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The art of refining – environmental issues facing refineries today

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo

Refineries today face various dangers and environmental issues. We probe the most pressing ones.

An oil (or petroleum) refinery is an industrial processing plant where crude oil is converted into petroleum by-products like petroleum naphtha, gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt base, heating oil, kerosene, and liquefied petroleum gas. Typically, these refineries are sprawling industrial complexes with extensive piping systems that carry streams of fluids between large chemical processing units. It usually has an oil depot (tank farm) at or near the oil refinery for the storage of incoming crude oil feedstock, as well as bulk liquid products.

South Africa has six large oil/petroleum refineries: Caltex (in Cape Town), Engen (in Durban), Natref (in Sasolburg), Mossel Bay GTL Refinery (which belongs to PetroSA) (in Mossel Bay),the Sasol Refinery (in Secunda), and the Shell SA Refining and BP Southern African (SAPREF) refineries (also in Durban).

Refineries and pollution

Oil refineries pollute air, water, and land. South African oil refineries emit about 100 chemicals every day from the stacks and leaking equipment at refineries. Our land is polluted by the large amount of harmful waste from refineries that needs to be dumped. Likewise, our water is polluted by the fallout from air pollution and by refineries discharging chemical pollutants into waterways. Accidental oil spills also pollute the groundwater and open waterways.

Effects of refineries

Helen Wake, formerly of the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Stirling in the UK, writes in Volume 62 of the Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science journal: “Pollution of the aquatic environment occurs from many different sources, including from oil refineries. Oil refinery effluents contain many different chemicals at different concentrations, including ammonia, sulphides, phenol, and hydrocarbons. The exact composition cannot however be generalised as it depends on the refinery and which units are in operation at any specific time. It is therefore difficult to predict what effects the effluent may have on the environment.”

She adds that the extent of the effect is dependent on the effluent composition, the outfall’s position, and the state of the recipient environment. “The discharge from oil refineries has reduced in quantity and toxicity over recent decades, allowing many impacted environments in estuaries and coasts to make a substantial recovery,” writes Wake.

Many of the gases emitted by refineries are harmful to humans. Inhaling these gases can cause permanent damage — and even death. They can cause respiratory problems (such as asthma, coughing, chest pain, and bronchitis), skin irritations, nausea, eye problems, headaches, birth defects, leukaemia, and cancers. Young children and the elderly are often the worst affected.

Refineries can reduce the amount of pollution they cause in many ways. This, however, would require the installation of certain equipment, which many refineries deem an unnecessary expense and subsequently avoid doing.

Another problem refineries face is fugitive emissions; that is, emissions escaping through leaks in equipment. Very often, the amount of pollution coming from fugitive emissions is higher than the amount coming out of the stacks but, in South Africa, refineries are not required to monitor fugitive emissions.

When refineries go bad

Accidental fires, explosions, as well as chemical and gas leaks occur at refineries from time to time. Such accidents cause higher than usual amounts of pollution, which may result in exposure that is more acute and greater health impacts.

Refinery disasters do not happen often, but when they do, not only is there a risk of loss of life, but it also damages valuable equipment and results in lost production time. In addition, the chemicals that refineries deal with daily might be released into the surrounding environment, which can cause untold damage to animals and plant life.

In March 2015, a fire broke out at the Africa Sun Oil Refineries in Mobeni, Durban. The fire, which reached 1 300°C, turned bricks to ash and melted containers and steel girders. It also damaged the nearby mangroves, which might take as long as 20 years to recover, according to Gan Moodley and Dr Deborah Robertson-Andersson, marine scientists and senior lecturers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Damages are provisionally estimated at R100-million.

Laws and regulations governing refineries

The Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act, 1965 (Act No. 45 of 1965) — although outdated and needing to be revised to be in line with international standards — is the main law governing air pollution. In terms of this Act, no-one may operate a refinery without having a registration certificate (or permit) from the Department of Environmental Affairs (formerly known as the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism).

The permit sets a limit to the amount of pollution that the refinery is allowed to emit. If the refinery exceeds the limit, then it is violating the law and can be punished. This is great, except that South African refineries are not required to actually measure their air emissions. They may simply estimate or calculate the amount they are emitting through their stacks. These estimates do not include fugitive emissions and are often inaccurate.


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