Americans have a love/hate relationship with the companies that provide our oil. This ambivalence is even more acute in Salt Lake and Davis counties, where two of the five local refineries are applying for an expansion to increase production.
Our air pollution already exceeds national air quality standards. And as a community member and local physician, I have serious concerns with the increased pollution these expansions would bring. The health consequences of air pollution have been scientifically studied, with three significant conclusions.
One, the physiological effects from air pollution are very extensive, causing and exacerbating diseases of virtually every organ system, including heart attacks, strokes, and asthma.
Two, the idea of a "safe" or acceptable level of pollution is no longer valid.
Three, everyone is affected, even if they do not feel any symptoms.
The proposed refinery expansions are capital-intensive projects. The refineries would not make such a commitment without anticipating a long life for greater production. In other words, these projects mean more pollution for a very long time. Even without refinery expansion, we can expect an escalating air pollution problem due to Utah's projected population growth, and consequently increased vehicle emissions.
The Associated Press reported that the real amount of pollution nationwide from refineries is three to 100 times greater than what is claimed by the refineries. U.S. refineries are allowed to estimate emissions using outdated techniques no longer allowed in Europe or Canada. The message is sobering: Refineries are a much bigger part of the pollution pie than officially acknowledged, and therefore further expansion is a greater threat to our community's health.
We should also consider the poor track record of U.S. refineries, including those in Utah, for accidents and explosions. According to Swiss Re, the world's second largest reinsurer, U.S. refineries have sustained financial losses from accidents at a rate four times higher than their European counterparts. The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recently said, "We have a problem with the refinery industry. We have decreasing staff levels, disinvestment in safety, a lack of training, and accidents or near-misses indicators of [impending] catastrophe being ignored."
Utah's refineries have had numerous recent high-profile explosions, including one in which dozens of homes were severely damaged. From 2000 to 2010, Utah's refineries reported fires, explosions, chemical releases and spills, on average once every nine days. Expansion of their operations will undoubtedly increase the number of accidents and explosions unless something significantly changes.
Three of our refineries use one of the most deadly chemicals known hydrofluoric acid (HF) and any explosion involving an HF storage tank could have catastrophic effects. Alternatives to HF exist and two-thirds of the country's refineries have switched to a safer option because of the extreme danger.
Finally, even when there are no adverse events, refinery pollution is uniquely toxic. The heavy metals benzene and polycyclic-aromatic-hydrocarbons, prominent in refinery emissions, cause cancer and are developmental and reproductive toxins. Leukemia occurs at double the normal rate among people living near an oil refinery.
Our community will suffer the health consequences and assume the increased safety risks, while the energy is exported to other communities and the refineries increase their profits.
Unfortunately, the Utah Division of Air Quality has a history of rubber-stamping refinery requests. However, citizen opposition has stopped more refinery pollution in the past and can do it again. Please come and voice your concern at a town hall meeting Thursday, March 22, 7 p.m., at the Bountiful City Hall.
Tyler Yeates is a Bountiful anesthesiologist and a member of both the Davis County Community Coalition and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.