Coalition Sues EPA Over Unregulated Water Pollution from Oil Refineries, Plastics Plants, and Other Industries

13 Groups Demand That EPA Crack Down on Billions of Gallons of Industrial Wastewater by Updating Effluent Limits, as Required by Clean Water Act


San Francisco—A coalition of environmental groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper, today filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to set limits on harmful chemicals like cyanide, benzene, mercury, and chlorides in the billions of gallons of wastewater pouring out of U.S. oil refineries, chemical plants, and factories that manufacture fertilizer, plastics, pesticides, and nonferrous metals.

Oil refinery pollution doesn’t belong in San Francisco Bay or in any of the nation’s waterways, and it certainly doesn’t belong in our neighborhoods,” said Eric Buescher, Managing Attorney at San Francisco Baykeeper.  “It’s high time we held the EPA accountable, and compel the agency to crack down on the toxic pollution from oil refineries that’s threatening both wildlife and human health around San Francisco Bay, and across the country.”

The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to limit discharges of industrial pollutants based on the best available wastewater treatment methods, and to tighten those limits at least once every five years where data show treatment technologies have improved. But EPA has never set limits for many pollutants and has failed to update the few decades-old limits that exist – including limits set almost 40 years ago for oil refineries (1985), plastics manufacturers (1984), and fertilizer plants (1986).

Outdated pollution control technology standards meant that, for example, 81 oil refineries across the U.S. dumped 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen and 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates, and other dissolved solids (which can be harmful to aquatic life) into waterways in 2021. Twenty-one nitrogen fertilizer plants discharged 7.7 million pounds of total nitrogen, which causes algae blooms and fish-killing “dead-zones” and proposed new plants will add millions of additional pounds to that load. The EPA estimates that 229 inorganic chemical plants dumped over 2 billion pounds of pollution into waterways in 2019.

In Northern California, four refineries – including the Chevron Richmond and Valero Benicia refineries – in 2021 dumped into tributaries to San Francisco Bay at least 1,057 pounds of selenium, 1.2 million pounds of total nitrogen, 32,298 pounds of oil and grease, 525 pounds of arsenic, 271 pounds of lead and lead compounds, 196 pounds of cyanide, and 142 pounds of hexavalent chromium, among other pollutants.  Scientists believe the selenium may be contributing to deformities found in more than 80 percent of young Sacramento splittail, a minnow, found in the Bay area.

“No one should get a free pass to pollute. It’s completely unacceptable that EPA has, for decades, ignored the law and failed to require modern wastewater pollution controls for oil refineries and petrochemical and plastics plants,” said Jen Duggan, Deputy Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which coordinated the action by the 13 environmental groups.  “We expect EPA to do its job and protect America’s waterways and public health as required by the Clean Water Act.”

Despite the legal mandate for regular reviews and updates to keep pace with technology, the guidelines for 40 of 59 industries regulated by EPA were last updated 30 or more years ago, with 17 of those dating back to the 1970s. Outdated standards mean more water pollution is pouring into U.S. waters than should be allowed because some plants are using technology standards from the Reagan era – before common use of the Internet, email, or cell phones.

The lawsuit was filed today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco by the Environmental Integrity Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Waterkeeper Alliance, Food & Water Watch, Environment America, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Healthy Gulf, San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, San Francisco Baykeeper, the Surfrider Foundation and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

The lawsuit challenges EPA’s decision on January 31 not to update outdated and weak water pollution control technology standards (called “effluent limitation guidelines” or ELGs and pretreatment standards) for seven key industrial sectors: petroleum refineries, inorganic and organic chemical manufacturers, and factories that manufacture plastics, fertilizer, pesticide, and nonferrous metals. 

A January 26 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls,” revealed that 81 refineries across the U.S. discharged into waterways 15.7 million pounds of algae-feeding nitrogen in 2021  – as much as from 128 municipal sewage plants – along with 60,000 pounds of selenium (which can cause mutations in fish), among other pollutants.