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(Daily Press File Photo)

The release last week of Environmental Protection Agency data indicating Navajo Refining Co. is among 10 refineries in the U.S. emitting high levels of benzene has been an obvious cause for concern in the city of Artesia.

The data in question is the result of the first annual report compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since it implemented a rule requiring continuous monitoring of air pollutants at refineries in 2018. Navajo, a subsidiary of HollyFrontier Corporation, was flagged for emitting levels of the chemical benzene at four times above the EPA’s limit.

Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to a variety of negative health effects, from anemia and immune system deficiencies to leukemia.

According to the EPA’s report, Navajo was second only to a Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Philadelphia, Pa., in terms of benzene emissions, but the EPA has stated its requirements facilitate “ample opportunity for early action.” Parrish Miller, vice president and refinery manager for Navajo, says such action is already being – and has been – taken.

“The safety of our employees and the community is our top priority,” Miller told the Daily Press Wednesday. “That is our values. We have a vested interest in this. Most of our employees live in Artesia. I personally live in Artesia. This is my community.”

The EPA additionally commented in a statement last week that “it is important to note that benzene concentration levels monitored at the perimeter of a refinery do not reflect benzene levels in the community.” The difference between Navajo and most of the other refineries on the list, of course, is proximity to the community. As the Environmental Integrity Project – an advocacy organization for environmental regulations that delved into the EPA report – stated, “Businesses are located directly across the road from the fenceline, and Roselawn Elementary School is located just 0.2 miles directly west of the highest reading monitor.”

Miller agreed that one of the unique factors in Navajo’s situation is that a tank that was determined to be the primary source of the high benzene readings is “probably one of the closest pieces of equipment that we have to the fenceline. Our south and west side, we are right up against our fence, so that is a contributing factor that other refineries in the United States don’t necessarily have.”

He also noted, however, that the fenceline is where refineries are required to place their emissions monitors.

“Around the perimeter of the facility, the monitors are directly on that fence at a certain height and a certain amount of separation,” Miller said.

As for that monitoring process, the EPA mandates that refineries report the results from each monitor every two weeks. The agency’s guidelines also state that there is “no correlation between the benzene action level and any health-based benzene or other hazardous air pollutant exposure standard. The benzene action level does not correlate to a benzene emissions level that presents a risk to the public.”

The EPA’s action level is listed as 9 micrograms per cubic meter for the rolling annual average. Exceeding that level “requires the refinery to perform a root cause and corrective action analysis.”

Miller says Navajo noticed excess emissions during routine monitoring last year and began to investigate potential sources.

“We narrowed it down to a particular tank,” he said. “We started taking some action to reduce the emissions from tanks, up to ultimately taking a single tank that we later determined as the biggest source out of service. […] We eventually determined that our only course of action to remain below the action level was to permanently remove that tank from service.”

The tank was subsequently deinventoried and decontaminated. Since September 2019, according to a statement issued last week by HollyFrontier, the new average readings from monitors near the tank have averaged 2.2 mcg per cubic meter. Miller says Navajo’s average background benzene level is at 1.9 mcg per cubic meter.

“It’s also important to note that two sets of information are being shared,” Miller said. “The report is sharing two-week sampling data, and it’s also reporting annual average information. And the annual average is 26 of those two-week data sets averaged together. It will take time for that average, just from a mathematic standpoint, to go down.”

The EPA also acknowledges that because the rolling annual average of the delta concentration of benzene is based on 26 individual sample periods, that average may remain above the action level “even after the root cause of the action level exceedance has been addressed.”

Miller additionally noted that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations govern exposure to chemicals for refinery employees and that there is “a specific requirement relative to benzene.”

“So we have a comprehensive benzene exposure monitoring and control program for our employees, which includes periodic monitoring of the actual benzene levels that employees and contractors are exposed to,” he said. “And so we use that, we review that, and we ensure that our employees are protected from a health standpoint.”

While Navajo feels it has the situation firmly under control, the news was undoubtedly jarring and prompted expressions of concern by many community members regarding their health and wellbeing. Miller says he understands those concerns but feels his personal example best expresses his confidence in the company’s commitment to safety.

“What’s most important to me, personally, is my family,” Miller said. “A very close second is the community and my extended family of Navajo. And my family lives in Artesia. If I was not confident in the safety and protection of my family, I wouldn’t live here. I would not put my family at risk. We take it very seriously, the health and safety of the Navajo employees and our broader community.

“We will continue to do our best, and we will continue to improve in both identifying threats to health and safety, resolving threats to health and safety, and reducing our risk level. Are we perfect? Is anyone perfect? No, but we’re absolutely committed to keeping people safe.”