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Southland air quality watchdog sued over refinery air pollution rule

An environmental advocacy group has accused Southern California’s regional air-quality watchdog of not properly enforcing a state law that requires petroleum refineries to install air-quality monitoring systems around their perimeters, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization, filed the lawsuit last month on behalf of local environmental group East Yard Communities for a Better Environment. The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses the South Coast Air Quality Management District of violating state law by exempting smaller refineries from the fence-line monitoring requirement.

Officials with AQMD – which is tasked with improving air quality in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties – declined to comment, citing the agency’s policy of not publicly commenting on pending litigation.

“Time and again, the South Coast Air District has let refineries off the hook for their dangerous emissions and denied frontline communities even the most basic information about the toxic pollutants they breathe every day,” Earthjustice senior attorney Oscar Espino-Padron, who filed the petition, said in an emailed statement. “It’s time for the Air District to end unlawful exemptions and provide frontline communities with vital information they need to protect their health and safety.”

The Los Angeles and Long Beach metropolitan areas are among the most polluted in the nation, largely because of the overconcentration of refineries and other industrial facilities in the region. Wilmington, Carson, Torrance and West Long Beach, for example, are all home to petroleum refineries and are close to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — and the busy freeways that carry trucks to and from the San Pedro Bay Complex.

The region’s refineries – as well as the ports – have, for their parts, worked to reduce emissions over the years, acknowledging the adverse health consequences pollution causes for those who live nearby.

The Tosco refinery, for example, cut flaring by more than 90% from 2008 to 2021. And in 2021, the Carson refinery installed the state-mandated fence-line monitoring system.

State officials, meanwhile, have long sought to address air pollution in the region.

In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1647 — which tasked the state’s air-quality regulators, including AQMD, with requiring all petroleum refineries to develop, install, operate and maintain fence-line emission monitoring systems by Jan. 1, 2020.

Fence-line monitoring systems provide real-time, easily accessible data about refinery emissions — largely to inform those in adjacent and neighboring communities when emissions reach potentially hazardous levels.

Besides Tosco, Torrance refinery and Chevron El Segundo are among the Southern California petroleum refineries that have fence-line monitoring systems.

But AQMD, according to Earthjustice’s lawsuit, has failed to enforce the state law at some refineries in Southern California. Instead, the agency has maintained its own pre-existing fence-line monitoring regulation, dubbed Rule 1180, which carved out exemptions for smaller refineries.

“Refineries that produce 40,000 gallons of crude oil or greater are required to conduct this type of monitoring continuously and in near-real time,” according to AQMD’s website, “and display this information on a dedicated website.”

Under that rule, refineries that don’t meet that threshold aren’t required to establish fence-line monitoring systems.

Among the refineries that produce fewer than 40,000 gallons a day are Paramount Petroleum, Valero Wilmington Asphalt Refinery and World Oil, in South Gate. Those refineries, which the lawsuit mentioned as examples of smaller facilities, did not return requests for comment.

But AB 1647 — also known as the Monitoring Mandate — does not permit any exemptions to the law based on oil production capacity, Earthjustice’s suit said.

The law’s text, in fact, does not list any explicit exemptions based on a refinery’s size.

“Yet, these refineries still emit toxic pollutants and threaten public safety,” Earthjustice’s complaint said. “The Monitoring Mandate (AB 1467) does not allow air districts to exempt refineries of a certain size from fenceline and community air monitoring requirements.”

AQMD’s Governing Board adopted its fence-line monitoring rule in December 2017, just a few months before AB 1647 became law. In 2019, according to the lawsuit, AQMD added Rule 1180 to its 2020 Rule Forecast — which lays out the agency’s plans to review or establish policies throughout the year — for possible reconsideration amid the new state requirements.

But the agency, according to the lawsuit, never followed through.

AQMD never launched working group meetings about the rule or agendized an amendment, even though it was once again on the forecast for 2022, the lawsuit said.

“The amendment has languished in the Rule Forecasts,” the lawsuit added, “and the Air District has never even placed the amendment on an agenda.”

The air-quality agency’s interpretation of AB 1647, vis-a-vis Rule 1180, apparently differs from Earthjustice’s.

“Rule 1180 satisfies the larger state-wide California Assembly Bill No. 1647,” AQMD’s website says, “which requires refineries to maintain fenceline monitoring systems, and the development of refinery-related community monitoring sites.”

Earthjustice’s complaint, though, also draws a parallel to a similar lawsuit filed against the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District in 2020.

That agency had also adopted a fence-line monitoring rule with exceptions for refineries that produce less than 40,000 gallons of crude oil per day. Comite Progreso de Lamonte, a San Joaquin Valley environmental group, accused the pollution control district of violating the state Monitoring Mandate.

A Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled in 2021 that Valley Air’s exemptions for certain refineries based on their oil capacity did not comply with the state’s mandate — and that the district exceeded its authority by implementing it.

“The record lacks any analytical justification for using the 40,000 (gallon) figure as a threshold to differentiate between petroleum refineries for air monitoring purposes,” the 2021 ruling said. “The exemption is arbitrary, capricious, and lacks rational basis.”

Related links

Local battle over toxic chemical at Torrance, Wilmington refineries continues
Torrance Refinery cited for failing to properly maintain equipment, watchdog says 
Three days of unplanned flaring at Torrance Refinery caused by damaged equipment
LA-Long Beach has worst smog pollution in nation, report finds
Port of Long Beach channel deepening project gets final go-ahead

The final ruling required Valley Air to void the exemption and issue revised regulations for air-quality monitoring to comply with the state law.

In light of the Fresno court decision, Earthjustice and other environmental groups wrote to AQMD expressing their concerns about Rule 1180 and its exemptions — to no avail, according to the complaint.

Earthjustice’s suit has asked the LA County Superior Court to follow the Fresno decision and require AQMD to comply with the state law.

The two parties are slated to attend a trial setting conference on March 30 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles, according to court documents.

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