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Conservationists sue to stop SoCal biofuel refinery expansion

Biofuels are considered by some to be an important tool in the fight against climate change. But it has a growing number of detractors, including those within the environmental justice movement.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Three environmental nonprofits filed a lawsuit Monday against the city of Paramount to block the proposed expansion of a biodiesel refinery.

“This project ignores the dangers of dirty infrastructure our communities know far too well — increased risks of flaring, fires, and explosions all happening right next to the schools and homes of Paramount residents,” said Whitney Amaya, an organizer for plaintiff East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, in a written statement. “Cities should be working on zero-emission solutions, not rubber-stamping biofuel projects that will increase toxic pollution and harm the health and safety of the communities they represent.”

Biofuels are considered by many to be an important source of renewable energy, a way to achieve energy independence and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The federal government deems biodiesel to be "carbon neutral," reasoning that the plants used to produce the fuel — often soybeans or palm oil trees — absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. Both federal and state governments have poured millions of dollars into subsidizing the biofuel industry. In fact, the AltAir facility in Paramount, the subject of the lawsuit, received a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission.

But biofuel has a growing number of detractors. Some environmentalists, including the plaintiffs, argue the mass production of biofuel could lead to drastic consequences. Say, for example, a region changed its land use to accommodate the growth of biofuel feedstock. Doing so could lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions. It could also exhaust the region's water supply.

"Biofuels are not necessarily less carbon intensive or climate-friendly than your traditional crude oil fuels," said Oscar Espino-Padron, a senior attorney with Earthjustice representing the plaintiffs. "In the production of these fuels, there’s often land clearing that occurs, when you’re removing what otherwise would be carbon sinks to produce the feedstocks."

There is also the environmental justice concern, which lies at the heart of Monday's lawsuit.

Paramount is small, taking up less than five square miles in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County, and has a mostly Latino population of just over 50,000.. It's a poor, heavily industrial area, with metal forging and medical waste facilities. Its residents, like most in southeastern LA County, live with abnormally high levels of air pollution. According to the lawsuit, Paramount has higher levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-inducing air toxin, than anywhere else in the county.

The AltAir refinery sits on a 66-acre parcel of land in the middle of a mostly residential area. Across one street is a high school, and an elementary school sits across another. On that same block is a row of shabby, squat single family homes. The refinery also shares a block with a mobile home park.

The refinery opened in the 1930s, and until the last decade turned crude oil into gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and asphalt. It closed in 2011, only to be converted in 2014 into AltAir Paramount, licensed to process up to 3,500 barrels per day of vegetable oils and beef tallow into renewable fuels. From that, it produces biodiesel and jet fuel.

Now, World Energy, which purchased AltAir in 2018, wants to expand the refinery so that it would be capable of processing up to 25,000 barrels per day of feedstock — a seven-fold increase.

"The project’s proposed increase in throughput at the Refinery will result in significant environmental and health impacts," the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. The expansion would result in increased nitrogen dioxide emissions and, perhaps most consequently, an additional 540 diesel truck trips and 50 railcar trips to take the feedstock to the plant and take away the biofuel.

"Due to these significant environmental impacts, and the location of high-density communities of color and high poverty areas near the refinery and along the pipeline route, the biofuels project would disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income populations in the city and the surrounding areas," the plaintiffs say in their lawsuit.

The proposed expansion, which was approved by the Paramount City Council by a 3-1 vote, would also allow World Energy to construct a new hydrogen generation unit and a new underground gas pipeline through some residential neighborhoods.

World Energy did not respond to an email requesting a comment on the lawsuit by press time. Paramount City Manager John Moreno said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit but had seen the environmental groups’ press release about it and said it “contains many inaccuracies and unsourced statements.”

“The city’s environmental review process was extremely comprehensive and included input from experts as well as the public,” Moreno said in a written statement. “By approving the project, the city was able to ensure that petroleum products would never again be processed at the facility. If it had been denied, there is every likelihood that the refinery would have returned to petroleum-based production again and into the future.”

He noted that the executive director of the California Air Resources Board urged that the expansion be approved.

Other plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity and Communities for a Better Environment. They want a judge to set aside the approval for the project and order the city to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.

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