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Navajo Refining

Processing over 100,000 barrels of crude each day, the Navajo Refinery supplies Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas with refined products through two of its company-owned pipelines. Products made by the Navajo Refinery in Artesia, New Mexico, include: asphalt, jet fuel, diesel fuel and gasoline. Most of the activity of the refinery revolves around the manufacture of gasoline.

Past Lawsuits

The history of the Navajo Refinery has not been perfect. It has been named in a number of lawsuits for various infractions against the environment and health.

  • In 1993, the United States sued the Navajo Refinery in Artesia for failing to comply with environmental regulations to control toxins in air emissions and wastewater pollution. A survey from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found high levels of benzene in both the wastewater evaporation ponds and the groundwater near the refinery. Civil penalties of over $7 million were sought in the case.
  • A 2003 proposed merger with Frontier Corp. brought the Navajo Refinery's parent company, Holly Corp., under scrutiny. The merger failed when Holly learned of the legal proceedings against Frontier. At the time, a class-action lawsuit against Frontier alleged that more than 400 students from Beverly Hills High School came into contact with carcinogenic materials from oil extraction equipment on the school's grounds. Representing the students was famed lawyer Erin Brockovich, who had also presented several wrongful injury cases for asbestos. Navajo Refinery's owner, Holly Corporation, pulled out and was sued for breach of contract by Frontier, but to avoid the merger and the legal fees from the environmental lawsuit, they counter-sued Frontier.

Asbestos in Oil Refineries

In cases where excessive heat or combustion was a concern, asbestos was the insulating material preferred by builders during most of the 20th century. Plants like the Navajo Refinery, therefore, were frequently built with materials that contained asbestos. Along with being non-flammable as well as heat-proof, various types of amphibole asbestos are also especially resistant to reactive chemicals. Because of this, asbestos was used in lab equipment, safety clothes and bench tops. Asbestos, however, came with a significant downside that was not known or at times deliberately ignored: serious and sometimes lethal medical conditions were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

Much of this asbestos was the form called amosite. The brown pigment associated with amosite comes from iron molecules in its chemical makeup; this also makes amosite resistant to acidic substances, such as those produced in plants like the Navajo Refinery. Used for decades in the form of asbestos-containing transite in labs and refineries across the US, amosite was finally disallowed for construction purposes in the 1970s.

As with cement, asbestos transite could be laminated and molded into working surfaces. As long as it was solid, this form of asbestos posed almost no risk. However, as this transite got older, it became prone to crumbling, which enabled the lethal, microscopic fibers to flake off into the atmosphere. In this state, it is considered friable, a term used for material that is easily pulverized. The insulation lining of industrial ovens also often were fabricated with friable asbestos.

Why Is Friable Asbestos a Problem?

Friable asbestos is a problem since in this state the particles can be readily released into the air. Diseases like asbestosis and cancer are known to result from the inhalation of asbestos. Mesothelioma, an unusual but often lethal cancer affecting the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the pleural cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, which happens when those microscopic fibers float in the air and land on food or in beverages, may be the cause of peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma.

Because scientific inquiry yielded more awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, workers today enjoy the protection of strict guidelines regulating how to use asbestos. When facilities like the Navajo Refinery were built, however, asbestos was more prevalent. Any asbestos that remains from that period may still pose a health hazard if containment protocols are not observed during remodeling and demolition projects.

The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos

Unlike most job-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the causing incident, asbestos-related diseases may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to develop. The symptoms of mesothelioma and asbestosis - chronic coughing, shortness of breath (also known as dyspnea) and pain in the chest - may often be confused with those of other conditions. Accordingly, it is extremely important for everyone who worked in or spent much time around places like the Navajo Refinery to ask their health care professionals for a mesothelioma treatment guide. Such information can enable physicians make a timely diagnosis; especially with mesothelioma, the sooner it is diagnosed, the higher the odds of survival or at least of enjoying an improved quality of life. A mesothelioma cure could one day be developed but only palliative treatments currently exist.


Sources - EPA Enforcements Accomplishments Report: 1993 - Navajo Refinery - Hot fuel update: Weights and Measures waits; judge allows class-action lawsuit to proceed

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

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