Recently, a fire broke out at the Silver Eagle refinery and burned for 24 hours. As usually happens, the official assessment from all the relevant government agencies and Silver Eagle, was that "this was no big deal, no one’s health was in jeopardy, everyone move along, nothing to see here."
Never mind that the fumes filled an elementary school downwind, and many of the hundreds of kids started experiencing difficulty breathing, sore throat, nausea and headache. Some of them felt too weak to do anything but lie down. A few were taken to nearby hospitals and clinics. The school was evacuated on the second day by the principal, not the health department.
Several days later Woods Cross city officials held a town hall meeting where Silver Eagle answered questions. Many of the parents there said their children were still feeling sick. Here’s a useful rule of thumb. If you can smell combustion emissions they are most likely unhealthy. If you are feeling sick from them, especially if you are still feeling sick several days later, there is no chance those emissions are harmless.
Even a well-operated, "normal" refinery would annually emit thousands of pounds of the most toxic chemicals known, right in the heart of Davis County. But well-operated and "normal" don’t apply here. From 2000 to 2010 Utah’s five refineries reported fires, explosions, chemical releases and spills, large and small, on average once every nine days.
Studies show clear health risks to living near a refinery, including double the normal risk of leukemia, higher rates of other cancers, spontaneous abortion, low birth weight babies, bone marrow damage and chromosomal abnormalities.
The latest Silver Eagle event exposed another failure of the system, the same failure that occurred after both of the Chevron Red Butte oil spills in 2010, and the same failure that will likely happen for the next as well. The public, especially children and pregnant mothers, should have been evacuated immediately. But no one seems to know who has the authority to make that call.
And if it is left up to the Health Dept., they are too dependent on out-of-date toxicology data to make an appropriate assessment of how much risk these hazardous emissions represent, especially to children and fetuses. If the children in a school are getting sick, but the school is not evacuated because the monitors say the chemical levels aren’t high enough to warrant it, then either the wrong chemicals are being monitored, or the thresholds for action are badly out of date.
As I walked out of the town hall meeting, a mother said to me, "I’m done exposing my children to the pollution from the refineries and Stericycle," and was going to put her house up for sale the next morning. I told her our state government is permitting all these refineries to expand, meaning more gas to California, more profits to Texas, and more pollution and refinery explosions in Bountiful. She was speechless.
As I sat down to write about the Silver Eagle event, the front page of the Tribune carried two stories, one about the state’s unwillingness to spend a few million dollars to eliminate diesel pollution from buses, and the other about the state (UDOT) asking for $2 billion for a rail line to ship all of the dirty energy being extracted in the Uinta Basin to Price, so it can be burned on the world market.
In a fitting end to the evening, I was going home a few minutes later and passed another refinery, Tesoro, in the throws of yet another breakdown, with their flare spewing a thick black column of smoke settling all over downtown Salt Lake.
The symbolism and the smell were equally disturbing.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
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