To protect public health, DeGette unveils new legislation to regulate hydrogen cyanide emissions from U.S. refineries

Mar 19, 2019
Press Release
New bill would close a loophole in the law that’s allowing refineries near Denver, elsewhere to set their own emission limits for the highly toxic chemical

WASHINGTON, D.C. – How much hydrogen cyanide can a refinery safely pump into the atmosphere without harming nearby residents? The Environmental Protection Agency does not know.

But that’s not stopping a Suncor refinery located just 5 miles north of Denver’s heavily-populated metro area from pumping more than 25,000 pounds of the highly-toxic chemical into the air each year for millions of residents to breathe in.

So how are they able to get away with that?

Companies, such as Suncor, have discovered – and are now utilizing – a loophole in the law that exists when the EPA has not set a maximum allowable limit for a certain chemical, such as hydrogen cyanide. When no limit has been set by the EPA, a company is able to suggest its own limit.

In the case of the refinery outside Denver, when Suncor asked the state of Colorado for a permit to pump hydrogen cyanide into the air just miles outside the Mile High City, there was no federal health data to account for the real world health impacts that such an amount of hydrogen cyanide could cause to the surrounding community. Instead, Suncor simply told the state how much it planned to pump into the air each year, added a little bit more to give themselves a buffer, and asked the state to declare that the maximum limit for their permit – which the state did.

Suncor’s refinery near Denver isn’t the only facility in the country to take advantage of this loophole – around the same time that Suncor’s permit was approved, refineries in Houston, TX, Canton, OH and Gallup, NM all applied for permits of their own to start using yet-to-be-regulated amounts of hydrogen cyanide.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who serves as the chair of the House oversight panel that’s responsible for overseeing the EPA, announced today that she is filing new legislation to close this loophole by requiring the EPA to set a numerical maximum limit on the amount of hydrogen cyanide that refineries across the country can safely emit each year.

“One of our government’s most important responsibilities is to protect the health and well-being of the communities we represent,” DeGette said at a press conference in Denver today to announce the bill. “In this case, the federal government failed to meet those obligations.”

“Next week, as soon as Congress reconvenes, I will be filing new legislation that will require the Environmental Protection Agency to set a standard for hydrogen cyanide emissions – one that will fully protect the surrounding communities,” DeGette announced.

If approved, the measure would require the EPA to establish a maximum emission level that fully protects the public. It would also require petroleum refineries that emit hydrogen cyanide to establish real-time fence-line monitoring of its hydrogen cyanide emissions, and report those findings to the public.

Once a limit for hydrogen cyanide emissions has been established, it would then be up to the EPA and states like Colorado to properly enforce that standard and ensure that facilities around the country are adhering to it, and no longer putting nearby residents at risk.

Below is a summary of the legislation DeGette will introduce when Congress reconvenes next week:

Summary of Legislation

The “Protecting Communities from Hydrogen Cyanide Act of 2019” will amend Section 112 of the federal Clean Air Act, which regulates hazardous air pollutants such as hydrogen cyanide, by:

  • Requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a numerical emissions limit on hydrogen cyanide (HCN) from petroleum refineries within two years of enactment.
  • Requiring that the EPA sets a limit for hydrogen cyanide that provides the “maximum degree of reduction in emissions that is achievable” and “assures an ample margin of safety to protect public health and environment.”
  • Requiring the EPA to set a limit for hydrogen cyanide that reflects the best available science regarding the effects of HCN on the health of children and vulnerable sub-populations, including when multiple sources of HCN and exposure to additional pollutants may be present in a given area.
  • Requiring petroleum refineries that emit hydrogen cyanide to establish real-time fence-line monitoring and online public reporting of its hydrogen cyanide emissions.