The Hyperion Project:
Health risks largely unknown
ELK POINT, S.D. -- The inside joke at Arlinda and Harland Gylfe's home is, "Hey, wanna buy a house?"
a coping mechanism. The Gylfes are more than a little worried about
what Arlinda calls "my little piece of earth," the 11-acre home site
where they have lived for 10 years. It's where their two youngest
children, Ashley, 13, and Cecil, 9, help raise about 30 bottle calves
and a couple of dozen hogs, and it’s where Arlinda photographs
migrating geese and ducks each year as they rest on nearby Brule Creek.
Harland and Arlinda Gylfe stand with their two children, Ashley and
Cecil, on May 16 at their farm which will be within a 1/2 mile of the
Hyperion site. The couple wonder how affected their ground water they
use for drinking will be since some toxins will be produced by the
plant. (Staff photo by Jerry Mennenga)
acreage lies off 317th Street in a notch of land near the south side of
the 3,226 acres where Hyperion Resources' proposed oil refinery/energy
plant would be built.
It's what an oil refinery might do to her family's well water that most concerns Arlinda Gylfe.
for one," she said of a known cancer-causing element found in all
petroleum products. "And anything seeping in. Your family drinks this
water. Any kind of spillage is a real concern. How would you clean it
"Out of good conscience, I don't think I could ever sell my house to anybody," Gylfe said.
Gylfes aren't the only ones worried about the environmental impacts an
oil refinery would have. Forty-one percent of 340 registered voters in
Union County said in a Journal poll conducted April 29 that they
"strongly" or "somewhat" agree that "the refinery's emissions would
impose a serious health hazard."
But quantifying or defining
those hazards is difficult, making the decision about whether to vote
yes or no June 3 on Hyperion’s request to rezone ag land for the
refinery all the more challenging.
Will technology make a difference?
has filed an air-quality permit application with the South Dakota
Department of Environment and Natural Resources, but very little is
known about how the plant would operate and what those operations would
mean for the environment and health of the region. In fact, if the
rezoning proposal is approved, its likely Union County residents won’t
have access to much of the specific data and information opponents have
asked for until the state and federal permitting process begins.
The DENR has said the permitting process will be open to public scrutiny and comment.
officials say the refinery will be “green” and will be 80 percent
cleaner than those operating in California, a state with some of the
nation’s most stringent environmental standards. Opponents say a
refinery of any kind cannot truly be “green” and that if Hyperion were
serious about building an environmentally conscious project it would
have selected an abandoned refinery or other “brownfield” site rather
than choosing unspoiled land for its project.
many Union County residents worry about emissions of cancer-causing
chemicals such as benzene, the potential dangers involved with the
heavy tar sands oil the project is being designed to refine, runoff
into aquifers and nearby water sources and the plant’s use of water,
among other concerns.
For Jackie Heckathorn, who lives one mile
from the proposed footprint, it's not the water but the air that
concerns her. She has suffered from allergies and severe asthma since a
bout of influenza years ago.
"We spent 10 years looking for a
place where I could live comfortably without being on massive
medications," she said. “Just because I'm extreme, I'm not out of the
ordinary for what the impact on the air is going to be in this area.”
Hyperion officials say the impact the refinery would have on air and water would be considerably less than some opponents fear.
technology has advanced across all phases, just like the automobile has
advanced on engine technology," said project executive J.L. "Corky"
Frank said the refinery would have more than the minimum
required number of air monitors, and project manager Preston Phillips
said he hopes to have the data they gather available online in near
They said Hyperion will capture and clean even
rainwater runoff and will clean all the water it returns to the
Missouri River, along with design measures to keep petroleum products
in any form from escaping.
Frank said there would be no
detectable odor beyond the fence and that the facility would not
produce noise at a level that is "unacceptable." Further, he said,
tanks would be surrounded by a "firewall" high enough to contain their
entire contents in the event of a leak or rupture and would be lined to
prevent seepage into the soil. Likewise, any leakage from the miles of
pipe in the refinery would be collected in the hazardous waste system,
However, Hyperion has not released detailed engineering
information about exactly how the plant would operate in order to
achieve all of those goals.
Weighing the risks
Union County Board of Commissioners held two public hearings before it
approved the zoning change March 11. Charles Yelverton, a family
physician in Vermillion, S.D., testified at both hearings that he is
concerned about the potential for benzene emissions from the refinery
to cause health problems, "the most disturbing of which is childhood
Benzene is a colorless, sweet-smelling liquid that is
highly flammable, evaporates quickly and is found in all petroleum
products, including crude oil and gasoline.
It is on the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency's top-10 list of proven cancer causers.
It is also among the top 20 chemicals for production volume and one of
the most widely used in manufacturing, according to the federal Agency
for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Benzene is present at
all gas stations, and workers in industries that produce or employ the
chemical have higher cancer rates than nonexposed workers, EPA data
Yelverton said other health issues he believes are related
to refinery emissions include respiratory problems, rashes, preterm
labor and liver and kidney ailments.
"It's just not worth the
risk to be wrong in predicting there will be no health effects," he
said, noting people once thought there was no harm in breathing
Benzene is often expressed in air emissions
data as part of a group of pollutants classified as volatile organic
compounds. Hyperion's air permit application says the refinery and
energy center would produce 473 tons of volatile organic compounds per
year. Frank says the benzene emissions involved in that group of
pollutants will be “extremely low."
Hyperion's center would also
emit nearly 2,000 tons of carbon monoxide, 773 tons of nitrogen oxides,
more than 1,000 tons of particulate matter and 863 tons of sulfur
dioxide annually, according to the permit.
report prepared by a Hyperion consultant indicates the refinery would
increase cancer by just one case for every 1 million people exposed
outdoors nearby for 70 years.
Denny Larson, a community activist
in California who has come to Siouxland to speak about refineries'
environmental impacts at the behest of Hyperion opponents, has worked
in refinery communities for 25 years to get oil companies to do a
better job of reducing their air and water pollution. He heads the San
Francisco-based Refinery Reform Campaign and has served on a number of
federal and state boards working to design better regulations for the
However, Larson said he is not anti-oil
refinery. In fact, he said, he is trying to get some existing
refineries to adopt some of the environmental precautions Hyperion says
it will take in South Dakota.
But Larson believes Hyperion’s health-risk study ignores other health concerns, such as those pointed out by Yelverton.
assessments in general have been losing favor for about 20 years now
because they're just guesstimates based on a lot of assumptions,"
Larson said. "You can take data and tweak it and change the assumptions
until you come up with that one-in-a-million health-risk factor."
proponents such as Alcester’s Tracy Koenig aren’t daunted by the murky
picture voters have about the proposed refinery’s impact on health.
Koenig said that if Hyperion doesn’t live up to its promises, she will
quickly become a project opponent.
Until that time, she supports the project and doesn’t believe it will have a detrimental impact on her family’s health.
“I have a son with asthma, and if I thought he was going to be in a life-threatening situation I would not be for it,” she said.