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Environmentalists sue SoCal air regulator over lack of monitoring on oil refineries

A state law requires oil refineries to install air quality monitors on their fence lines. But the regional air quality agency responsible for Los Angeles and its surrounding region has exempted "smaller" refineries.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — An environmental justice nonprofit sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District over what the group says is a failure to enforce a state law mandating that air quality monitors be installed outside oil refineries.

"It’s been a pattern at the air district, where they’ve delayed, for years, multiple, necessary regulatory actions relative to petroleum refineries," said Oscar Espino-Padron, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, which is representing plaintiff East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "In our view, it’s a continued lack of holding the industry accountable and caving to industry pressure."

Signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2017, Assembly Bill 1647 requires all petroleum refineries to install air quality monitoring devices outside their facilities. Air quality districts must also install and operate monitors outside schools, hospitals and day care centers near refineries.

"These devices are collecting real-time data about emissions that are crossing the fence line and entering communities," Espino-Padron said. "They’re there to notify surrounding communities when pollution levels become hazardous and allow them to take precautions."

Prior to the law's passage, the South Coast AQMD, the government agency responsible for regulating air quality over a large swath of Southern California including Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and Palm Springs, implemented a similar monitoring mandate but exempted "small" refineries with an output of less than 40,000 barrels per day. Not only did these facilities not have to install their own monitors, but AQMD wouldn't collect fees from them to pay for the nearby monitors at schools or hospitals.

Despite promising to do so, AQMD hasn't closed that loophole even though the law took effect in 2020.

"The air district prioritized industry interests over public health and safety and its statutory obligations under the monitoring mandate when the agency created an unlawful exemption," the plaintiff says in its lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. "The air district’s actions contradict the intended purpose of the monitoring mandate by failing to implement a robust air monitoring system at all petroleum refineries and surrounding communities."

In an email, an AQMD spokesperson said the agency is closed on Mondays and therefore couldn't offer a comment.

According to Espino-Padron, AQMD's rules exempted only three refineries: the Valero asphalt refinery in Wilmington, at the southern tip of the city of Los Angeles; the World Oil petroleum refinery in South Gate, a small city in southeast LA County; and the World Energy oil refinery in nearby Paramount.

Cindy Donis is an organizer for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. She lives in South Gate, near the refinery, which takes up the better part of two city blocks and certainly doesn't look small.

"It feels massive when I’m driving by it," Donis said. "I really hope that AQMD includes these smaller refineries in the South Coast region into their monitoring, to protect communities of color from this industry."

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