Birth Defect-Causing Chemical Found at Dangerous Levels at LA Refineries

Air pollution monitors at the fence-lines of U.S. oil refineries last year found that four in Louisiana were releasing the dangerous chemical benzene at levels exceeding federal limits, creating possible health risks to nearby communities.

“EPA and the oil refining industry really need to do more to crack down on these benzene emissions because the fence-line concentrations at too many refineries are high enough to pose a potential threat to neighborhoods that are close by,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a national nonprofit that issued the new report calling out the concerning levels of benzene being released.

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified benzene as a known human carcinogen and it has been tied to birth defects. It is found in the air from emissions from burning coal and oil, motor vehicle exhaust and at gasoline service stations.

Benzene is known to cause a variety of health problems, including anemia, nervous and immune systems damage, and leukemia. Companies must create plans to reduce benzene emissions when they exceed the EPA’s 9-microgram limit.

EIP found that the four Louisiana refineries exceeding federal limits are: PBF Energy’s Chalmette Refinery in Chalmette, Valero’s St. Charles refinery, the Shell Norco Manufacturing Complex in Norco, and the Phillips 66 Lake Charles refinery in Westlake. They all emitted more than 9 micrograms per cubic meter of benzene at their fence-lines in 2021.

Another six Louisiana refineries emitted more than 3 micrograms per cubic meter of benzene at their fence-lines, the nonprofit found. They are CITGO LCMC, Westlake; ExxonMobil Refinery, Baton Rouge; Calumet Shreveport; Phillips 66 Alliance, Belle Chasse; Delek Refinery, Krotz Springs; and Placid Refining, Port Allen.

The lower benzene levels at the six Louisiana refineries do not exceed EPA regulations. But researchers said those levels still exceed a California emissions standard that was based on research linking benzene exposure to reduced blood cell counts and other negative health issues in humans.


“No Amount of Benzene Is Safe”

“No amount of benzene is safe to breathe,” said Dr. Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund.

A spokesman for EPA’s Region 6 office told that exceeding the federal limit requires the refinery to conduct an analysis to determine why the excess emissions are occurring, and then to correct the problems. Failure to do so would be a violation of EPA regulations, Joseph Robledo said.

A spokesman for the Shell Norco complex told that the refinery is working with the EPA and the Department of Environmental Quality to cut emissions. A Phillips 66 refinery spokesperson also said that Phillips is working with federal officials to control its emissions.

In a statement to, Chalmette said it is investing in new technology that will lower benzene emissions below the EPA’s limit, and that the Environmental Integrity Project’s report inflates its benzene emissions.

Schaffer said the EPA’s rules are not perfect. For example, they do not require emissions monitoring in nearby communities, many of which are majority Black, Hispanic, or low-income.

According to the EPA’s measures of population demographics, 61 percent of the people living within three miles of the refinery are people of color and 41 percent are low income, reported.

That is the case with the Chalmette Refinery, which ranked sixth on the lists of 12 refineries violating EPA missions. The refinery had emissions at higher levels in each of the four years it has conducted fence-line monitoring.

One or more of the refinery’s fence-line monitors detected concentrations of benzene greater than 29 micrograms per cubic meter for four weeks in 2021.


Benzene and Birth Defects

Benzene has been linked to low-birth weight, childhood leukemia and birth defects like spina bifida.

“How much air pollution is enough to kill people?” Beard asked. “There is really no way of knowing exactly how little or how much will cause cancer or make people sick. Any emissions of benzene are dangerous for life and health.”

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