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Oil Refineries' Benzene Pollution a Concern in Eastern KY


A Marathon oil refinery in eastern Kentucky is emitting benzene into the air at levels higher than what the federal Environmental Protection Agency says require action to curb.

Benzene is a well-known carcinogen that can cause leukemia. According to a report from the Environmental Integrity Project, benzene readings at the Boyd County refinery jumped 233% between 2019 and 2020.

Ilan Levin, associate director at the group, said last year's levels were 11% above the EPA action level.

"These are not necessarily Clean Air Act violations," said Levin. "But the data indicates clearly that we've got a problem at many of these U.S. refineries."

Levin added in 2015, the EPA required all refineries in the U.S. to install benzene pollution monitors.

Nationwide, more than 530,000 people live within three miles of a refinery. The EPA estimates 57% are people of color and 43% live at incomes below the poverty line.

Levin said he believes lax regulation and oversight of oil refineries threaten public health, and said the EPA should respond more rapidly to short-term spikes in benzene emissions.

"Actions often include investigations, requests for information from these refineries," said Levin. "That's what EPA needs to do for a handful of these refineries, especially those that are getting worse."

Levin explained benzene often wafts into communities at levels higher than what's being reported, because refineries can point to other nearby sources and claim the emissions aren't theirs.

He said the data adds to a growing body of evidence about who's most likely to suffer the consequences of air pollution.

"That points to the fact that people of color, and lower-income folks, are disproportionately hit by industrial pollution," said Levin.

He notes the same communities were hit especially hard by COVID-19, where residents lack affordable health care and have higher rates of chronic illness that make them especially vulnerable to air pollution.

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