WASHINGTON – Federal regulators are bungling the job of making sure that the nation’s oil refineries – among the country’s biggest polluters – reduce their emissions as promised.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s own inspector general released a report Friday that says the EPA’s pollution cops aren’t adequately monitoring the air and water at the 42 refineries that are under court order to reduce emissions. The IG also said enforcement officials delayed the refiners’ attempts to clean up the air because the EPA was several months late on 98 percent of its paperwork.
Finally, the IG discovered that the EPA appears to have no goals or strategic plan to make sure the refineries clean up.
“In fact, the agency reports to Congress and the public projected emission reductions that they assume will occur … but haven’t verified that the refineries comply or that the reductions actually take place,” Inspector General Nikki Tinsley said in an e-mail to Knight Ridder.
Tinsley’s report evaluates an eight-year effort by the EPA to reduce pollution problems at the nation’s 145 refineries. In 1996, the agency concluded that of the 29 major industries in America, refineries had the worst record on violating pollution law. They were among the biggest emitters of cancer-causing, smog-inducing and acid-rain-forming chemicals.
Since the enforcement effort began, the EPA has convinced 11 refining companies, which produce nearly 40 percent of the nation’s gasoline, to sign consent decrees filed in court saying they’ll reduce emissions and install new equipment to reduce air pollution. As part of the agreement, the EPA said it would reduce fines for past violations. Negotiations are under way with an unspecified number of other firms that produce another 40 percent of U.S. gasoline.
The IG said winning concessions from refineries was proper, but investigators faulted the EPA for not following up and determining whether emissions were dropping.
The EPA “must resolve planning issues and delays and begin to measure outcomes to ensure timely emissions reductions and to optimally protect human health and the environment, especially for people living in the vicinity of refineries,” the IG’s report said.
EPA enforcement officials asked the inspector general to keep the 77-page report secret, saying it was riddled with inaccuracies. The EPA’s enforcement office produced a 68-page rebuttal to the report.
“The refinery initiative is one of the finest enforcement initiatives that the agency has undertaken, and success speaks for itself,” said Adam Kushner, the EPA’s assistant enforcement chief for air pollution. Kushner was unable to immediately produce data showing a decline in emissions.
Experts in environmental enforcement, environmental groups and a prominent senator charged that the report demonstrated an ongoing problem – that the Bush administration goes easy on polluters.
“The picture that’s emerging is much worse than we might have even imagined,” said Dan Esty, the director of Yale University’s environmental law program, who was a top EPA political appointee under the president’s father, former President George Bush. “It shows a complete lack of focus for an environmental-protection regime.”
Frank O’Donnell, the director of the Clean Air Trust, a Washington-area environmental lobby, said, “EPA has issued lots of upbeat press releases but the reality is that they’re bungling the actual enforcement of the law. That means continued pollution for local communities.”
The National Petrochemical and Refinery Association, the trade group for refiners, had no immediate comment.
The IG report said the EPA should begin checking the emissions from the refineries because “refineries have a history of noncompliance; refineries emit toxic chemicals that affect human health and the environment; and some information used to develop consent decree emissions limits were based on estimates.”
To ensure compliance, the IG recommended that emissions be tested every three months. The IG said the EPA monitors refiners’ emissions only twice in the eight-year life of the court order.
EPA enforcer Kushner said the IG misinterpreted emissions monitoring. He said the agency received quarterly reports on emissions from the plants themselves, but that pollution reductions weren’t necessarily immediate, nor could they be shown immediately. He said the once-every-four-years requirement was only for heaters and boilers – although fixing them would reduce two-thirds of the nitrogen oxide pollution.
“We have very robust monitoring,” Kushner said.
One big problem, according to the inspector general, is that the court orders require refineries to file paperwork with the enforcement office, which is supposed to approve each cleanup job. But the EPA often doesn’t respond or, if it does, is often very late, the report said.
As of October 2003, 98 percent of the required EPA responses were late. Average delays were in the nine-month range, but one refinery’s cleanup might have been delayed because the EPA was 16 months late on needed paperwork, the IG said.
The enforcement office told the IG it was working on fixing those delays and that much of it was because of “severe resource constraints.” Kushner said a delay in completing paperwork doesn’t delay any pollution control.