo was Total’s Port Arthur Refinery in Port Arthur, Texas with 22 micrograms per cubic meter, 148 percent higher than the EPA action level and Chevron’s Pasadena Refinery in Pasadena, Texas at 18 micrograms, 100 percent higher than the federal standard.

Total did not return a request for comment.

MORE:Oil and gas industry eyeing Chaves County in upcoming oil and gas land auction

A statement from Chevron blamed the high benzene readings on a cooling tower leak discovered in November 2018.

“The Pasadena Refinery collects air samples from fixed locations around the property. During November of 2018, a cooling tower leaked resulting in elevated benzene reading,” read the statement. “Upon controlling the cooling tower leak, the air readings returned to normal levels.

“The root cause analysis identified the cooling tower leak for the elevated readings for the first and second quarter submittal.”

Exceeding the 9 micrograms standard is not illegal but triggers the EPA to call upon the refinery to take voluntary action to lower benzene levels, conducting an analysis with five days and act to fix the problem in 45 days.

In total, EIP found 10 refineries in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana with benzene concentrations above the EPA’s action level.

MORE:Study: Eddy County leads New Mexico oil and gas industry, Permian to last for decades

Environmental justice

About 3,300 people live within a one-mile radius of the Navajo Refinery, with 56 percent below the poverty line, read the report.

Of those residents, 74 percent were Hispanic. Twelve percent were seniors, and 9 percent were children.

Although the refinery is near Roselawn Elementary School, it is west or upwind of the refinery, while the primary wind direction is south or southeast.

MORE:State of New Mexico issues air pollution violation notices to oil and gas operators

That means any populations or other facilities to the south or southeast would be considered downwind and most vulnerable to the pollution.

The report warned any western wind or calm conditions could move benzene into the community.

At Philadelphia Energy Solutions, 5,125 people live within a mile of the refinery, 70 percent below the poverty line with 45 percent African American, 13 percent seniors and 8 percent children.

MORE:New Mexico proposes strategies to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas

Multiple local businesses and a shopping center were just 0.2 miles downwind to the east of the monitors with the highest readings, per the report.

About 1,000 people lived near Total's Port Arthur Refinery, read the report, with only 18 percent below the poverty line and 16 percent Hispanic. 

The report showed 15 percent of nearby residents were seniors and 6 percent were children. 

At the refinery in Pasadena, Texas, 56 percent of the about 1,500 residents were living in poverty with about 80 percent Hispanic.

MORE:New Mexico Environment Department releases data tracking excess air pollution emissions

Kruse Elementary School and several neighborhoods are just three quarters of a mile downwind to the south of the monitor with the highest benzene concentrations, the report read, meaning pollution could be easily transported into the community.

Schaeffer contended the pollution from refineries were largely threatening low-income communities and people of color.

“These communities most often have high poverty rates and have neighbors with high African American and Hispanic populations,” he said. “If you’re concerned with environmental justice, this is a very good place to start.”

And despite widespread support for the oil and gas in southeast New Mexico, Sobel said the state and residents should reconsider the environmental and public health concerns associated with the industry.

MORE:Carlsbad church leader shares oil and gas fears at United Nations Climate Change Conference

She pointed to a reported explosion of a produced water line owned by WPX Energy just outside of Carlsbad in January, which covered a local home in potentially toxic chemicals.

“It’s not enough for the industry to create revenue, we have to take them to task on the environmental concerns that have increased with the growth of the fracking industry,” Sobel said.

"With air quality suffering throughout New Mexico because of unchecked fracking, it's time to rein in this mess and hold these companies accountable to our health and safety."

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.