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Utah refinery growth promises jobs, revenue, but at what cost?
Energy » Expansion of refineries may bring more jobs and revenue to state, but neighbors fret about possible accidents and added tanker traffic.

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The refineries have been steadily cutting their emissions for years. The Clean Air Act has forced some of the reductions. So have settlement agreements that refiners nationwide have signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So the proposed expansions, in combination with an air-cleanup plan the state must submit to the EPA by year’s end, give Bird’s division an opportunity to talk with the refineries about adding the latest and best pollution controls.

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O The Utah Division of Air Quality has posted information about the Tesoro application and seeks public comments on the company’s plan through June 7. A public comment period on HollyFrontier’s application is expected to be announced in the next three months. Visit bit.ly/J9UBew

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Safety record » To some in the community, that’s not enough.

Linda Johnson, who tracks environmental issues for the Utah League of Women Voters, noted that many Utahns will balk at making sacrifices to help clean up the air when they see regulators allowing the refineries to pollute more.

"People here are good, and they are willing to sacrifice if it’s going to be shared," she said. "But they are not going to turn down their thermostats to reduce their own emissions when they can see the refinery plumes burning."

Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, charges that the DAQ "has once again given industry whatever it asks for, no matter how much we violate the air pollution standards, no matter what the consequences are to public health. And they can’t even wait long enough to study what refinery pollution is doing to us already before they go ahead and permit even more."

Neighbors living near refinery row also have concerns. In April, about 65 people attended a meeting in West Bountiful with Holly Frontier officials. Concerns centered on noise and pollution from the refinery, the effect on groundwater, impacts on health, a drop in real estate values and a decline in the quality of life.

"How much value can you put on human life?" resident Merrill Shupe asked.

Opponents also cite refinery accidents, noting that a leak, spill, fire or similar incident occurs every nine days. While that’s an accurate average, incidents mentioned in state records range widely in severity, from hundreds of episodes of temporarily elevated air pollution levels from refinery stacks to at least three explosions — one in 2009 that was massive enough to damage nearby homes.

State regulators investigated 501 environmental accidents at the five refineries from 2000 to 2011, according the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Fully 85 percent of those incidents occurred at the Chevron, HollyFrontier and Tesoro refineries.

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Going back to 1990, the most frequent kind of refinery accident by far involved equipment failures that led to excess sulphur-based compounds, usually sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or sulfuric acid, being released through the plants’ flares or spilled onto the ground. In hundreds of cases, pollution releases were caused by malfunctions in the plants’ sulfur-recovery units or by power outages.

Records also document at least three refinery explosions: at the Chevron refinery in 1992; at Flying J, now Big West Oil, in 1994; and a massive explosion and fire at Silver Eagle on Nov. 4, 2009. That blast damaged about a dozen homes severely and nearly 300 area residents filed claims against the company. All were settled out of court except one, in which a Woods Cross couple this year won a $325,000 jury award.

Truck traffic » Neighbors also complain about traffic congestion from tanker trucks, particularly off Interstate 15 at 500 South in West Bountiful. HollyFrontier alone expects truck traffic to increase from 40 tankers a day to 160 trucks after 2016.

Bountiful residents Dale Ann Petersen and Kathleen Dennis insist the air is getting dirtier because of emissions from the refineries and the trucks that deliver the crude oil. Increasing the number of vehicles will make the situation even worse, they said.

"There are days when it’s so bad you can feel it in your lungs," Dennis said.

But that’s only part of the congestion problem. The highway taking the brunt of the trucks is US-40, which is only two lanes for much of its length in Utah. Shane Marshall, director of the Utah Department of Transportation’s Region 3, said US-40 can handle most current and expected traffic as the trucks travel from the basin to Salt Lake "but we do get congestion in some towns, and things back up."

UDOT plans to spend $10 million in the next few years to add more passing lanes, and several million more to improve some problem intersections that act as choke points. UDOT also has had to design US-40 to take more punishment than normal highways because of the wear and tear from the heavy trucks.

A new law also may help provide extra money for future upgrades to US-40. Last year the Legislature passed SB229 to earmark 30 percent of growth in sales tax revenue for highway construction. Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed the bill, arguing that setting aside so much sales tax for roadwork would hinder the state’s ability to address other needs, such as education. But the Legislature overrode Herbert.

In April, the Utah Transportation Commission adopted a list of projects approved to use money from the growth in sales tax, and it included adding passing lanes along a 30-mile stretch of US-40 in Duchesne County at a cost of about $5 million.

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