• July 18th, 2024
  • Thursday, 06:30:36 PM

EPA Must Protect Communities from Hydrogen Cyanide Exposure

Isabel Segarra Treviño


Editor’s Note: Earthjustice co-authored this columnwith Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services and the Colorado Latino Forum.

Hydrogen cyanide, or HCN, is a toxic air pollutant emitted by petroleum refineries. HCN is a colorless gas that may smell like bitter almonds, old sneakers, or nothing at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knows that hydrogen cyanide pollution from refineries is poisoning communities nationwide. Yet the EPA has failed to make these refineries clean up their act. U.S. Representative Diana DeGette (D-Denver) has introduced legislation to fix this.

Fenceline communities are environmental justice communities that are next to polluting industries, such as petroleum refineries. Earthjustice has worked with impacted fenceline communities fighting for hydrogen cyanide protection from specific facilities.

HCN was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I and the Iran-Iraq conflict during the 1980s, and it is formally classified as an agent of chemical warfare. The EPA knows that petroleum refineries across the nation release hydrogen cyanide into the air. Yet the EPA has failed to set a health-based hydrogen cyanide emission limit and so too have at least two major oil-producing states.

Rep. Diana DeGette’s proposed legislation ensures the EPA does what it should have done years ago: set a numerical hydrogen cyanide limit that is protective of human health and the environment.

Refinery fenceline communities sorely need these protections. In 2015, the EPA found that hydrogen cyanide was the main driver of neurological health risks from refineries. Hydrogen cyanide is a systemic chemical asphyxiant, meaning that when it enters the body, it interferes with the body’s use of oxygen, affecting nearly every organ of the body. Organs that are sensitive to low oxygen levels (i.e., the brain, the heart and blood vessels, and the lungs) are most susceptible to the impacts of hydrogen cyanide emissions. Exposure to hydrogen cyanide causes harm to the developing fetus and the nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure even at low levels can lead to dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting, rapid heart rate, restlessness, and weakness. Due to its highly noxious nature, its impact on human health can be swiftly fatal; exposure to high levels of hydrogen cyanide can lead to death within minutes.

Earthjustice has long worked with communities around the country fighting for stronger health and safety protections from refinery pollution, and hydrogen cyanide emissions recently came to a head locally in Denver and Houston.

North of Denver, Suncor sought a hydrogen cyanide emissions limit of 12.8 tons per year, well above what the refinery thought its actual emissions were. Both state regulators and the EPA refused to correct this. Later, Suncor discovered that it was violating even that 12.8 ton per year limit. In response, it just turned around and asked the state for an even higher limit—19.9 tons per year.

In Houston, Valero initially sought to be allowed to emit a whopping 512 tons per year—Valero’s actual hydrogen cyanide emissions are reported to be 49 tons per year. After community members called out the extreme proposal, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is now considering allowing Valero to emit 196 tons per year – lower than Valero’s original request, but approximately four times Valero’s reported emissions.

Neither Suncor’s nor Valero’s HCN limit is based on scientific evidence about public health impacts, nor were cumulative impacts considered as part of the permitting process for these already overburdened communities.

Just north of the Suncor refinery is a predominantly Latino and low-income neighborhood of Commerce City. Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood just south of the Suncor refinery is 84% Latino and experiences elevated poverty rates. The North Denver neighborhoods close to the refinery have among the highest rates of several diseases associated with air pollution, including asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Despite the complicated permitting process, residents organized against Suncor’s air permit application.

Meanwhile, Valero’s refinery sits within Manchester – an east Houston community that is 97% people of color where 37% of residents live in poverty. Manchester residents experience elevated cancer and respiratory health risks; in fact, the cancer risk is 22% higher than that for the overall Houston urban area. Manchester residents and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services also organized against Valero’s air permit application, and after two public meetings, it is unclear how the TCEQ will proceed.

“There is a lack of responsibility on the part of environmental protection agencies, as well as those in charge of petroleum refineries and plants that process toxic chemicals,” says Marcelys Perez, a member of the mothers’ support group Amor Sin Obstáculos in Manchester. “They fail to consider the risks and impacts to our children’s health from the emissions they seek to increase in our communities, no matter their quantities – they affect us. Frankly, I don’t feel safe when my child plays outside because we don’t know what airborne chemicals they are exposed to, including hydrogen cyanide, and these are emitted from every facility. I feel that these emissions have prevented our children from developing physically, socially, and psychologically. This pattern is evident in communities like mine, where you don’t see children enjoying outdoor activities.”

To put an end to the lack of nationwide hydrogen cyanide regulation, Representative DeGette has introduced the Protecting Communities from Hydrogen Cyanide Act of 2019 to require EPA to set a hydrogen cyanide limit that is protective of human health and the environment. The Act reflects local grassroots efforts in the congresswoman’s district, including organizing by the Colorado Latino Forum. “We are grateful for the legislation introduced by our Representative Diana DeGette,” says Ean Thomas Tafoya, a member of the Colorado Latino Forum. “The Colorado Latino Forum and coalition members worked alongside her staff for nearly a year to find a solution for our HCN problem. Setting a safe limit of HCN benefits the workers and surrounding residents. We are pleased about the provisions that allow local communities and governments to have a greater voice in addressing harmful pollution.”

Rep. DeGette’s proposed legislation directs the EPA to fulfill its duties under the Clean Air Act and regulate hydrogen cyanide by:

  • setting a numeric limit that assures a margin of safety to protect children’s health, vulnerable populations, and fetal health, considering cumulative exposure to multiple sources of pollution and the best available science;
  • requiring real-time, fenceline monitoring of refinery hydrogen cyanide emissions with real-time online reporting;
  • requiring a community release alert system;
  • requiring the EPA to hold at least two community meetings in refinery-impacted communities in the course of developing regulations;
  • allowing states and local air permitting authorities to set even stronger pollution limits and fenceline monitoring requirements; and,
  • making the new health-based limits enforceable in a timely way.

The EPA’s lack of regulation not only allows refineries to emit hydrogen cyanide, but also to deprive the public of air emissions data. Suncor flatly admits that it sought its 12.8 tons per year hydrogen cyanide emissions limit so it can use a loophole to evade reporting emissions to a national database required under federal laws. Though Valero has not made such claims, it too could use the loophole to evade reporting.

Because the pollutant is a “cyanide compound,” the EPA has a duty under the Clean Air Act to set a hydrogen cyanide emissions limit, as part of the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Petroleum Refineries. Instead, of setting a numerical limit that assures protection from this pollutant, however, the EPA has chosen to regulate hydrogen cyanide only indirectly, through a surrogate pollutant, carbon monoxide. The EPA set a standard based on the assumption that refineries can control their hydrogen cyanide emissions if they can maintain their emissions of carbon monoxide under 500 parts per million. However, this approach is flawed, and the EPA knows it.

The EPA acknowledges that once CO emissions are reduced to the level where combustion is achieved, “we no longer see a direct correlation between CO concentrations and HCN emissions,” meaning the EPA’s assumption is flawed—yet it refuses to set a numeric hydrogen cyanide limit. At least one independent report has concluded that the EPA’s approach is “unsupported and wrong.” And the situation is much worse than the EPA lets on. The engineering expert Dr. Phyllis Fox concluded that HCN and carbon monoxide emissions are inversely proportional—looking at a data set from several refineries all over the country, the expert concluded that refineries actually emit more hydrogen cyanide when they emit less carbon monoxide.

All communities have a right to healthy air, and sharing a fenceline with a refinery does not lessen this right. Community groups have sued the EPA to try to strengthen the national refineries rules and have intervened to defend improvements they contain against an industry effort to weaken them, but their case has been on hold for three years during an EPA reconsideration proceeding. Meanwhile, Rep. DeGette’s proposed legislation ensures the EPA does what it should have done years ago: set a numerical hydrogen cyanide limit that is protective of human health and the environment.


Isabel Segarra Treviño is an Associate Attorney with Earthjustice.


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