ConocoPhillips Refinery Expansion Faces Legal Air Pollution Challenge

CHICAGO, Illinois, August 22, 2007 (ENS) - Groups concerned about the health threats posed by a major expansion at the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in the Greater St. Louis area are asking the federal government to overturn a permit they say was issued unlawfully by state officials in Illinois.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, representing the American Bottom Conservancy, filed a petition Tuesday with an appeals board at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. American Bottom Conservancy is a nonprofit organization based in the Metro East St. Louis area.

NRDC attorneys argued that stronger air pollution safety measures are required under the federal Clean Air Act before ConocoPhillips can expand operations at its facility in Roxana, Illinois.

The refinery is being expanded to process crude oil extracted from Canadian tar sands, an energy source that the environmentalists point out generates three times more greenhouse gases than gasoline made from conventional oils.

At issue are the burning columns of waste gas known as flares that can be seen for miles, and which emit dangerous pollutants. NRDC attorneys contend that refineries elsewhere have reduced flaring through better design and improved management practices.

They claim that state officials have hindered local community input on the ConocoPhillips Roxana project and ignored "readily available, proven safeguards used widely at similar facilities nationwide."

Sierra Club, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project, has joined in the challenge.

"ConocoPhillips, the third-largest oil producer in the country that had its most profitable year on record last year, should be setting the standard for clean operation, rather than seeking to do less than other refineries to control their pollution," said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with NRDC’s Chicago Office. "The greater St. Louis region already suffers from chronic dirty air. ConocoPhillips ought to be part of the solution, not the problem."

The petition seeks to show that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, IEPA, ignored a law requiring the agency to provide interested citizens with a list of changes made to the draft permit and the reason for the changes.

Without that information, it is difficult for citizens to figure out on their own what IEPA changed and whether those changes are appropriate, the petition claims.

"Illinois EPA ignored the simple rules required by law," said Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy and a member of the Illinois Sierra Club Clean Air Campaign. "Citizens should not have to file legal appeals to see that the Clean Air Act is enforced or that a state agency does the job it is supposed to do to protect their communities."

The challenge addresses a provision in federal law giving older facilities a temporary reprieve from modern pollution control standards required under the Clean Air Act.

When new updates or expansions take place that would increase their emissions, such facilities are legally required to install the best available current emissions controls. But the petitioners claim that the IEPA never looked at best practices used by other refiners before giving a green light to ConocoPhillips.

"ConocoPhillips has had record profits. A special Internal Revenue Code tax provision allows a refinery to write off half the entire cost of an expansion project the very first year it is in operation. Why wouldn't they install best available control technology?" asked Andria. "Why wouldn't they protect our health?"

"I was a refinery worker for many years, and I had hoped that ConocoPhillips would treat our community with respect and upgrade to a first-class refinery," said Gayle Borman, a Sierra Club member living in Wood River near the refinery. "I expected more from them and from Illinois EPA."

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