Denny Larson, coordinator of the San Francisco-based National Refinery Reform Campaign, met with local residents in the Clay County Extension building in Vermillion.
He told his audience, many who were wearing buttons reading Save Union County, that he has made his living in recent years working with communities and people located near oil refineries who have problems with pollution.
His talk also included a warning to local residents who are opposed to the Hyperion Resources, Inc. plans to possibly construct a refinery north of Elk Point in Union County.
"There are powerful sources at play around oil refineries because our economy is using oil and fossil fuels to run itself," he said.
Over the years, Larson has worked with citizen advocate groups and with various panels to push for better and better air quality standards around refineries.
"We've been writing our own regulations and enforcing them and inspecting them now for 25 years, and it just doesn't stop," Larson said. "It's a lot of work … we got a lot of good regulations passed, our refineries are cleaner and safer than anything else in the country, and it was because citizens woke up and did something about it and continue to do that.
"It wasn't because the EPA protected us, it wasn't because our own air board protected us," he said. "It was because people knew it was right, and they stood up, and they made sure those people cleaned up."
Despite those reforms, Larson said, all oil refineries still emit a great deal of pollution.
Refineries, he said, are big and complicated, with distillation towers, miles of piping, and valves.
"In a refinery the size of Hyperion's, you will probably have 100,000 separate valves," Larson said. "Those are fugitive emission sources, too – they can leak. You'll have pumps, compressors, boilers and flare stacks. It's probably the most complicated piece of engineering you could possibly ever expect to see."
Larson said Hyperion hasn't released any specific details on the engineering of its proposal. He relied on information supplied by refineries operating in the United States today.
An Exxon Mobil refinery in Texas, for example, reports estimated emissions of approximately 173,000 pounds of carcinogens annually.
The estimates also include over 500,000 pounds of emissions that are harmful to people's circulatory systems, and over 220,000 pounds of toxins that affect the health of children.
The refining process, Larson said, also produces a great deal of waste.
"Oil is a toxic soup of 100 different chemicals – things like lead, and heavy metals. To make gasoline, you only need a few of those components. That means the rest of those things are waste or some type of byproduct that you try to sell to somebody else."
These facts lead Larson to believe that Hyperion will not have the ability to construct a green refinery, even if it uses the most state-of-the-art engineering and refining practices.
"I really question this idea of a green refinery," he said. "I find it hard to believe to be possible to deal with the raw material and an end product that's toxic, and somehow this bad stuff goes 'poof' and disappears and you don't have to deal with it."
The Canadian crude oil Hyperion would refine is heavy and dirty. Larson said "air pollution, water pollution, solid toxic waste" are produced in the refining process, and he encouraged citizens to question "where this stuff is going to go."