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Permit hearing for Delaware City refinery draws vocal opponents and supporters

Officials from Delaware City Refinery Tuesday defended the plant’s record on air emissions while seeking to renew a state operating permit and fending off attacks by environmental and other groups.

Plant officials rejected claims that they were seeking state permission to increase emissions from previously agreed levels in order to process increasing quantities of heavy crude oil from the controversial Canadian tar sands.

But environmental groups led by the Sierra Club argued that the refinery’s plans to increase its input of tar sands crude would lead to higher emissions of a range of pollutants that threaten the health of local residents.

The two groups held counter demonstrations outside the refinery and in the center of Delaware City before gathering in a local fire hall to deliver a long series of personal three-minute speeches on many aspects of the hotly debated issue.

Environmental groups, who also include the NAACP and the Delaware Green Party, argue that the plant’s output will result in increased pollutants including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, suspended particulates, ammonia, and lead.

“No community should be subject to pollution levels that hinder their ability to lead full, healthy lives,” the critics said in a May 31 letter to Delaware’s environment secretary Collin O’Mara and Shawn Garvin, the U.S. EPA’s regional administrator. “Neighbors of the Delaware City Refinery have long been subjected to high levels of toxic pollutants, resulting in the area being identified as a census tract of high cancer risk.”

The refinery now processes about 20,000 barrels a day of heavy crude and has plans to double that to a level that will represent about a quarter of total output, said Michael Karlovich, a spokesman for the refinery’s owner, PBF Energy.

Karlovich said the increased emissions resulted from a previously approved fluid coking unit, not from the refinery as a whole, as stated by opponents. Meanwhile, some other facilities in the plant have reduced emissions, he said.

An estimated 1,000 refinery workers and their families attended a “Rally for the Refinery” near the perimeter of the site on Tuesday afternoon. Carrying signs with slogans like “Fueling Delaware’s Economy” and “Our Goal: Energy Independence”, participants waved American flags and listened to patriotic songs including “Born in the USA” and an extended version of the Star Spangled Banner.

Refinery manager Herman Seedorf told the crowd that the refinery was under threat from what he called a small minority of “activists” who were spreading misinformation about the plant’s emissions.

By distorting the plant’s environmental record in a “deceptive and misleading manner”, the campaigners had worried local people needlessly, lowered property values and stunted business growth, he said.

“The truth is that we are running way more stringent limits and less emissions than ever before,” Seedorf said.

Since reopening the refinery in 2011, PBF has introduced a new business model that requires the purchase of “lowest cost” crude from the Midwest and Canada, Seedorf said, the latter a reference to the Tar Sands crude that is fiercely opposed by environmental groups on the grounds of its heavy carbon emissions.

He denied that the Canadian crude was any more polluting than other grades of crude that the refinery has processed since it opened in the 1950s.

“The truth is that it’s no different from many of the heavy crudes that have been historically refined here,” he said. “We don’t need high energy to process it.”

Environmentalists argue that tar sands, extracted from vast reserves in Alberta, contain much higher concentrations of pollutants including sulfur, nickel and lead than conventional oil.

While expressing concern about heavy carbon emissions from tar sands, the critics say they don’t want to close the refinery but instead are calling on PBF to implement a series of measures designed to increase the plant’s safety.

They urged the company to install real-time air-quality monitoring on the boundary of the refinery; work with the local community to develop an emergency response and evacuation plan; reduce flaring and associated pollution within a year of permit renewal, and account for the mobile emissions of train cars.

Doug Maloney, 60, a Delaware City resident, rejected the company’s claim that it is doing a good job at controlling emissions since reopening in 2011. “Once you reopen, you are putting more into the air no matter what,” he said, calling the company’s assertion “obviously not factual.” He noted that there are three schools within about a mile of the plant and that children could be affected by extra air pollution.

After the rally, hundreds of refinery workers, many dressed in white “Delaware Building Trades” T-shirts, gathered outside the Delaware City Fire Hall – a larger venue than originally planned — ahead of the public meeting that’s a required part DNREC’s permitting process.

Police separated the workers from about 70 opponents who assembled in a field a few yards away, behind a fence hung with a banner saying “Delaware Railroaded by Tar Sands”.

Inside the meeting, Dave Champiney, an operator who has worked at the plant for 20 years, said he was proud to be able to tell his children that he works at a place that makes a product that’s so widely used.

Champiney, 45, rejected the environmentalists’ campaign for alternative fuels. “We live in a world where fossil fuels are needed, where refineries are needed,” he said.

There is no timetable for when DNREC will act on approving the Delaware City permit at the center of Tuesday night’s hearing.