The U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency announced that their complaint, filed simultaneously with today's consent decree, alleges that ConocoPhillips violated effluent limits in its Clean Water Act permit on over 2,000 occasions between 1999 and 2006.
"It is imperative that business and industry do their part to minimize the possible harm their operations may cause to our environment," said EPA Regional Administrator Richard Greene.
The discharges from the refinery involved two types of water pollutants - selenium and whole effluent toxicity.
Effluent is wastewater and other byproducts that are discharged from industrial facilities. Whole effluent toxicity means the aggregate toxic effect to aquatic organisms from all pollutants contained in a facility's wastewater.
Part of the ConocoPhillips refinery at Borger, Texas (Photo courtesy ConocoPhillips)
Selenium is a naturally occuring element that the federal Agency for Toxic Substances says is an essential nutrient for humans and animals. However, selenium can be harmful when regularly taken in amounts higher than those needed for good health, the agency says.
People who irrigate their home gardens with groundwater containing high levels of selenium may grow and eat plants that contain high levels of selenium because this element is taken up in some plants. Fishermen and waterfowl hunters who regularly eat fish and game from waterways with high selenium content may consume high levels of selenium.
If mildly excessive amounts of selenium are eaten over long periods, brittle hair and deformed nails can develop. In extreme cases, people may lose feeling and control in arms and legs, the agency says.
No human populations in the United States have been reported with long-term selenium poisoning, including populations in the western part of the country where selenium levels are naturally high in the soil.
Still, the EPA Office of Drinking Water regulates the amount of selenium allowed in drinking water. Public water supplies are not allowed to exceed 50 ppb total selenium.
Selenium is considered a pollutant and the federal Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of any pollutant to waters within U.S. jurisdiction unless the discharge is authorized by a Clean Water Act permit.
After the federal government took this enforcement action, ConocoPhillips brought the refinery into compliance with its Clean Water Act permit limits for both these pollutants.
Today's agreement, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, requires the company to monitor surrounding waters for selenium levels, including Dixon Creek and the Canadian River, as well as for accumulation of selenium in fish tissue.
The Canadian River is the largest tributary of the Arkansas River. It is about 760 miles long, starting in Colorado and traveling through New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and most of Oklahoma.
The agreement filed today requires ConocoPhillips to maintain the controls that it has already put into place to minimize its selenium discharges and to correct whole effluent toxicity violations.
In addition, ConocoPhillips will perform a Supplemental Environmental Project, estimated to cost $600,000, which will reduce the amount of solids discharged into local waterways during storm events.
"We are pleased that ConocoPhillips has taken steps to resolve these Clean Water Act violations," said Ronald Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources.
"This settlement will maintain the Borger refinery's compliance and provides for an appropriate civil penalty as well as a beneficial Supplemental Environmental Project that will improve water quality."
Borger is host to some of the world's largest inland petrochemical complexes. ConocoPhillips processes crude oil and natural gas liquids at its refinery there.
Today's agreement is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final judicial approval. The settlement is also signed by WRB Refining, the current owner of the ConocoPhillips-operated refinery.
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