LA AIR QUALITY - Southern California’s petroleum refineries have a long history of dodging regulation.
For decades, refineries have been using the same aging and high-polluting equipment, exposing nearby frontline communities to dangerously unhealthy air and an alarming number of toxic leaks, explosions, fires, and other so-called accidents that threaten our health and safety. And the risks are increasing the longer that refineries delay doing critical equipment maintenance and installing readily available upgrades: refineries have reported 50 major incidents of flaring and hazardous waste spills in the past two years alone.
For the communities living on the fenceline of refineries in Wilmington, Carson, and West Long Beach, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Yet instead of taking the urgently needed action to protect public health and safety, the regulator in charge of overseeing refineries, the South Coast Air Quality Management District enables refineries to evade accountability. The Air District has failed to create or enforce meaningful rules to control Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), carbon-based toxic chemicals that can escape during various phases of crude oil processing and fossil fuel combustion, entering the body through inhalation or skin contact. The U.S. EPA says the effect of VOC exposure may range from throat irritation to liver/kidney damage and cancer. Rather than controlling VOC leaks, the Air District is preoccupied with granting variances, which are administrative exceptions that allow refineries to pollute with impunity.
Earlier this year, the Air District’s leader admitted that the procedures enabling the liberal granting of variances “may be problematic…” but stated this should be addressed by selecting new board members or legislative changes. Rather than carving out exceptions for polluters, the Air District must uphold its duty to clean the air and protect public health.
The Air District’s refusal to hold industry accountable and mitigate their harmful impacts has eroded our communities’ trust in the agency. Especially troubling is the Air District backtracking on commitments and ignoring its own analysis. The Air District committed to updating Rules 1173 and 1176 to protect communities from cancer-causing VOCs, in its 2016 master plan and a 2019 community plan for the Wilmington, Carson, West Long Beach neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods have the highest concentration of VOC-spewing refineries on the West Coast. Fast-forward to 2022, these rules have yet to be updated. According to Nastri, the agency is prioritizing addressing nitrogen oxide emissions rather than VOCs. This dismisses the consequences of ongoing exposure to toxic VOCs on frontline communities and communities across the region.
For generations, communities throughout Southern California have been forced to breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation. The Community Air Protection Act—Assembly Bill 617—was adopted with the acknowledgment that our communities need real emission reductions. Yet, in the Community Emissions Reduction Plan for Wilmington, Carson, and West Long Beach, the Air District did not create strong emissions reduction requirements for polluting sources such as refineries. Instead, the Air District has committed only to monitor refinery emissions at most facilities, with little to no progress on strengthening or enforcing refinery rules.
We need the Air District to deescalate this dangerous situation and start doing its job by (1) updating outdated rules, (2) enforcing existing rules, and (3) stopping industries from receiving free passes to pollute in the form of variances. As we all know, air isn’t confined or restricted to boundaries—it flows, it travels—and so does the pollution that is emitted into the air; whether its health impacts or extreme weather events brought on by climate change, we all feel the impacts of an agency willfully neglecting its responsibilities.
The bottom line is that communities living in the South Coast Air Basin and beyond deserve clean air, and the Air District’s regulatory failures subvert this basic right. We’re all counting on the Air District to safeguard future generations by strengthening regulatory oversight and finally requiring that refineries install readily available and life-saving pollution control equipment. Time is running out and we cannot afford to keep giving refineries a free pass to poison our air. The consequences of the Air District’s continued inaction are unconscionable. We cannot afford to sit back and watch history continue to repeat itself.
(Whitney Amaya is an organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice based in Long Beach. Alison Hahm is an associate attorney at Communities for a Better Environment based in Wilmington.)