CHICAGO | The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday cited the BP Whiting Refinery for violating federal air standards by releasing a cancer-causing toxin in waste from 2003 to 2008, which at times reached 16 times the acceptable limit, EPA officials said.
BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company reported the possible violations to the EPA and that the amount of benzene emitted was small enough that it didn't present a danger to public health.
The EPA alleges BP failed to manage and treat benzene waste from the petroleum refinery as required by the national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants.
George Czerniak, chief of the enforcement and compliance assurance branch of EPA Region 5, said the regulation violated addresses how much benzene can be present in a waste stream over a year. To satisfy EPA regulations, BP agreed it would release less than 6 megagrams of benzene annually and do regular testing. On Feb. 10, 2009, BP submitted its benzene findings for 2008 to the EPA as part of a regulatory requirement, and it showed waste contained more than 16 times the amount allowed.
Czerniak said the threat with benzene is that once the waste streams undergo treatment, the benzene could evaporate and be dispersed into the air.
Benzene is known to cause cancer in humans. Acute health effects from benzene exposure can include dizziness and light-headedness; eye, nose and throat irritation; upset stomach and vomiting; irregular heartbeat; convulsions and death. Ecological effects include death in exposed animal, bird and fish populations and death or reduced growth rate in plant life.
Czerniak said the company recently identified the potential violation.
"In looking back at operations over the last few years, they said it's likely the violation has occurred over some years in the past," Czerniak said. He believes the company estimated it may have been out of compliance since 2003.
Dean said the company "quickly took action to eliminate the source of the possible violations." He added the 120-year-old refinery is undergoing a modernization project that includes $1.4 billion in environmental improvements, which the company expects will improve the performance of the refinery's wastewater treatment plant.
Czerniak said BP has been in contact with the agency, but a date to discuss the possible violations hasn't been set. The EPA has multiple enforcement options including issuing an administrative compliance order or an administrative penalty order, bringing a judicial civil action, and bringing a judicial criminal action. There is no statutory deadline requiring the EPA to take an enforcement action.