Officials from the Utah Division of Air Quality held a hearing on Wednesday, April 30, related to the proposed nearby construction of an oil refinery. [Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon Trust]  

Amid air quality concerns, the permitting process for a proposed Green River oil refinery is moving forward.

The Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) held a public hearing in Green River on Wednesday, April 30, to accept comments on the second design of an oil refinery that would be built near the small town in Emery County. Several regional environmental groups spoke out against the project, citing potentially hazardous air pollution, and concerns regarding the legitimacy of the permitting process itself.

“DAQ is allowing Emery to construct a facility which lacks an approval order,” said Taylor McKinnon, the director of energy with Grand Canyon Trust, in a statement to the DAQ review panel. “Construction of the refinery during the public notice and comment violates the Utah Air Quality Rules, the Utah Air Conservation Act, and the federal Clean Air Act.”

The proposed $230 million refinery and rail facility will be located less than five miles west of Green River. A project of Houston-based Rock River Resources, it is intended to process 15,000 barrels of oil per day, of both heavy and light crude, processed from hydrocarbons from oil shale and tar sands.

McKinnon said refinery pollution has high concentrations of hazardous air pollutants, including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. At the public hearing, Grand Canyon Trust argued that the proposed refinery will emit four hazardous air pollutants in quantities sufficient enough to require “dispersion modeling” and impact documentation – requirements mandated by the Utah Air Quality Rules – before DAQ can legally decide to issue an approval order.

“Clearly, dispersion modeling and documentation of impacts after the issuance of an approval order prevents interested parties from a full understanding of the impact of the refinery,” McKinnon said. “This is illegal, contrary to public policy, and should be altered immediately.”

The refinery’s first design, proposed in 2013, was also challenged by Grand Canyon Trust, which appealed the permit granted by the DAQ. The permit listed the refinery as a minor source of emissions requiring approval only from the State, unlike a source of major emissions which would be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the Trust, the refinery will emit four hazardous air pollutants – benzene, toluene, hexane, and ethylbenzene. As well, “when CO2 emissions are properly accounted for, emissions from the refinery exceed 100,000 tons per year,” McKinnon said. “This renders the refinery a major source.”

“We’re making every effort to keep our emissions at a minimum, and the technology puts us in a position to say we are cleaner than the guys who came before us,” Jeff Beicker, Rock River Resources chief operating officer, told the Deseret News last year.

Emery County commissioner JR Nelson said he’s not concerned with air quality “if in fact the refinery can, as promised, stay within the standards set by the Division of Air Quality.”

Nelson is enthusiastic about the benefits such a refinery may bring to Emery County.

“When Emery County experienced growth through power plants and coal mine expansion, many improvements accompanied the energy boom,” he said. “We have a lifestyle that could not have existed with taxes on alfalfa fields.”

From taxes earned off of the energy boom of recent years, the county was able to establish special service districts for water, sewer and city roads. They established new services for citizens, a recreation district, and a weed and mosquito department.

“After the industrial growth, the school grew to about 900 students.” Nelson said. “The growth had a huge impact on our school system. Emery High has a beautiful auditorium, basketball arena, science wing, library, and outside facilities second to none.”

However, the population within the school is on now on the decline as more young families leave the county. Nelson is hoping that the refinery might provide jobs that entice those people to stay.

“The powers that be in Emery County want jobs – and that’s all they’re looking at,” Green River resident Kelly Dunham said. “Personally I don’t want it; not at all.”

Dunham was one of only two Emery county residents to attend the public hearing.

“My thought is that most people have no idea that [the refinery] is happening,” Dunham said. “We don’t have our own newspaper. It’s extremely difficult to get all the information.”

State officials beyond Emery County have expressed support for the refinery. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development voted in June of last year to grant a $12.7-million tax credit for the project.

“The air quality is already bad to worsening and the water resources of the Colorado are all used up,” Living Rivers director John Weisheit said. “The state of Utah claims they will be better stewards of this landscape than the feds, and this statement is the biggest crock of lies that I have ever heard.”

The DAQ has said that any comments received during the public comment period and the hearing will be evaluated. Those comments could result in the DAQ again changing the proposed conditions of the approval order.

Environmental groups turn out for meeting in Green River

“When Emery County experienced growth through power plants and coal mine expansion, many improvements accompanied the energy boom.  We have a lifestyle that could not have existed with taxes on alfalfa fields.”