Benzene emissions at shuttered South Philly refinery exceeded federal limits last year, report finds

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May 17, 2021 - 1:19pm

Critical Commentary

The Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in South Philadelphia last year emitted average airborne benzene levels at triple a federal threshold, even though the site had been closed since 2019 due to an explosion and fire, according to a report by a nonprofit advocacy group.

The report by the Texas-based Environmental Integrity Project says that the levels of benzene recorded at the site’s fence line air monitors had dropped after the explosion, but that as of the end of 2020, the chemical was still being emitted because of cleanup operations.

However, those involved in the site’s cleanup dispute the report’s findings that remediation caused benzene emissions. Philadelphia officials say their own nearby air monitor, one of many throughout the city, has continually detected only very low levels of benzene, none of which it says rise to a human health threat. The department also noted that the emissions recorded could be coming from anywhere in the heavily industrialized area rimmed by major highways.

Benzene is linked to human health problems such as drowsiness, dizziness, and headaches with short-term exposure. With long-term exposure, it is linked to blood disorders and reproductive problems. It is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a carcinogen.

The EPA action level is nine micrograms of benzene per cubic meter of air. Anything that reaches an action level triggers an investigation into the source and corrective action.In 2019 annual average concentrations of benzene reached 49.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In 2020, they reached 28.1, according to the report, which used publicly available data reported to the EPA.

James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Health, however, cautioned that “action levels” are just benchmarks of an issue that needs to be addressed.

“This is not the point where this becomes a threat to human health,” Garrow said. “That’s dozens and dozens of times higher when it starts to affect public health. We feel that there’s just no threat to public health from benzene coming from PES.” 

Terri White, an EPA spokesperson, cautioned that benzene levels at the perimeter of refineries do not reflect benzene levels in the community, and that the nine micrograms per cubic meter level is not correlated to health risk.

He said the refinery did submit an analysis in 2019 of the problem with a plan to correct it, and identified measures to reduce emissions. In October, the EPA conducted on-site monitoring an identified Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and benzene as pollutants of concern, but they did not rise above a threshold.

Cite as

Frank Kummer, "Benzene emissions at shuttered South Philly refinery exceeded federal limits last year, report finds", contributed by Morgan Sarao, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 17 May 2021, accessed 10 December 2023.