Relief can’t come soon enough for Dolores Linares, who says the refineries leave a sticky dust on her car and give off an odor “so heavy that it’s unbearable. You even wake up because the smell is so strong — very, very strong, especially in the early morning.” Wilmington Park Elementary School, which Linares’ sons attend along with 800 or so other children, lies less than three-quarters of a mile from Andeavor’s Wilmington refinery, whose tanks and towers are visible from the school’s playground. That operation reported discharging more than 3.3 million pounds of pollutants in 2016, including 95,095 pounds of toxic chemicals such as the carcinogen benzene. The company’s Carson refinery eclipsed those numbers, reporting releases of more than 4.5 million pounds of pollutants, including 374,621 pounds of toxics. In 2015, data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show, seven California refineries — three in the south, four in the north — were among the top 10 industrial sources statewide for both greenhouse-gas and toxic air emissions.
It gets worse. A study commissioned by the AQMD in 2015 and published this year found that VOC emissions from the Wilmington and Carson refineries — and two others in nearby Torrance and El Segundo — over a 2 ½-month period were 2.7 to almost 12 times higher than what had been assumed. Benzene emissions were undercounted by factors ranging from 3.2 to 202. Researchers with a Swedish firm called FluxSense Inc. used optical remote sensing devices to calculate levels of chemicals wafting invisibly from storage tanks, pipes and other equipment and compared that data to estimates made by the refinery operators. FluxSense’s Johan Mellqvist says all refineries lose gases and vapors “from many points. Many small leaks make a big leak.”
For this reason and others, the AQMD’s green-lighting of the Andeavor project in May did not sit well with public-health advocates. Two groups sued the agency, claiming, among other things, that its review of the company’s environmental impact report glossed over the FluxSense findings. Phyllis Fox, an expert hired by one of the groups, Safe Fuel and Energy Resources California, calculated that VOC emissions from the new crude storage tanks and other equipment within the 930-acre complex could be almost 30 times what the report predicts. AQMD officials wouldn’t respond to the allegation, citing the nascent litigation. In comments attached to the report, however, the district said it must rely on estimates “because real-time monitoring cannot be performed on equipment that has not been built.”
Andeavor says there’s no reason to believe that the anticipated bump in refining capacity — 6,000 barrels of oil per day on top of the 380,000 barrels already coursing through the Wilmington and Carson sites — will translate into dirtier air. In fact, it claims the replacement of old equipment will lead to a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions — “the equivalent of removing more than 13,500 passenger vehicles from local roads each year” — and pollution from sulfur and nitrogen oxides, fine particles and carbon monoxide. But Julia May, a senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment, the other group that’s suing over the project, says Andeavor’s own statements to investors suggest it expects to bring in greater amounts of highly volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and asphalt-like tar sands from Alberta, raising the prospect of explosions during transport and more air pollution. The environmental impact report fails to account for this likely shift, the lawsuit alleges. The company insists the mix of crudes it refines won’t change.
The AQMD says it received more than 2,100 written or verbal comments on the refinery merger, more than three-quarters of which were supportive. Many of those who objected did so passionately. Maria Brizeño of Wilmington wrote, “We are already surrounded in all directions by refineries. I see them from all my windows. I cannot open my windows at night because the oil smell is too strong and noxious. In the morning, my yard is covered with soot. We do not need more hazards.” Sylvia Arredondo, also of Wilmington, collected comments from fellow residents, including Armando G. Soto, who wrote, “The only thing I’ve ever received from the refineries is the f***ing asthma I suffer from today.” In April, the annual People’s Climate March Los Angeles was held in Wilmington for the first time, and about 5,000 people turned out. Much of their ire was directed at the company then known as Tesoro.
U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, a Democrat whose district includes Wilmington and Carson, urged the U.S. EPA in a June 1 letter not to grant Andeavor the permit revisions it needed to go forward with the project, saying its impacts “are not theoretical or abstract but would [have] real-life consequences that my constituents, many of whom are low-income or of color, would live with every day of their lives.” The EPA responded that it had approved the revisions after consulting with the AQMD and conducting its own review to confirm that Andeavor would use the best pollution controls and that the company’s emissions estimates were accurate. Philip Fine, a deputy executive officer with the AQMD, says refineries in the L.A. area are rigorously policed. “We probably have the most stringent rules and regulations in the nation when it comes to refineries,” he says. Pollution violations alleged by the district led to a collective $145 million in settlements with refiners from 2002 through July of this year, records show; $81 million of that came in a single settlement with BP in 2005, when it owned the Carson refinery now operated by Andeavor.
But Barragán, a lawyer raised in an immigrant family, suspects her district’s demographics make it easier for regulators to dismiss residents’ concerns. “My mother would always say, ‘We’re just happy to be here. We don’t ask questions. We don’t challenge people.’” Fear of deportation or other forms of retribution looms large in a place where much of the conversation and signage are in Spanish. “Having the largest [West Coast] refinery in my district, one of the most heavily polluted in the country, is not something I’m proud of,” the freshman congresswoman says. “This would not be happening in Hermosa Beach or Beverly Hills or Malibu.”
Her counterpart in the state Assembly, Mike Gipson, has been a top recipient of oil-industry largesse. Lobbying reports show that from the time he was elected in 2014 through 2016, Gipson accepted meals and lodging valued at $4,585 — the highest dollar amount in the California legislature for that period — from the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which represents oil and gas producers and refiners, and the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), which represents only producers. Among the perks was a nearly $1,500 stay at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, for a WSPA conference. He also took in at least $71,950 in oil-industry contributions during his 2014 and 2016 campaigns — fourth-most among state lawmakers. And in 2015, WSPA made a $10,000 charitable donation at Gipson’s request to a wilderness camp for underprivileged boys. All of this was legal.
Gipson, a Democrat whose district runs from Wilmington in the south to Watts in the north, has taken positions aligned with his benefactors — opposing, for example, a provision in a 2015 clean-energy bill that would have committed the state to a 50-percent reduction in oil use within 15 years. The provision was stripped from the bill before it passed. A spokesman said Gipson would have no comment for this article. WSPA said in a statement that its “lobbying activities are a direct reflection of the enormous number of issues confronting the energy industry in California, and the potential impact those issues have on energy producers, refiners, consumers and businesses.” CIPA said its spending “reflects the complexity of the issues facing oil producers and the need to educate lawmakers about the impacts state policy will have on jobs, the economy, and the price of energy in California.”