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Communities Caught in Oil Refinery Debate : Environment: GOP, Clinton clash over restrictions on petroleum factories. At issue are jobs, and neighborhood residents say, their health.

October 09, 1995|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — The Schuylkill Expressway cuts through the oil tank farms of southwest Philadelphia, where commuters are greeted by a radio station billboard commanding them to "wake up and smell the karma."

But whatever karma smells like, there is something else in the air: the acrid odors wafting out of the Sun Co. oil refinery.

That has made the streets of Philadelphia, like those of dozens of other communities across the country, a key battleground between advocates of vigorous enforcement of environmental laws and critics who contend that the federal government is tying up industry with too many regulations.

At issue are tough new restrictions designed to protect neighborhoods surrounding petroleum refineries from the harmful effects of such toxic substances as benzene, methyl ethyl ketone, hexane, toluene and hydrogen chloride. The House has passed legislation prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the rules, which it issued in July. The Senate has moved in the same direction, raising the prospect of a clash between Congress and President Clinton when legislation funding the EPA reaches the White House.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 13, 1995 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Cancer frequency--A story in Monday's editions of the Times incorrectly stated the number of new cancer cases expected to be caused by oil refinery emissions. According to the National Petroleum Refiners Assn., such emissions are expected to cause no more than one new cancer case throughout the U.S. population in any three-year period.

The stakes in the debate include multimillion-dollar investments, the economic viability of smaller refineries and the jobs they supply and, possibly, the health of local residents.

Yet an even broader question is at play in Washington. It involves a fundamental disagreement over whether the executive branch or Congress will assume the dominant role in setting domestic policy. It is perhaps the central issue in the often-angry relationship between the President and the Republican majority that is controlling the agenda on Capitol Hill.

Thus, the debate over the environmental regulations is a piece "of a much larger picture that ranges across the policy domain," in the view of Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

"This is as clear and dramatic and unambiguous a shift in policy views on the Hill as we've ever seen in our lifetime," Mann said. "They're going after this with every weapon at their disposal."

It is a shift that troubles many residents of refinery neighborhoods.

"Take it from a registered Republican, I'm not happy," said Gloria Inverso, who lives 1 1/2 miles from the Sun Co. refinery in south Philadelphia, referring to the GOP-engineered regulatory rollback. "With what they're doing, the only steps we've taken forward, they're taking backward. If these senators and congressmen were made to live in this neighborhood with their families, I don't think they'd like it."

When the EPA got into the business of trying to clean up the nation's air, one of the first industries that drew its attention was petroleum. Although significant progress has been made in reducing emissions of smog-causing pollutants, oil refineries across the country still exhale a mix of pollutants--nine toxic tons an hour, day in and day out, the government says.

Things used to be a lot worse. Two decades after the EPA began combatting air pollution, the air around the refineries that dot a corridor stretching from the huge Exxon Corp. complex in Linden, N.J., near Newark, south to the shores of the Delaware Bay, is much cleaner--to the eye and nose at least--than it was in the 1970s.

The provision restricting enforcement of the new emission limits is one of 17 attached to the EPA funding legislation in the House, where anti-regulatory sentiment runs high. The others, each intended to put new controls on the enforcement of environmental regulations, would limit wetlands protection, water-quality standards in the Great Lakes, standards on toxic emissions from kilns used in the manufacturing of cement and standards for the amount of arsenic permitted in tap water.

In addition, the House funding bill would cut the agency's spending next year by roughly 23%. The Senate version of the legislation would reduce the EPA budget by 33% but does not contain the 17 regulatory rollbacks. House and Senate negotiators are expected to begin working out their differences as early as this week. The funding cuts and the anti-regulatory riders have drawn the threat of a presidential veto.

The attempt to undo government regulations by attaching restrictions to the spending bill is "special-interest politics at its worst," said Paul Billings, assistant director for government relations of the American Lung Assn.

Refiners say they are still not certain what rules are needed.

"When an agency asks an industry to spend $100 million a year, we want to make sure we will reduce risks," said a senior official at the National Petroleum Refiners Assn., adding that the EPA rules are based on old data and do not provide that assurance.

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