Regina's Co-op Refinery Complex has released far more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S or sour gas) into the air than any other refinery in Canada, according to data the company has provided to the federal government. 

Some VOCs are harmless, while others, according to Environment Canada's website, "are toxic air pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health problems" at high levels.

For example, according to the World Health Organization "benzene is a well-established cause of cancer in humans." And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, toluene can harm the central nervous system and cause headaches and nausea. 

As for H2S, at low levels it can also cause headaches and nausea while at higher levels it can be instantly fatal. 

These numbers are on the order of ten times bigger than you would expect from an oil refinery.  - Alex De Visscher, chemical and engineering professor, University of Calgary

In 2013, the most recent numbers on record, Co-op Refinery emitted 4,229 tonnes of VOCs. 

"These numbers are on the order of ten times bigger than you would expect from an oil refinery," said Alex De Visscher, a chemical and engineering professor from the University of Calgary. 

Co-op has the capacity to produce 130,000 barrels of oil a day. The average refinery in Canada can produce 113,000 barrels a day. 

De Visscher said despite that, "it definitely is something that is an anomaly."

On average, the other 17 refineries in Canada emitted 430 tonnes of VOCs in 2013, meaning Co-op emitted 10 times more than the other refineries on average. 

Regina Co-op refinery emissions 2

Following several large oil sands projects near Fort McMurray, Alberta, the Co-op Refinery Complex was the fourth largest industrial emitter in Canada for volumes of VOCs in 2013. (CBC)

After Co-op, the next largest emitter among Canada's refineries was Edmonton's Suncor Refinery at 879 tonnes. 

The only industrial emitters in Canada which reported releasing a greater volume of VOCs in 2013 were three oil sands projects near Fort McMurray, Alberta. 

  • Syncrude Canada Ltd. - 8,291 tonnes
  • Suncor Energy Oil Sands - 6,768 tonnes
  • Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. - Horizon Oil Sands - 4,328 tonnes
  • Co-op Refinery Complex - 4,229 tonnes

"These numbers are comparable with large oil sands mining operations not with refinery operations," De Visscher said. 

"So definitely something to worry about."

CBC's iTeam has also learned that Co-op emits more of the most problematic VOCs than any other refinery in the country. 

According to the company's numbers for 2013, it released nine times more toluene, 18 times more xylene, 19 times more ethylbenzene and three times more Benzene than the average of all other refineries. 

Ministry of Environment says VOCs 'not raising a flag of concern'

Ash Olesen Ministry of Environment

Ash Olesen, a manager with the Ministry Environment who is responsible for regulating the refinery, said Saskatchewan doesn’t have its own emission standards for VOCs, but instead follows Alberta’s rules. (CBC)

When CBC's iTeam asked the Ministry of Environment why Co-op's VOC emissions are so much higher than any other refinery in the country, the manager responsible for regulating it, Ash Olesen, said "that is a data point that I wasn't aware of." 

"And your question to me is 'do I know why?' The short answer is 'no I don't.'"

Saskatchewan doesn't have its own emission standards for VOCs, but Olesen said the Ministry of Environment follows Alberta's rules.

He explained the ministry requires the refinery to regularly monitor emissions of benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene and many other VOCs.

Detectable levels of VOCs in and around the refinery are all within standards. So as a consequence that is not raising a flag of concern to the ministry. - Ash Olesen,  Environmental Protection and Audit Division, Ministry of Environment

"Detectable levels of VOCs in and around the refinery are all within standards," Olesen said. "So as a consequence that is not raising a flag of concern to the ministry."

For example, toluene is not to exceed 400 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) in a 24-hour period. In recent testing at the refinery, the highest level it reached was 81.7 μg/m3. 

Xylene is not to exceed 700 μg/m3 in a 24 hour period and its highest measurement was 39.2. 

On most occasions, the tests revealed levels much further below the standards. 

Despite that, Olesen said the ministry would like to see the refinery reduce its VOC emissions. 

"We'd like to see a decrease in pollution," Olesen said,"we all understand that there's a need to produce the types of things that that refinery produces, but we would like to see it done with a smaller footprint."

Benzene levels raising concern

Douw Steyn

Douw Steyn, an air pollution specialist at the University of British Columbia (CBC)

Benzene came closest to exceeding the standard but it's difficult to get a clear picture because of the way the refinery is measuring.

The province says benzene isn't to exceed 30 μg/m3 in a one hour period. However the refinery tested for benzene averaged over 24 hours. 

Averaged over that longer period of time, the refinery came close to exceeding the standard. 

On Dec. 17, 2013, the 24-hour average at one Co-op test site was 29 μg/m3 and at another site on Jan. 23, 2013 it averaged 24.3 over a 24-hour span.

De Visscher reviewed the numbers and said he's concerned about the benzene levels. 

"Considering that this is a 24-hour average and that the concentration was not there all the time, that means the concentration was probably much higher at a small portion of the day."

"Not necessarily a dangerous situation, but not a desirable situation," De Visscher said.

Douw Steyn, an air pollution specialist at the University of British Columbia, said given the large volume of total VOC emissions at Co-op, testing should be expanded.

Right now the refinery is conducting one 24-hour test for VOCs every month. "I would like to see a more frequent measurement rate," Steyn said.

"What happens if you happen to hit a day where the wind is very high and the pollutants are severely diluted? Then you are not capturing the most severe conditions," Steyn said. 

Refinery has exceeded sour gas emission standards

According to reports provided by the refinery to the Ministry of Environment, the frequency with which H2S emissions have exceeded the standard has been trending up.

Provincial standards say emissions of H2S should not exceed 10.8 parts per billion (ppb) on an hourly average. 

In 2013, Co-op Refinery exceeded that standard 71 times, according to its own report. 

That's seven times more exceedances than in 2010 and it's more than double the refinery's 10 year average.

De Visscher said, "that's problematically high."

In 2013, Co-op reported releasing 30 tonnes of H2S. That's seven times more than the average of all the other refineries in Canada. 

SOURCE: CCRL: 2013 Annual Environmental Report

Co-op Refinery provides written response

Coop refinery outskirts winter

CBC's iTeam asked the provincial government for a copy of the action plan to reduce emissions that the Co-op Refinery was required to submit to the province when it was approved for expansion in 2008, but it has refused. (CBC)

The refinery did not do an interview with CBC despite requests. Instead, it insisted on responding to written questions. 

In an email, the director of communications and public affairs for the refinery, Brad Delorey, explained why the refinery's emissions are so much higher than other refineries.

We've also undertaken numerous initiatives to bring our VOC levels down, including our $200 million wastewater treatment facility. - Email response from Brad Delorey, director of communications, Co-op Refinery Complex

He said the refinery determines emission levels using "an industry calculation accepted practice to estimate our VOC emissions. We know that the accepted practice overstates the VOC emissions." 

Instead of estimating, Delorey said, some refineries measure the actual VOC emissions. 

In addition, he said "when we report for the refinery we count our loading terminals for products, other refineries separate the refinery process and tanks from the distribution terminals and loading racks."

Delorey said the refinery has "undertaken numerous initiatives to bring our VOC levels down, including our $200 million wastewater treatment facility that will be coming online this year."

As for H2S, Delorey said the number of exceedances is actually "very small."

"We have a 99.2 per cent compliance level," Delorey wrote. "We monitor our H2S levels on an hourly basis. Out of the 8,760 hours in a year, we had 70 instances when we were over. 

Delorey said most of those instances are likely due to weather. 

He said the refinery takes these incidents seriously and investigates all of them. 

Province won't release Co-op's emission reduction plan

Alex De Visscher University of Calgary chemical and engineering professor

Alex De Visscher, a University of Calgary chemical and engineering professor said the Co-op Refinery needs to initiate a Leak Detection and Repair program. (CBC)

When the provincial government approved Co-op's application to expand its operations in September 2008, it did so under the condition that the refinery develop a detailed action plan and schedule to reduce emissions, including VOCs and H2S. 

CBC's iTeam asked the provincial government for a copy of that plan but it has refused. 

The Ministry of Environment argued it can't reveal that information because it was supplied by the refinery in confidence. In addition, the government said making that information public would damage the refinery's business by revealing trade secrets. 

However, Ministry of Environment officials said "the refinery is meeting its commitments and there are no deficiencies." 

And in its written response, the refinery said it's compliant with all air quality standards in the province. 

"For the components that are guidelines, we are continually working in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment to monitor and improve our performance." 

VOC emissions can be reduced by improved maintenance, says expert

De Visscher said if a refinery has high VOC emissions, that could be a sign of maintenance problems. 

"The fugitive emissions can be very high if the plant is poorly run or poorly maintained or [if] it is a very old plant with corroding pipes, leaking pipes, leaking valves, leaking joints and so on."

According to individual incident reports provided by the refinery to the Ministry of Environment, the number of leaks and spills has been growing since 2012.  

The refinery reported 28 in 2012, 34 in 2013 and 41 in 2014.

CBC asked the refinery why the number of leaks and spills were increasing. 

In its written statement it said, "you have a great many questions here and much of this is the whole business of public reporting and consultation that we carry out in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment every day."

"As you can appreciate, these are complex technical matters that don't often lend themselves to short answers." 

Expert offers simple solution

De Visscher said the company needs to initiate a Leak Detection and Repair program (LDAR) which will help identify problem areas so they can be fixed. 

"In my opinion all pollutant emissions are avoidable if you want to spend enough money to omit the pollutants." 

Back in 2012, a report produced by the Canadian Fuels Association, an industry group representing Canada's refineries, also said an LDAR program would help reduce Co-op's VOC emissions.

The report analyzed what it would cost for refineries to come in line with environmental standards being proposed by Canadian governments. 

It found that only one, the Co-op Refinery, would need to reduce its VOC emissions. 

The report said the refinery would have to cut its emissions by about 75 per cent from 4,112 tonnes a year to 1,084 tonnes a year. 

In order to do that, the report said the refinery "would need to implement an LDAR program as well as install [internal floating roofs] to existing fixed roof tanks."

The Ministry of Environment said it agreed that an LDAR program would help cut down the refinery's emissions. 

"There is opportunity to try and get more proactive in addressing fugitive emissions and we're trying our level best to move that forward," Olesen said.

CBC's iTeam asked the refinery if it has conducted an LDAR program. 

"We have budgeted and are proceeding with bringing LDAR to our facility," the refinery said in its written statement.

With files from CBC's Roxanna Woloshyn