An oil refinery in Artesia was listed as one of the nation’s top emitters of air-polluting benzene, a carcinogen known to cause cancer with long term exposure.
HollyFrontier’s Navajo Refinery, situated in the small town in southeast New Mexico’s Permian Basin oilfield and the town’s biggest employer, was reported to have benzene emission levels higher than government limits, per a recent study from the Environmental Integrity Project.
It was one of 13 refineries in the report found to have levels of the chemical, a byproduct of crude oil production, above the Environmental Protection Agencies “action level.”
The study was conducted for 12 months in 2020, ending on Dec. 31 of last year, and was released in April.
It ranked the Navajo Refinery as having the ninth-highest net benzene concentration at 11.3 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) of emissions.
That level was down 55 percent from 2019, the study showed, but still 25 percent above the EPA action level of 9 μg/m3.
In a statement, HollyFrontier defended its efforts to mitigate emissions, pointing to reductions in benzene releases after it upgraded multiple sections of the Navajo Refinery and increased monitoring.
“We recognize it is a privilege to operate in Artesia and New Mexico. Due to actions taken by HollyFrontier, benzene emissions at our Artesia facility have declined significantly,” said a HollyFrontier spokesperson.
The result, the company said, was an overall reduction in benzene concentration now less than half the EPA limit, per sampling from January.
“We will continue our comprehensive monitoring at the Artesia facility, in accordance with federal regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“As the largest employer in Artesia, we understand the importance of community, worker safety, and striving for environmental performance, including compliance with state and federal regulations.”
Another HollyFrontier facility in Lovington in neighboring Lea County reported 11.8 μg/m3, 31 percent above the limit, after increasing 230 percent in the last year from 3.6 μg/m3 in 2019 which was well below the EPA limit.
The highest concentration and exceedance of the federal limit was the Delek Krotz Springs refinery in Krotz Springs, Louisiana which reported 31.1 μg/m3 in 2020 or 246 percent above the action level.
That was followed by Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which was 212 percent above the limit with a benzene concentration of 28.1 μg/m3.
More than 530,000 people live within three miles of the 13 refineries above federal limits, the report read, with 57 percent of that population distinguished as people of color and 43 percent living below the poverty line.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project said the data should urge the administration of President Joe Biden to enact stricter safeguards against air pollution after the president and his cabinet signaled upon taking office in January a renewed focus on climate change and pollution.
The State of New Mexico also recently made progress on curbing oil and gas emissions, enacting new, tougher regulations at both the New Mexico Environment and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources departments.
“If the Biden Administration wants to make good on its promise to tackle environmental injustices, it should act immediately to crack down on these dangerous benzene emissions,” Schaeffer said.
In New Mexico, the oil and gas industry is a leading economic driver, providing more than a third of the state’s budget and thousands of jobs.
But along with that economic development, Rebecca Sobel with Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians said extraction is polluting the environment in some of the state’s most vulnerable communities.
“These latest reports of dangerous, cancer-causing benzene releases from New Mexico oil refineries underscores the terrible toll that the oil and gas industry is taking on communities,” she said.
“Worse, this toxic pollution is disproportionately impacting people of color, perpetuating a major environmental injustice that must be confronted.”
Kayley Shoup, a resident of Carlsbad about 35 miles south of Artesia and also deep in the Permian Basin region and an environmental activist with local group Citizens Caring for the Future said the report of heightened emissions at the Artesia refinery was “scary” for fence line communities like her own.
She said companies like HollyFrontier should be more transparent about what they are releasing into the air and the impacts on local communities.
The Navajo Refinery is situated mere blocks from residential neighborhoods and an elementary school in Artesia, along U.S. Highway 285 – a roadway through rural southeast New Mexico which connects cities like Roswell and Albuquerque.
Shoup said she worried small cities like Carlsbad and Artesia – heavily reliant on oil and gas for revenue and employment – could face increased health problems among residents including widespread asthma and cancer clusters.
“Navajo scares me because it’s right in the middle of Artesia. It’s really not outside of town. I think there’s a lack of awareness in the fence line communities of what they’re breathing in,” Shoup said.
“Cities like Artesia where this is happening, they really need to be notifying community members. They really don’t know the risk.”
Citizens Caring for the Future recently began the process of conducting a health impact assessment in the area to study the physical and social impacts of heavy extraction operations moving into the community.
The group consulted with activists who did a similar study in northwest New Mexico’s San Juan Basin, the other oil and gas region in New Mexico that also sports one of the world’s densest methane cloud above discovered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The main goals is to raise awareness, Shoup said, for the impacts brought to communities by facilities like HollyFrontier’s
She said energy companies have a responsibility to their host communities that goes beyond economics.
“I think they have the responsibility to communicate with the community about what’s happening,” Shoup said. “It’s always touted that they provide jobs and they do a lot of the community in Artesia, but they need to be clear and communicate to people that this is in the air.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.