Refineries agree to obey Bay Area pollution laws, a win for public health

Calling it a landmark victory for public health with historic penalties, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has etched a new and necessary approach to dealing with refinery pollution, perhaps as a model for the nation. 

This politically powerful industry knows that though they have the money to fight cleaner air, it does not play well with a huge section of the public.  

The refineries have agreed, in advance, to pay unprecedented penalties for future pollution violations. Three years ago they fought tooth and nail against a rule that calls for massive reductions in refineries emitting extremely harmful particulate matter into communities around them. 

"Over the long haul, it does real damage, gets into your bloodstream, can cause cognitive decline, asthma, lung impairment; all sorts of impairment to human health," said Air District Board Member Mark Ross. "The primary health concern that we have about particulate matter exposure is early death. So, we're talking about people dying years before their time," said Air District Deputy Executive Officer for Science Greg Nudd.

Nonetheless, the refineries chose to fight. "All we were asking is the facilities to comply. They chose to sue us instead. Today they have to drop that suit and comply with the rule as written," said Air District Executive Officer Dr. Philip Fine.

Chevron also agreed to pay $20 million for past violations it previously refused to pay. But the company still faces up to $83 million more in fines until it can comply. That could take up to four years. Chevron issued this statement: The settlement ends our litigation over BAAQMD’s adoption of some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world.

MRC, the Martinez refinery, is still fighting past violations. "We are actively involved in prosecuting the outstanding past violations with MRC and we’re doing that in conjunction with the Contra Costa County D.A.," said  Air District General Counsel Alexander Crockett. "In the future, if you want to sue us over regulations, you're going to pay the price if you lose," said Board Member Ross.

While improving pollution controls is considered a legitimate business expense, violating pollution laws is not. "Some of this money is penalties and the IRS rules are clear that Chevron cannot deduct that," said Air District General Counsel Alexander Crockett.

Since fossil fuels will be with us for decades to come, this agreement will make U.S. refineries approach maintenance and operations much more carefully, since their plants are not getting any younger. 

The Martinez and Chevron refineries are each more than a century old.