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Long-term exposure to even low levels of benzene is linked to an increase in cancers, especially leukemia. High short-term exposure to the chemical — a component of crude oil and refined gasoline — can interfere with the formation of red blood cells and harm people’s immune systems. The refinery released enough benzene to cause acute harm to human health during at least 50 weeks since 2018 —more than any other U.S. refinery, according to EPA data. HollyFrontier, which is headquartered in Dallas, knew in early 2017 that its refinery was exceeding a federal benzene emissions limit. America’s refinery towns already bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s air pollution. Health experts say that could put residents struck by the novel coronavirus at higher risk of severe outcomes as they battle the potentially deadly respiratory disease. And with the U.S. economy teetering on the edge of recession, oil industry analysts expect a sharp decline in fuel consumption. That could mean a cascade of job losses for refineries that already operate on tight profit margins. In urban centers such as Philadelphia and Houston, the new benzene emissions data has confirmed longtime concerns about the safety of refineries. In more remote areas — including Artesia, N.M., where the mayor is an oilman and a quarter of the City Council works at the refinery — the data has raised new questions about the dangers of an oil processing industry that remains the cornerstone of some rural economies. Like most states, New Mexico doesn’t release detailed information on cancer rates in small towns like Artesia. The state’s top epidemiologist, who can only publicly share county-level data, said the refinery’s effect on Artesia’s cancer rate isn’t clear. But other health experts have already seen enough to sound the alarm. “It’s exposing people in the neighborhood to levels that are widely considered to be unacceptable for public health,” said Martyn Smith, a toxicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and an expert on the effects of benzene. From water to oil Originally named for its gushing water wells, Artesia began as an agricultural hamlet around the turn of the 20th century. But some of those wells began to produce hydrocarbons in addition to water, and soon the oil industry became the mainstay of the town’s economy. Sitting on the northern edge of the Permian oil basin, in the sandy scrublands north of Carlsbad, N.M., the Navajo refinery was built in the 1930s and was purchased by a predecessor to HollyFrontier in 1969. It has no connection to the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is more than 400 miles northwest of Artesia. Today the facility on East Main Street can process more than 100,000 barrels per day of crude into fuel and other products, which are mainly sold in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The largest refinery in the Land of Enchantment, it physically and financially looms over Artesia.

Long-term exposure to even low levels of benzene is linked to an increase in cancers, especially leukemia. High short-term exposure to the chemical — a component of crude oil and refined gasoline — can interfere with the formation of red blood cells and harm people’s immune systems.

The refinery released enough benzene to cause acute harm to human health during at least 50 weeks since 2018 —more than any other U.S. refinery, according to EPA data. HollyFrontier, which is headquartered in Dallas, knew in early 2017 that its refinery was exceeding a federal benzene emissions limit.

America’s refinery towns already bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s air pollution. Health experts say that could put residents struck by the novel coronavirus at higher risk of severe outcomes as they battle the potentially deadly respiratory disease. And with the U.S. economy teetering on the edge of recession, oil industry analysts expect a sharp decline in fuel consumption. That could mean a cascade of job losses for refineries that already operate on tight profit margins.

In urban centers such as Philadelphia and Houston, the new benzene emissions data has confirmed longtime concerns about the safety of refineries. In more remote areas — including Artesia, N.M., where the mayor is an oilman and a quarter of the City Council works at the refinery — the data has raised new questions about the dangers of an oil processing industry that remains the cornerstone of some rural economies.

Like most states, New Mexico doesn’t release detailed information on cancer rates in small towns like Artesia. The state’s top epidemiologist, who can only publicly share county-level data, said the refinery’s effect on Artesia’s cancer rate isn’t clear.

But other health experts have already seen enough to sound the alarm.

“It’s exposing people in the neighborhood to levels that are widely considered to be unacceptable for public health,” said Martyn Smith, a toxicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and an expert on the effects of benzene.

From water to oil
Originally named for its gushing water wells, Artesia began as an agricultural hamlet around the turn of the 20th century. But some of those wells began to produce hydrocarbons in addition to water, and soon the oil industry became the mainstay of the town’s economy.

Sitting on the northern edge of the Permian oil basin, in the sandy scrublands north of Carlsbad, N.M., the Navajo refinery was built in the 1930s and was purchased by a predecessor to HollyFrontier in 1969. It has no connection to the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is more than 400 miles northwest of Artesia.

Today the facility on East Main Street can process more than 100,000 barrels per day of crude into fuel and other products, which are mainly sold in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The largest refinery in the Land of Enchantment, it physically and financially looms over Artesia.

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