CATLETTSBURG — An oil refinery in Eastern Kentucky exceeded federal emissions standards for a chemical known to cause cancer.

According to a report by the non-profit watchdog group Environmental Integrity Project, Catlettsburg Marathon in Boyd County exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s benzene action level by 53% in 2020. The net concentration was 13.8 micrograms per cubic meter — the EPA’s action level is nine micrograms a year.

In a one-year span, the concentration of benzene grew by 344% at Catlettsburg Marathon.

The refinery has been a major polluter in the Tri-State area for decades, according to Robin Blakeman, an Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition organizer.

Benzene is a carcinogen that can contribute to cancer of the blood cells and respiratory ailments. The report stated benzene is one of the most dangerous pollutants released by oil refineries and petrochemical plants.

The EIP report documented high levels of benzene at 13 refineries, many of them surrounded by communities with high amounts of poverty. On average, 43% were in poverty and 57% were people of color.

“We have President (Joe) Biden saying that environmental justice will be at the center of everything and we are suggesting today the administration start here,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of EIP. “This is a great place to start keeping that promise.”

About 11,500 residents live within three miles of the Catlettsburg refinery, of that 45% are living below the national poverty level.

“Unfortunately, due to high poverty levels in this area, the health risks of toxic chemicals like benzene are often ignored,” Blakeman said in a statement. “Once again, Appalachian communities are considered acceptable sacrifice zones.”

Dani Parent, communications co-coordinator for OVEC, grew up in Catlettsburg and said many residents don’t trust the air they breathe or the water they drink.

“They are right not to trust because many times their air or water is toxic as proved by this report,” Parent said.

Jamal T. Kheiry, a Marathon spokesperson, said the Catlettsburg refinery strives to ensure that every regulated source of benzene on refinery property is in compliance with federal requirements, and in many cases goes beyond regulatory requirements.

“At the refinery last year, one-time events caused higher emissions readings, one of which caused the facility’s rolling annual average to exceed the EPA action level,” Kheiry said. “Other than those events — which we have since addressed — every two-week sampling period has been under the action level. At our Catlettsburg refinery, we continue to look for opportunities to reduce benzene emissions, as we do at all 13 of our petroleum refineries across the country.”

The Catlettsburg refinery employs 760 people and has a capacity of 291,000 barrels per calendar day.

Catlettsburg Marathon was the only Kentucky refinery that exceeded the EPA’s action level. The other refineries highlighted by EIP were in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Alabama and Pennsylvania.

Communities with high exposure to benzene often have higher rates of leukemia and other cancers, asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer said refineries have a responsibility to lower their benzene levels by finding the source and cleaning it up.

“It’s hard to stop breathing when you got stuff in the air,” Schaeffer said.

High levels of benzene can also indicate other harmful air pollutants, he said.

The EIP recommended the EPA investigate why high amounts of benzene concentrations persist at these plants and identify offsite emission sources to bring them under control.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends refinery workers wear respirators whenever there are high levels of benzene over a 10-hour workday.

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