According to an article in the Billings Gazette entitled "Is the Big Sky blowing smoke?" only water vapor comes out of the stacks at the three oil refineries around Billings and the sugar beet factory.
Ryan Wegner, manager of finance and public affairs at Phillips 66 Billings Refinery, explains why anyone who says the Big Sky is filled with anything other than steam is just blowing smoke. “Many folks see these plumes from our facility and believe they are something other than what they actually are — steam. In the process of refining oil into gasoline and diesel fuel, much heat is generated which then needs to be dissipated through heat exchangers,” he said. “We use a number of different types of heat exchangers at the refinery, and the white plumes rising from the refinery are steam from cooling towers.”
As someone who grew up in Billings and experienced the very well publicized air quality problems from those refineries and the now-shuttered coal-fired power plant, I was taken aback by the article. And you should be too because there are things called facts. The reporter and her editor apparently didn't think it was necessary to do research on what comes out of those stacks.
Yes, the white puffy clouds are steam but there are dozens of toxic chemicals, gases and heavy metals in that water vapor that you can't see.
What gets released into the air from the Billings oil refineries?
Luckily, because of our environmental regulations we don't have to guess what is coming out of the stacks. Each oil refinery is required to report their emissions to the DEQ and the EPA. Setting aside for a moment the problems with self reporting let's just look at what we know is being released into the air.
There are dozens and dozens of chemicals, gases and some heavy metals. In the chemical and gas category, the Billings' refineries release naphthalene, toluene, ammonia, anthracene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon monoxide, methane, dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine and benzene. In the category of heavy metals we have lead, mercury, nickel compounds and zinc. These chemicals and gases are not benign. Most of them are known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, and seriously impact the environment.
SO2 and NOx have numerous adverse effects on human health and are significant contributors to acid rain, smog and haze. SO2 can pose respiratory illness risks, particularly to children, seniors and people with asthma. And it is no surprise to anyone who has lived in Billings for awhile that we have dealt with unsafe levels of SO2 emissions for decades from multiple sources. Refineries also emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, as well as fugitive volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs.
As the article correctly pointed out, the releases of certain amounts of these chemicals and heavy metals are permitted under the Clean Air Act and other air quality regulations. What Billings residents should know is that how these exposure levels are determined is a highly controversial, political and uncertain process.
Regulatory agencies like the EPA and OSHA are charged with setting "safe" exposure levels for some chemicals by testing for effects at high concentrations and then they use statistical extrapolation and determine levels they deem safe for humans to be exposed to. However, study after study in communities that are around oil refineries have shown a higher incidence of certain types of cancer and respiratory problems.
Health impacts from living around oil refineries
According to the Environmental Health Journal, a peer reviewed scientific journal, the method used to develop safe exposure levels assumes that "if exposure goes up so do effects and if exposure goes down so will effects." However, recent studies have found that chemicals do not always follow this assumption and they may cause different effects on people at higher and lower levels.
Researchers in Sweden studied one of the largest and most modern oil refineries in Europe called Lysekil. They found that during the past 10 years, communities downwind of the refinery had twice as many cases of leukemia as would be expected based on the refinery's low emissions.
In the peer reviewed journal Cancer published by the American Cancer Society, a study found a higher cancer incidences rate in regions near refineries and plants that release benzene. There is a fascinating investigative report done by the Pulitzer prize winning Center for Public Integrity about the oil industry's attempt to downplay the impacts of benzene on human health. In 2015, the Exxon refinery released over 5,000 pounds of benzene, the Phillips 66 refinery in Laurel released 9,300 pounds of it and the CHS refinery released 3,813 pounds.
In the American Journal of Public Health researchers conducted a systematic review of 94 studies that examined residential proximity to environmental hazards, including oil refineries, in relation to adverse reproductive outcomes, childhood cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and other health problems.
In the 12 studies they reviewed on respiratory illness they found, "residential proximity to both stationary sources of air pollution (industries covered under the Toxic Release Inventory, National Emission Inventory, hazardous air pollutants, petroleum refineries, etc.), and, with a few exceptions, heavily trafficked roads, was significantly associated with asthma hospitalizations."
In another study in Environmental Health Perspective researchers found that short-term episodes of increased SO2 exposures from refinery stack emissions were associated with a higher number of asthma episodes in nearby children.
There are other types of emissions from the refineries the reporter failed to mention that are extremely concerning to most people that study pollution from oil refineries. Flaring of gases results in emissions of SO2, greenhouse gases, VOCs and hazardous air pollutants. There are also fugitive emissions of VOCs that can result from leaking valves and pumps. Those fugitive emissions can result in numerous health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea and damage to liver, kidney and the central nervous system.
At the end of the Billings Gazette article was this sentence,
"It’s a common misconception that the exhaust from the refineries and sugar beet factory are harming the environment."
No, this wasn't a quote from a public affairs person from the refinery, it was written by the reporter. The Billings Gazette needs to run a big correction on this puff piece. I don't expect a commentary on the pollution that comes out of the refineries but I do expect the Billings Gazette to report the facts, not spin from public affairs people.
If you are interested in the details of what each refinery said they emitted in 2015, I have included screenshots from the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. Please click on each table to increase the size. UPDATE: On Monday April 3, Billings Gazette ran an Op-Ed by Eileen Morris, a long time Billings resident whose friend died from an asthma attack caused by SO2 pollution from the refineries.
Exxon Refinery - 2015 TRI Report. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory
Phillips 66 - 2015 TRI Report.
CHS Laurel Refinery - 2015 TRI Report.
And since the Sugar Beet Factory was also a part of the story, here is what they reported releasing in 2015.
I started this website with a very specific purpose; to write to people in southeast Montana about the issues the media wasn’t covering regarding the Tongue River Railroad and Otter Creek mine including boring policy stuff, rallies, events, gatherings and public hearings.
The title east of Billings came from my friend Wally McRae. Getting to know Wally and learning from him has been one of the great privileges in my life.
Over coffee he would tell me about how the environmental laws weren’t enforced in eastern Montana. State agencies looking the other way as groundwater was contaminated from the Colstrip coal plant. Politicians treating the region like a sacrifice area. I could keep going.
He said, “no one cares what happens EOB.”
Then and there the idea for an east of Billings blog and photographic site was born. I was slightly naive and energetic and committed. I wanted to make people care. I bought a fancy camera and started teaching myself how to use it.
My goal was to provide information to people in a way that was accessible. The goat stories were just for fun. I never thought that people who didn’t live in southeast Montana would read it but they did; more than I ever imagined. Some came for the goats, some came for the coal, some came for the photos.
But then I stopped. We won. The coal mine and railroad died a glorious death at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. I hoped my blog and photos contributed a little to the victory. I was also tired of coal.
I now write for publications that pay me to write. I now take pictures of other places for people who pay me to do it. Both of these outcomes of starting EOB surprised me. Have you heard of imposter syndrome? I think I might have a little of that.
I’m literally always shocked when an editor comes back to me and says they like what I wrote. Really, I think? You must be mistaking me for someone who knows what they are doing.
What jarred me back into east of Billings was an article by David Crisp in Last Best News about the state of Montana blogging sites. When I started reading it I didn’t expect to be mentioned. Or maybe I was hoping I wasn't going to be mentioned. The guilt of letting the site go dark was creeping up on me but I didn't think anyone noticed.
I was nearing the end of the article and then this,
“East of Billings, by Alexis Bonogofsky, focuses mostly on the joys of life in Eastern Montana, with occasional essays on politics, environmental issues and photography. The site's last political post, in April, was titled 'Why Denise Juneau will beat Ryan Zinke in November.”
My first thought was, well thanks for pointing out how fucking wrong I was about the race. I appreciate that. Second, I don’t write about the joys of living in eastern Montana, I write about goats and coal. I don't even live in eastern Montana. I live south of Billings if we are getting all technical about it. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
Crisp did me a favor though. It made me think about east of Billings again and what it means not just to me but to people with whom I spent countless hours with fighting for a place we all loved. EOB isn’t just a specific geography. I've never thought of it like that. EOB is all the people who have a place that they would do anything to protect; which is pretty relevant in the world we are living in today. EOB is about bringing attention to people and places that get overlooked or ignored.
I have questions, uncertainties and doubts. In the entire scheme of things not many people come to my website; a thousand to a couple thousand per blog if I'm lucky. I wonder if I am wasting my time throwing words out into the sea of internet noise? Also, the time I spend writing each blog is not insignificant.
But then I read something today that gave me the motivation I need to continue writing for EOB. It came from the lead political columnist for Politico who is retiring from his duties after a life long career writing about politics.
“I decline to accept the end of man,” William Faulkner wrote. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. It is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
Have I lifted a heart? Just once? Just for the most fleeting of moments?
Then I leave you a happy man, one filled with joy. And don’t worry. We will always have each other.
Hope gets me every time.
If I am able to write and occasionally help someone think a little differently, help someone smile or help someone take action against an injustice in this world then it is worth it. But this go around I’ll be broadening the scope of what I write about in the spirit of EOB and the people who live there. If you are worried I’m giving up writing about eastern Montana, don’t be. I’ll continue to write about it and take pictures of its amazing landscapes and people because, in the words of Wally Mcrae, goddamn I love this country.
If you are going to read one thing I've written this year please read this one, it's important.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read what I write. Let’s see what we can do together.