Category Archives: Air pollution

E.P.A. Plans to Get Thousands of Deaths Off the Books by Changing Its Math

By Lisa Friedman, New York Times, May 20, 2019
The Hunter power plant in Castle Dale, Utah, which burns an estimated 4.5 million tons of coal a year.  Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to change the way it calculates the future health risks of air pollution, a shift that would predict thousands of fewer deaths and would help justify the planned rollback of a key climate change measure, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

The proposed change would dramatically reduce the 1,400 additional premature deaths per year that the E.P.A. had initially forecast as a result of eliminating the old climate change regulation — the Clean Power Plan, which was President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure. It would also make it easier for the administration to defend its replacement, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

It has been a constant struggle for the E.P.A. to demonstrate, as it is normally expected to do, that society will see more benefits than costs from major regulatory changes. The new modeling method, which experts said has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, would most likely be used by the Trump administration to defend further rollbacks of air pollution rules.

It is not uncommon for a presidential administration to use accounting changes to make its regulatory decisions look better than the rules of its predecessors. But the proposed new modeling method is unusual because it relies on unfounded medical assumptions and discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed E.P.A. methods for understanding the health hazards linked to the fine particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels.

Fine particulate matter — the tiny, deadly particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — is linked heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease.

The five people familiar with the plan, who are all current or former E.P.A. officials, said the new modeling method would be used in the agency’s analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June. William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. air quality chief, acknowledged in an interview the new method would be included in the agency’s final analysis of the rule.

The new methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. On paper, that would translate into far fewer premature deaths from air pollution, even if it increased. The problem is, scientists say, in the real world there are no safe levels of fine particulate pollution in the air.

“Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths,” said Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University. He called the expected change a “monumental departure” from the approach both Republican and Democratic E.P.A. leaders have used over the past several decades and predicted that it would lay the groundwork for weakening more environmental regulations.

“It could be an enormously significant impact,” Mr. Revesz said.

The Obama administration had sought to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan by pushing utilities to switch away from coal and instead use natural gas or renewable energy to generate electricity. The Obama plan would also have what’s known as a co-benefit: levels of fine particulate matter would fall.

The Trump administration has moved to repeal the Obama-era plan and replace it with the ACE rule, which would slightly improve the efficiency of coal plants. It would also allow older coal plants to remain in operation longer and result in an increase of particulate matter.

Particulate matter comes in various sizes. The greatest health risk comes from what is known as PM 2.5, the range of fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. That is about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

The E.P.A. has set the safety threshold for PM 2.5 at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. While individual days vary, with some higher, an annual average at or below that level, known as the particulate matter standard, is considered safe. However, the agency still weighs health hazards that occur in the safe range when it analyzes new regulations.

Industry has long questioned that system. After all, fossil fuel advocates ask, why should the E.P.A. search for health dangers, and, ultimately, impose costs on industry, in situations where air is officially considered safe?

Mr. Wehrum, who worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for chemical manufacturers and fossil fuel businesses before moving to the E.P.A., echoed that position in the interview. He noted that, in some regulations, the benefits of reduced particulate matter have been estimated to total in the range of $40 billion.

“How in the world can you get $30 or $40 billion of benefit to public health when most of that is attributable to reductions in areas that already meet a health-based standard,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. assistant administrator for air and radiation. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP/MediaPunch

Mr. Wehrum confirmed that he had asked his staff to study the issue and that the final version of the ACE rule would include a variety of analyses, including one that does not take into consideration health effects below the particulate matter standard. He acknowledged that doing so would reduce the 1,400 premature deaths the agency had initially predicted as a result of the measure.

He called the attention given to that initial forecast “unfortunate” and said the agency had included the figure in its analysis to show the varied results that can be achieved based on different assumptions.

Mr. Wehrum said the analyses the agency is conducting “illuminate the issue” of particulate matter and the question of what level is acceptable for the purposes of policymaking. He said new approaches would allow for public debate to move ahead and that any new methods would be subject to peer review if they became the agency’s primary tool for measuring health risks.

“This isn’t just something I’m cooking up here in my fifth-floor office in Washington,” Mr. Wehrum said.

Roger O. McClellan, who has served on E.P.A. advisory boards and as president of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, an industry-financed research center, said the data for health risks below the particulate matter standard was weak and that he did not accept the argument that agencies must calculate risk “down to the first molecule of exposure.”

“These kinds of approaches — that every molecule, every ionization, carries with it an associated calculable health risk — are just misleading,” Mr. McClellan said.

To put the matter in perspective, most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits. On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn’t mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 m.p.h., or even 25.

Jonathan M. Samet, a pulmonary disease specialist who is dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the most recent studies showed negative health effects well below the 12-microgram standard. “It’s not a hard stop where we can say ‘below that, air is safe.’ That would not be supported by the scientific evidence,” Dr. Samet said. “It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don’t seem to.”

Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research organization that is funded by the E.P.A. and industry groups, acknowledged there was uncertainty around the effects of fine particulate matter exposure below the standard.

He said it was reasonable of the Trump administration to study the issue, but he questioned moving ahead with a new system before those studies are in. “To move away from the way this has been done without the benefit of this full scientific peer review is unfortunate,” he said.


For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman
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    Valero Says It Faces $342,000 in Penalties Over Benicia Refinery Pollution Incident

    By Ted Goldberg, May 14, 2019
    KQED NEWS – California Report
    The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

    Valero says it’s facing $342,000 or more in fines from county and regional agencies after a major air pollution incident earlier this year at its Benicia refinery.

    In a filing last week with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, the company says it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from the Solano County Department of Resource Management and at least another $100,000 in fines to settle a dozen notices of violation from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

    The reported penalty amount is about 1/100th of 1% of the San Antonio, Texas-based company’s reported adjusted net profit for 2018 — $3.2 billion.

    “While it is not possible to predict the outcome of the following environmental proceedings, if any one or more of them were decided against us, we believe that there would be no material effect on our financial position, results of operators, or liquidity,” the company said in its filing.

    The SEC document also reported a much larger penalty, $1.3 million, that Valero believes it faces in connection with an incident in the Texas city of Corpus Christi, where contaminated backflow from a company asphalt plant contaminated the area’s water supply for several days.

    A local environmentalist who has followed the Benicia refinery’s recent problems said the penalties barely amount to a drop in the bucket.

    “These fines don’t mean much to a giant oil company worth tens of billions of dollars,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

    “It’s likely only a matter of time before we see another incident, so the communities near these dangerous refineries deserve better protection from toxic air pollution,” Kretzmann said.

    Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, said the company would not comment beyond its public filing.

    Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the BAAQMD, emphasized that the Valero fines were not settled yet.

    The district tends to spend several years negotiating settlements with local refineries, bringing together a handful of violations into a package long after they are the subject of media coverage.

    For instance, the district announced in March that Shell had agreed to pay $165,000 to settle violations at its Martinez refinery that took place in 2015 and 2016.

    Solano County’s investigation into Valero’s most recent incident is ongoing, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, who emphasized that the agency has yet to produce or negotiate any final violations in connection with Valero’s March releases.

    But Schmidtbauer said it was typical for his department to discuss tentative findings and potential penalties with companies it’s investigating, talks he said would be preliminary.

    Two refinery components — a processing unit called a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest and heaviest components of crude oil, and a flue gas scrubber, which is supposed to remove fine particles before they’re released from the facility’s smokestacks — are under scrutiny in Solano County’s probe.

    They began malfunctioning on March 11, resulting in the release of sooty smoke from the refinery. The releases intensified two weeks later when the facility belched out a large amount of black soot, leading to elevated levels of particulate matter.

    The smoke prompted county officials to issue a health advisory for those with respiratory problems. Refinery managers shut down the facility.

    Valero’s SEC filing came as the Benicia refinery began a gradual process of restarting after being off line for more than 40 days.

    The resumption of operations at the facility coincided with a slow and very small drop in gas prices, after two months of increases. On March 24, the day Valero shutdown, the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California was $3.49, according to AAA.

    On May 7, as the Benicia refinery gradually got back on-line, the the average price was $4.10. On Tuesday, it had dipped slightly to $4.07

    Energy experts have said Valero’s shutdown coupled with other refinery problems in California and the high cost of crude oil globally led to the state’s recent gas price hikes, which are currently the subject of a state Energy Commission investigation.

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      Valero Restarts Benicia Refinery 40+ days after major malfunction and pollution release

      By Ted Goldberg, KQED
      The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

      Valero is restarting its Benicia refinery more than 40 days after a major malfunction and pollution release forced the energy giant to shut down the facility, contributing to the state’s recent spike in fuel costs.

      “The Valero Benicia refinery has commenced the startup process, which is a multi-day sequenced event,” the company said in a notification sent to Benicia city officials over the weekend. The message warned of potential “visible, intermittent flaring” as a necessary safety precaution.

      That flaring began Tuesday morning, according to a state hazardous materials database, and included a release of sulfur dioxide. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent staff to the refinery to observe the flaring, said agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

      Valero has also been in touch with the Benicia Fire Department about the startup and flaring, according to Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.

      Valero shut down the refinery on March 24 after ongoing equipment problems.

      The air district, along with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and Solano County inspectors, has been investigating the refinery’s problems since then.

      The focus of the county investigation centers on two key refinery components that malfunctioned, allowing petroleum coke (petcoke), an oil processing residue, to escape.

      For several hours on March 24, county officials issued a health advisory, warning residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

      The petcoke releases later prompted Benicia’s mayor and air quality advocates to call for local air regulators and the city to create a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of the refinery. Two years earlier, the same facility experienced a full outage and a much more extreme pollution release.

      The air district, which issued 12 notices of violation against Valero for the most recent releases, does not have a stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas and had to drive a van to the area to monitor the situation.

      The shutdown took place several weeks after California’s gas prices began to increase.

      Energy experts correctly predicted that the refinery’s problems, coupled with maintenance issues at several other California refineries, would prompt an increase in crude oil prices.

      The average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California on the day Valero shut down its Benicia refinery was $3.49, according to the American Automobile Association. It has increased by more than 60 cents since then, and on Tuesday stood at $4.10.

      Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the California Energy Commission to investigate the hikes.

      But the average price increases have slowed in recent days, and an AAA representative said Tuesday that costs may be beginning to stabilize.

      “The news about Valero was actually a pretty big reason for the prices evening out,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Mike Blasky.

      He said just the talk of the Benicia refinery restarting contributed to a recent 8-cent drop in the average wholesale cost of a gallon of gas.

      “When those units do restart, that’s going to really contribute to a higher utilization rate, which will lower prices as we see our stocks resupplied,” Blasky said. “Any major refinery shutdown in California tends to really throw things out of whack.”

      KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler contributed reporting to this story.

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