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Monday, 4 November 2013

Oil and gas - downstream operations provide the greatest public health concern

Recapping this site has looked at the impacts of oil and gas industry, where angst is expressed on issues like pipelines and fracking, but less attention is given to the boom-bust cycle on communities and their health.

Surprisingly little attention is drawn to the downstream processing industry.  Refineries are perhaps accepted as a necessary evil, or perhaps just not understood.  Albertans in the regions where processing occur are more familiar with the concerns, but vehement objections are more likely to be raised to coal fired electrical generation stations than to new refineries.

Yet the list of disastrous refinery incidents should raise questions of most people on the siting and location of these downstream processing operations.  Massive explosions have occurred in Texas in 2005 killing 15, Venezula in spring of 2012 killing 42 and Mexico just under one year ago killing another 30. Catastrophic events are just one of the threats

Beyond the risk of explosion, persons living in the vicinity of processing operations may be subjected to a variety of chemical exposures. 

Vagrant emissions are caused by leaks in conveyance systems and are not uncommon in collection piping (upstream operations prior to distance transport) and in processing facilities.  Processing may result in release of certain compounds through stack release (planned), and while under regulation, cumulative impacts of multiple facilities will not receive the same level of scrutiny.

The article that prompted this series was focused on exposure information of persons living in proximity of downstream operations in conjunction with upstream collection for fields located adjacent to downstream processing.  Processing may occur at any point in the transport, with well known refinery zones that receive minimally pre-processed petroleum products.

Numerous reviews have alluded to the risks of living in proximity to any oil refinery.  Most notable are proximity is associated with socioeconomically challenged conditions which are the greatest risk to personal health. Many live with the perception and stress that the refinery is negatively impacting their wellbeing despite regulatory control.   While objectively the studies are mixed in their findings, the preponderance of lay literature would lead to a conclusion numerous health impacts including increased leukemia rates.  The typical solution for most downstream operations is to build at a distance from populations, but populations are also encroaching closer to long standing facilities.  (A challenge to readers to find a good objective review article for reference, there is so much biased material to taint perceptions)

Further downstream production includes secondary processing into consumer products.  Proximity of secondary processing to refining augments local industrial emissions.

Regulation is limited to environmental management requirements, generally only supplemented by general zoning limitations into industrial zones where refining may be one of the permitted uses already approved.  Hence environmental or health impact assessments for processing builds or expansions subject to minimal public consultation, input or surveillance.

In Canada the number of refineries has decreased from 40  in the 1970’s to 19 currently.  The US reports 143 operating refineries. 

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