EPA failing to regulate water pollution from oil refineries, says new report

Millions of gallons of unregulated wastewater generated at oil refineries are flowing into US waterways every day, a regulatory failure endangering public health, according to a report released Thursday.

The new study, issued by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), reveals that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to regulate and enforce limits required by the Clean Water Act on dangerous wastewater pollution from the nation’s oil refineries — waste that can contain hazardous chemicals linked to cancer, anemia, and immune and neurological effects, such as cyanide, mercury, selenium, and benzene. The authors of the report call for the EPA to set more restrictive limits for refineries in order to protect public health and the environment.

The findings are evidence that progress on clean water issues has stalled, said Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of EIP and a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA. “These are not the fishable and swimmable waters we were promised [by the Clean Water Act],” he said. 

Oil refineries transform crude oil into usable petroleum products such as diesel, gasoline, and kerosene. The refinery process uses enormous amounts of water, which refineries must then discard.

The report, which surveyed 81 refineries in 24 states, found that US refineries discharged an estimated 60,000 pounds of selenium, along with 10,000 pounds of nickel, 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen, and 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other pollutants, into waterways in 2021. According to the authors, these estimates are likely low as they do not include contaminants released during spills or in stormwater runoff.

More than two-thirds of the refineries examined by EIP were found to contribute to heavy pollution of downstream rivers, lakes, and estuaries, making such water bodies unable to support healthy aquatic life or safe recreation.

The current standards governing wastewater from refineries are “weak and outdated,” the EIP report states.