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Report: Southwest Indiana oil refinery could impact long-term health of residents nearby

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CountryMark Refining and Logistics in Mount Vernon – west of Evansville – had benzene emissions last year that exceeded the level at which the federal government requires companies to take action.

Twelve oil refineries in the U.S. put unsafe levels of benzene gas into the air last year — including a refinery in Mount Vernon west of Evansville. That’s according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

Over time, exposure to benzene can cause anemia and leukemia as well as damage your nervous system and immune system.

CountryMark Refining and Logistics in Mount Vernon had benzene emissions last year that exceeded the level at which the federal government requires companies to take action.

CountryMark said an “upset” at the Mount Vernon facility in July caused the emissions to spike — but didn’t say what the upset was.

Tom Pelton is the director of communications with the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Who knows maybe there was some incident with those tanks or the equipment associated with them. But it's only about a quarter of a mile to a residential neighborhood in Mount Vernon — so it's really pretty close to where people are living," he said.

Pelton said because of high oil prices, companies like CountryMark are making a lot of money right now.

“This is the right time for refineries to use some of that money — not just as profit, but to reinvest in your physical plant to make it into better and safer shape," he said.

The report by the Environmental Integrity Project shows about half of all U.S. oil refineries had benzene levels last year that the state of California says can cause long-term health risks. California has some of the most stringent environmental rules in the country.

The report said many oil refineries are located near low-income and minority communities. The Environmental Integrity Project wants the Biden administration to enforce laws on benzene emissions and make good on its commitment to environmental justice.

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The data from the report is relatively new. The Environmental Protection Agency didn't require petroleum refineries to monitor and report their benzene emissions at the fence lines of their facilities until recently. The agency adopted those requirements after EIP and the group Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in 2012 to protect communities living near oil refineries — including in Texas and Louisiana.

Since the incident in July, the CountryMark said the facility in Mount Vernon has completed "instrument repairs, wastewater maintenance and upgrades, naphtha tank roof seal replacements and procedure modifications" to prevent high benzene emissions.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

Corrected: May 20, 2022 at 11:08 AM EDT
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story’s photo caption said Mount Vernon was east of Evansville. That was incorrect. It is west of Evansville.