The Valero Houston Refinery is threatened by the swelling waters of the Buffalo Bayou after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain, in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

A plume of benzene has been detected in the air over Houston after four fossil fuel companies reported leaks of the highly toxic compound that can increase the risk of cancer — even from brief exposure. Documents reviewed by International Business Times show that two of the companies — ExxonMobil and Valero — recently lobbied against an EPA rule to prevent the government from more strictly regulating the toxin, as did a fossil fuel group that counts three of the companies as members. The agency ultimately passed a rule strengthening overall benzene regulations, but after the companies filed critical comment letters, the Obama administration's EPA revised the rule to exempt the companies from those limits during so-called “force majeure” events such as Hurricane Harvey.

“After the comment period closed for the rule, the EPA created some specific exemptions that still allow unlimited releases of toxic pollution during certain time periods,” said Emma Cheuse of Earthjustice, a group that filed a lawsuit to try to remove the new exemptions from the rule. “Those exemptions are really relevant to what we're seeing now. It's likely that refineries will rely on calling this a force majeure incident to avoid sanction. Communities need more protection than just having refineries say this is a force majeure event and having the EPA rubber stamp that.”

Exxon and Valero did not respond to IBT questions about their lobbying on the benzene regulations or preparedness for Hurricane Harvey. Benzene causes a slew of health effects including rapid heart rate, tremors and headaches; short-term exposure to high levels of the toxin is associated with an increased risk of leukemia.

In 2014, the Obama administration's EPA proposed a new rule designed to strengthen the requirement for refineries to take corrective action when benzene emissions are detected. The rule was aimed at curbing emissions from companies such as Valero, ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron — all of which reported benzene emissions in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, according to state records reviewed by IBT.

In response to the new proposed rule, Valero, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute (which represents ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron) pressed the EPA to back off the benzene regulations.

“The proposed rule will impose significant new burdens on our operations, many of which are justified solely on the basis of improving compliance assurance for hypothetical situations,” said ExxonMobil in an October 2014 letter to the EPA arguing that the agency’s proposed rules were too strict and would require an additional $2.5 billion investment in safety infrastructure.

The American Petroleum Institute — a lobbying group that counts ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other major oil and gas companies as members — also sent a letter to the EPA criticizing the benzene rules, saying the agency “has overstated the risk associated with refinery emissions” and challenging the EPA’s estimates of benzene’s cancer risks.

Valero said the detection of benzene in the air near refineries — a situation faced by the Houston area now —should not automatically trigger corrective action.

“The Proposed Rule should be revised to more explicitly provide that: 1. Short-term, high benzene readings are not actionable, and do not require investigation or response,” Valero declared in an October 2014 letter to the EPA.

Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology at University of California-Berkeley, questioned the scientific basis of Valero’s argument against the rule.

“Short-term high benzene exposure can definitely result in harmful health effects,” Smith said in an interview with IBT. “This is because you take in the benzene and you distribute it around your body and it stays in your body for several hours. So I'm not quite sure what the logic behind that is.”

The EPA ultimately opted to enact a benzene rule in 2015. However, after lobbying by Valero, ExxonMobil and API, the EPA rejected calls for a stricter overall benzene emissions limit. The EPA said at the time that critics noted the rule sets a benzene limit that is “80-percent higher than the European Union’s standard” and they “urged the agency to consider adopting a stricter standard comparable to what other industrialized nations use.” But the EPA declined the request.

The EPA also revised its final rule to add in exemptions that environmental groups say gives corporations the freedom to emit benzene during emergencies.

“In finalizing new national standards in December, EPA created hazardous malfunction exemptions that give oil companies one or two free passes to pollute uncontrollably every three years, and a complete pass to pollute whenever they lose power or have some other ‘force majeure’ event,” said a statement from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project — two groups that filed a lawsuit over the new provisions, which were added by the EPA without allowing public comment on the revisions.

“Force majeure” exemptions apply to events that are unforseen, but at least one of the companies that may invoke those clauses told investors they foresaw problems with flooding. In 2016, ExxonMobil declared in its financial filings, “Our operations may be disrupted by severe weather events, natural disasters, human error, and similar events,” and has said that “hurricanes may damage our offshore production facilities or coastal refining and petrochemical plants in vulnerable areas.”

Federal records show that Valero, API, Chevron and Phillips 66 — which shares ownership of the Houston suburb-based Chevron Phillips Chemical with Chevron — lobbied congressional lawmakers on the benzene rule. Disclosure records for API and Phillips show that they specifically lobbied the EPA on the rule in 2015 as it was being revised to include the force majeure exemptions.

Valero has consistently lobbied on the rule since it was proposed in 2014, and has employed, among others, a former senior counsel of the Energy Department to lobby on the issue. Federal records show that the company in 2017 has employed 11 lobbyists who worked in the federal government.

In recent years, Valero, Exxon, Chevron and Shell settled lawsuits with environmental regulators over emissions of benzene and other toxic compounds. As part of the settlements, the companies had previously agreed to reduce benzene emissions.

“Industry Can Do More To Prevent Emissions”

In the EPA’s 2012 reference summary for benzene, the agency specifically warned that short-term high exposures to benzene can be more of a concern for causing certain illnesses, such as leukemia, writing: "It is important to note that rather than cumulative exposures to low concentrations, it is repeated peak benzene exposures which have been deemed determinative of bone marrow toxicity with a greater potential for leukemia."

Loren Raun, Houston’s chief environmental science officer, told IBT that the city found benzene levels as high as 324 parts per billion Monday in Manchester, an east Houston neighborhood near the Valero refinery, where 37 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) regulated maximum for short-term benzene exposure is 180 parts per billion. In an interview with IBT, Raun stressed that more measurements are needed before assessing public health effects of the benzene leaks.

Smith, the University of California toxicologist, said he was most concerned with possible “pockets of exposure” where benzene levels might spike, leading to potentially harmful health effects, echoing the EPA’s warning of peak benzene exposures. “I’d become significantly concerned if I saw anything over 100 parts per billion,” he told IBT.

Because of the “force majeure” exemption, communities in East Houston may find that the companies polluting their neighborhoods go unpunished.

"We know that we have people living in close proximity to these facilities,” Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, told IBT. “We know that Houston is a hurricane-prone area. We know that industry can do more to prevent emissions. Now the EPA and TCEQ need to require them to do that."