Environmental study points to Joliet, Lemont refineries as top water polluters

‘Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls’ faults EPA for allowing discharges into waterways

Exxon Mobil refinery in Channahon, Friday January 27th, 2023.

An environmental study finding fault with the government for lax regulation points to the two local refineries as among the nation’s top waterway polluters.

The Environmental Integrity Project report lists the ExxonMobil Joliet Refinery, actually located outside the city in Channahon Township, and the Citgo Lemont Refinery among the top 10 polluters for discharges of certain materials into water, many of which are not limited by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Both refineries are located along the Des Plaines River.

The report, “Oil’s Unchecked Outfalls,” focuses on discharges into waterways, which it notes are overlooked, with focus concentrated on refinery air pollution.

“Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability in the U.S., and too many release a witches’ brew of contaminants to our rivers, lakes and estuaries,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report Thursday.

Citgo refinery in Lemont, Friday January 27th, 2023.

Schaeffer blamed “lax federal standards based on wastewater treatment methods that are nearly 40 years old.”

The report argues that improved wastewater treatment methods could control pollutants now allowed to be discharged.

The report, based on an examination of public records, puts the local ExxonMobil and Citgo refineries on the top 10 list for the amount of selenium discharged into waterways. The Citgo refinery also is among the top 10 for discharges of nitrogen.

The ExxonMobil refinery also appears on a list for refineries with the highest number of violations from 2019 through 2021 for discharges that are regulated.

The refinery was listed as fourth in the nation with 40 violations, although it had just as many violations as the third-ranking violator, the CountryMark Mount Vernon refinery in Indiana. No penalties were collected from either refinery for the violations, according to the report.

Exxon Mobil Corp., asked to respond to the report, issued a written statement, saying, “We operate our refineries in compliance with stringent local, state and federal regulations and are always working to improve environmental performance.”

Citgo did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Citgo refinery in Lemont, Friday January 27th, 2023.

Selenium, a byproduct of the refining process, can cause reproductive harm to animals and mutations in fish, according to the report. There are no regulatory limits on selenium discharges into waterways.

A total of 81 refineries in the U.S. in 2021 released 60,000 pounds of selenium and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen into waterways, according to the report.

The Citgo Lemont Refinery ranked fifth in the nation in selenium discharge at an average of 7 pounds a day for a total of 2,548 pounds in 2021.

The ExxonMobil Joliet refinery ranked ninth with an average of 5.1 pounds of selenium discharge a day for a total of 1,855 pounds in 2021.

The Citgo refinery ranked fourth in the nation in nitrogen discharge in 2021 at an average of 1,916 pounds a day and a total of 699,411 pounds.

“Excess nitrogen can fill waterways with algae, making rivers and streams unsuitable for swimming or fishing, while also robbing fish and shellfish of the oxygen they need to survive,” the report said.

Current rules limit ammonia released into the waterways but “allow unlimited discharges of other nitrogen compounds like nitrites or nitrates,” the report said.

The EPA issued a statement, noting, “We have received the report and will review and respond accordingly.”