State Dept Keystone XL Environmental Reviewer Claimed Delaware Tar Sands Refinery Made Air Cleaner

Editor’s Note: This post is Steve Horn’s latest investigative piece on the Keystone XL. It originally appeared over at DeSmogBlog. Check out more of Steve’work from DeSmogBlog and give everyone at DeSmogBlog some love – visit their site for some of the best research debunking misinformation about climate science on the web.

DeSmogBlog investigation reveals Environmental Resources Management, Inc. (ERM Group), the contractor that performed the environmental review for TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands export pipeline, was also recently hired by a major Delaware City refinery to study air quality around the plant.

This “study” was funded by the refinery itself, owned by Delaware City Refining Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of PBF Energy. Delaware City Refinery is the recipient of 180,000 barrels per day of fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale along with oil extracted from Alberta’s tar sands – both referred to as the “holy grail” by the Refinery’s owner at a Feb. 2013 meeting – which sojourn eastward via mile-long freight rail cars owned by Norfolk Southern.

Conducted in March 2013, the study concluded the “air quality [near the refinery] is as good as, and in some cases, better than samples taken during the 2011 study before the refinery restart,” as explained on a flyer obtained by DeSmog promoting two public meetings hosted by ERM to discuss results.

Photo credit: Delaware Sierra Club

However, an independent air sample study detected the cancer-causing compound benzene far above levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as soot and sulfur dioxide, in an area one mile from the refinery.

ERM Group – a dues-paying member of American Petroleum Institute (API), which has spent over $22 million lobbying on tar sands and Keystone XL since its June 2008 proposal – said that because Alberta’s tar sands will get to market with or without Keystone XL, the tube’s northern half “is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of [tar sands] development.”

Under that logic, Keystone XL – which President Obama said in in the Climate Action Plan he will only approve if it doesn’t “significantly exacerbate…carbon pollution” – won’t have a “substantial impact” on climate change. That could mean “game on” for the pipeline.

Yet Another Illegal ERM Group Lie

This latest discovery proves – once again – that ERM Group lied on its conflict-of-interest form which it submitted to the State Department, claiming it has no “direct or indirect relationship (financial, organizational, contractual or otherwise) with any business entity that could be affected in any way by the proposed work,” as seen in that section of the form below:


The false claim – given ERM’s current ties to the Alaska Gas Pipeline Project, the Delaware City Refinery and the refinery’s direct relationship with tar sands refining and marketing – may violate 18 USC § 1001. That law says making a “materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation…[to the] executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States” is a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.

Friends of the Earth and the Checks & Balances Project have called for a full-throttle State Department Inspector General investigation into the contractual relationship between ERM Group and the State Department.

The false contractual claim is far from the only tall tale ERM told.

Independent Air Studies, Citizen Anecdotes Fly in Face of ERM Study

study released by Delaware City Environmental Coalition in late-May – just weeks before ERM’s study was released – came to diametrically opposite conclusions as ERM Group’s refinery-funded effort.

“Air-quality tests commissioned by a Delaware City citizens group show a jump in local chemical, soot and sulfur levels after the opening of the Delaware City refinery, with at least three toxic pollutants exceeding some public health limits in one spot a mile from the plant,” explained The News Journal.

Photo credit: Delaware Sierra Club

Beyond the study itself, many individuals have anecdotes of how the refinery has impacted their lives and how quality of life was better before the plant reopened in 2011, when PBF Energy purchased the refinery from Valero for $220 million after it was idled for one year.

“I can tell you that the year the plant was shuttered, I did not suffer from my normal seasonal sinus condition in the same manner that I have both before and after,” Delaware City citizen Kristina Lynn told DeSmogBlog in an interview.

“While it is a seasonal allergy that causes my pain, it was nearly absent that year. The town was quiet, no smells, even the sky looked bluer. No rumblings, it was so quiet at night I could hear a horse neigh on a farm a half mile away. I had never heard that before.”

Another Delaware City citizen shared a similar story.

“Air quality is the issue that has affected me the most. My asthma has worsened as have my allergies. The medicines don’t even work all the time now, and I regularly have attacks that cause me to pass out completely for a few seconds,” said Barbara Elizabeth Johnson. “I can’t go outside much unless I sit very still while I am out there and don’t try to walk around too much.”

There is also video and photos of smoke and waste flaring that appears anything but what ERM described as “clean.” Case in point, the video below:

Lastly, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has penalized the refinery ten times for violations since 2011 and the plant itself has received 53 DNREC violation notices during that time period.

An attendee of ERM’s public meeting on its refinery-funded air study makes clear the study had one purpose: to manufacture doubt on the independent air study.

Photo credit: Delaware Sierra Club

“The refinery manager and ERM engineer who gave the presentation at the first public meeting both made it very clear that their only reason for doing the study was to discredit the Delaware City Environmental Coalition study,” Stephanie Herron, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator for Delaware Sierra Club said in an interview.

“They repeatedly emphasized their implied conclusion that not only was the other study wrong and the air totally safe, but that it’s actually even cleaner than many other places in Delaware and Delaware City in the past. They said they would not be doing any further studies since this one was so conclusive that there was no reason to.”

Will History Repeat Itself on Keystone XL?

ERM has a penchant for declaring ecologically destructive projects will be, or are, “clean,” as DeSmog has written about in the cases of the Caspian Sea and Peru.

Many scientists have already weighed in both on the climate change and ecological impacts of tar sands production, as well as on the ecological impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline itself, coming to starkly different conclusions than ERM Group did on its State Department environmental review.

Is more of the same in store for Keystone XL’s northern half? Will it become another Caspian Sea, Peru or Delaware City Refinery?

We’ll find out in the coming months when Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama make the final decision on the controversial pipeline’s destiny.


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About Steve Horn 81 Articles
Research Fellow at @DeSmogBlog. @CounterPunchOrg Contributing Editor. @TruthOut Contributor. @UWMadison/@BuckyBadger Alum.

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