LOS ANGELES (CN) – A community group representing residents in an impoverished area of Los Angeles County overshadowed by oil refineries has sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District for what it says was an illegal approval of a Tesoro expansion.
In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Wednesday, Communities for a Better Environment accused the air district of conducting a “defective” environmental impact review (EIR) for the project, which seeks to expand and merge two existing oil refineries—one in Los Angeles’ Wilmington neighborhood and the other in the adjacent city of Carson—to create “the largest oil refining center along our nation’s West Coast.”
CBE says that in the air district’s legally mandated environmental review, it left out crucial elements of the project that will increase pollution and negatively affect residents in Wilmington and Carson—who are predominantly working-class Latino and foreign-born residents. It also did not mention how it will mitigate the project’s impacts, in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), according to the lawsuit. Wilmington has three existing oil refineries and Carson two, and CBE says residents are disproportionately suffering from pollution-related disorders such as asthma and low birth weight.
“This is one of the classic cases of sources of pollution located in communities of color,” the group’s attorney, Suma Peesapati, said in a phone interview. “This project and EIR adds insult to injury to this already overburdened community. They need more protection, not less protection.”
The state has designated the two communities as some of the most “disadvantaged” in California, bearing a highly concentrated number of health hazards stemming from multiple sources of pollution in the area, including the refineries and active and inactive waste cleanup sites.
The lawsuit claims that Tesoro’s corporate statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show that it plans to increase the amount of crude oil it refines at the consolidated facility and begin refining North Dakotan Bakken shale and possibly Canadian tar sands oil there. However, the air district failed to disclose those details in its review or to analyze their impacts.
CBE says refining more crude oil at the facility means more pollution exposure for Wilmington and Carson residents—and greater accident risk. Bakken shale is volatile and prone to explosions and spills when transported by rail—according to the group, one explosion killed nearly 50 people in Quebec in 2013 when a freight train carrying the oil derailed. Canadian tar sands crude contains high levels of corrosive sulfur, which caused the Chevron refinery explosion in Richmond, California, in 2012.
“This is part of a pattern we’ve seen with the air district of inadequate disclosure and CEQA noncompliance. This is almost routine,” Peesapati said, adding that conducting a proper environmental review would increase project costs. “And especially when it comes to these big refinery expansions, you’d think [the air district] would pay extra attention to compliance. Instead, we see the opposite, almost an added effort to skirt the law or at least a pattern of skirting the law.”
Peesapati was circumspect about why the air district would break the law for Tesoro. “There’s a lot of money involved in these projects, and they’re very political,” she said.
Air district spokesman Sam Atwood declined to comment directly on CBE’s allegations Thursday, but said the project will reduce air pollution, noting that it would shut down an old piece of equipment at the Wilmington facility known as a fluid catalytic cracking unit that produces high emissions.
“Following extensive review and consideration of the document and comments received, [the air district’s] executive officer certified the Tesoro EIR, recognizing the overall reduction in air pollution and reduced impacts to the neighboring community,” he said.
Nonetheless, CBE accuses the air district of going so far as to disregard its own April 2017 study on refinery emissions in finalizing its environmental review. The study, conducted in partnership with Swedish emissions research firm FluxSense, found that volatile organic compounds emissions—which include carcinogens like benzene—from refineries in the greater Los Angeles area were three to 12 times higher than what refineries were reporting. And according to CBE’s complaint, the study found that benzene emissions from Tesoro’s Carson refinery are 43 times higher than reported.
CBE says that based on those figures, the benzene emissions from Tesoro’s consolidated project will create “significant” cancer risks that the air district failed to account for or disclose.
Tesoro did not return a request for comment Thursday.
The group seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting the air district and Tesoro from implementing the project until after the air district fulfills its CEQA requirements. It also wants the air district’s EIR voided and any project approvals withdrawn, and for the air district to refrain from granting project approvals until it prepares a revised EIR.
“I think there are clear legal violations here and we have strong claims in this case,” Peesapati said. “The air district EIR is plainly inadequate, so our prospects for winning are great.”