The move is part of a consent decree that resolved a lawsuit filed by nonprofit environmental attorneys with Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project on behalf of people directly affected by emissions from refineries in Louisiana, Texas and California.
The changes would compel operators to monitor benzene emissions, upgrade storage tank emission controls, ensure waste gases are properly destroyed and adopt new emission standards for delayed coking units. Operators would also have to make the results of monitoring publicly available.
"The common-sense steps we are proposing will protect the health of families who live near refineries and will provide them with important information about the quality of the air they breathe," EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.
The suit filed in 2012 in district court accused the EPA of shirking its duties under the Clean Air Act by neglecting to review and possibly revise refinery emission standards every three years. The EPA hasn't implemented new emission standards since 1995.
The suit also said that mainly low-income and minority people share fence lines with refineries, and are therefore at disproportionate risk of air-quality-related illnesses.
The EPA will take comment on the proposals for 60 days. It also plans to hold two public hearings near Houston and Los Angeles, and will finalize the standards in April 2015.
Environmental groups claim that some 150 petroleum refineries nationwide emit more than 20,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants annually, including chemicals that are linked to cancer such as benzene and toluene.
The EPA says the proposals would reduce toxic air emissions by an estimated 5,600 tons per year. Environmental groups contend companies underreport the amount of chemicals they release, and have called for the agency to enforce stricter reporting requirements.