(CN) — Residents in Kern County, California – the state’s largest oil producer – say an air regulatory agency prioritized oil-industry interests and held closed-door meetings with refinery owners to develop safety rules and guidelines without any input from the public.
That’s why several environmental advocacy groups sued the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District on Wednesday, claiming it failed to comply with the state health and safety code.
In October 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an update to the health and safety code that required all petroleum refineries to design, install and operate a fenceline monitoring system that would track harmful air emissions in real time.
The system would alert residents who live near refineries of any malfunctions or if dangerous emissions were released from the facilities, according to the group’s lawsuit. These systems were meant to be put in place by Jan. 1, 2020.
According to the advocacy groups, the air district published a calendar on Feb. 5, 2019 that said they expected to work closely with residents to develop the rules and guidelines ahead of the deadline.
That didn’t happen and instead the air district had a closed-door meeting and telephone calls with refinery operators starting in April 2019, according to the complaint.
“For instance, e-mail records from these meetings note the air district’s willingness to consider the refineries’ suggestion to “separat[e] the facilities based on size into different categories for monitoring purposes,” the complaint states.
Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D- Bakersfield, unsuccessfully attempted to introduce an exemption toward the end of the legislative session in September 2019, which would exempt refineries that process below 55,000 barrels per day and with populations of under 3,000 within a one-mile radius of the facilities.
All of this would have benefited rural Kern County oil operators and the Kern Oil & Refining Co., according to the lawsuit.
The state set a Jan. 1, 2020 deadline for these systems to be put in place, but the advocacy groups say the district refused to schedule any community meetings until October 2019, three months before the deadline.
A second meeting was scheduled the following month, but the nonprofit groups say, “the air district neglected to discuss the status of statutorily mandated guidance materials and to provide for public input on those materials.”
Less than a month later, the air district released its final rules, which the advocacy groups say contained serious deficiencies.
“The rules provided for unlawful compliance exemptions, set the stage for continued compliance delays with statutory mandates, and contained arbitrary limits on the number of pollutants for monitoring and number of community air monitoring sites,” the lawsuit states.
By Dec. 19, 2019 the rules were adopted by the air district’s governing board without any amendments or the required guidance materials provided to residents in preparation of the new fenceline system and related plans that were mandated by state law.
Now the advocacy groups are seeking a writ of mandate to require the air district meet its statutory obligations and adopt rules that comply with the state’s health and safety code.
They claim unlawful exemptions, failure to prepare guidelines, unreasonable delay of community air monitoring systems and delay of refinery fenceline air monitoring and arbitrary and capricious rulemaking.
The plaintiffs include Comite Progreso de Lamont, Committee for a Better Shafter, Committee for a Better Arvin, Lost Hills in Action, Association of Irritated Residents and the national nonprofit organization Clean Water Action.
The San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District oversees air quality in several counties, including Kings, Fresno, Tulare, a portion of Kern and several others. The air district did not immediately respond to an email for comment Wednesday afternoon.