The Regional Water Quality Control Board has denied charges by the Sierra Club that it "dragged its feet" in halting violations of Chevron USA Inc.'s permit for discharging chemical wastes into Santa Monica Bay.
Rather, a board spokesman said, the agency--which issued Chevron a cease-and-desist order in December--views the problem "very seriously" and is continuing its investigation of the causes behind what it terms an "unacceptable pattern of non-compliance."
The Sierra Club recently filed a $2.3-million federal lawsuit against Chevron, accusing it of discharging illegal levels of grease and oil, ammonia, chromium, phenols and other petroleum byproducts into the bay.
The San Francisco-based environmental group claims that the refinery's own reports document more than 265 violations during the last eight years. Chevron spokesman Bill Graessley said that while the company has not made a formal count of the violations, "we're not challenging the Sierra Club's figures at this point."
Chevron officials admit to an average of 28 violations a year, but have said that the current treatment system makes occasional violations almost unavoidable. They have proposed a new system that they say would put them well within compliance, but which could not be completed before 1987.
Since 1972, Chevron's El Segundo refinery has held a federal permit that allows it to discharge up to 15 million gallons of treated waste water daily through an outfall pipe 900 feet south of Grand Avenue in El Segundo. The pipe extends 500 feet offshore and dumps into about 20 feet of water. The refinery, however, has been discharging waste into the bay virtually since it began operations at the turn of the century, Graessley said.
Sierra Club attorney Deborah Reames said the club notified both the board and the Environmental Protection Agency of Chevron's violations last September and asked that the agencies take action against the company.
"Regional Water did somewhat intensify its nagging," Reames said, and issued a cease-and-desist order that gave Chevron a December, 1984, deadline to comply with dry-weather discharge regulations and until February, 1987, to comply with wet-weather regulations.
(During rainy weather, the refinery is allowed to discharge higher levels because storm water runoff from the plant further dilutes the chemical waste.)
However, Reames said, the problem goes back "at least 10 years, and they (the agencies) should have taken much stronger action by now." The Sierra Club in its suit is demanding that the court order Chevron to immediately halt illegal dumping and pay all legal fees in the case and $2.3 million in fines.
EPA spokesman Al Zemsky said that the federal agency is "reviewing enforcement action now," but that the federal laws pertaining to Chevron's discharge are carried out at the state level.
"We will review the state action," he said. "If we determine state action is not appropriate, we can impose our own enforcement action, but Regional Water is the lead agency on this."
Regional Water Quality Control Board spokesman David Gildersleeve said the agency has always monitored monthly reports from the refinery and that Chevron has always corrected its errors, but that the problem is similar to that of a car owner who repeatedly takes his aging car in for repairs.
"What happens is you get nickel-and-dimed to death," he said. "The mechanic tells you, 'Well, if I just do a couple more things, this car will be running great.' Then it breaks down again, and he says, 'It just needs this one thing fixed and it will be fine.'
"At what point do you tell him, 'You're crazy,' and decide that all the piecemeal work is adding up to a major problem?"
For the board, Gildersleeve said, that point was in November, when Chevron came for a renewal of its discharge permit.
"That's when we looked at this and said, 'We have a serious problem.' "
Gildersleeve said Chevron has committed several violations since its December compliance deadline, and the board is contemplating further action against the company pending the results of its investigation.
Those actions, he said, could range from direct fines issued by the board, to prosecution by the state attorney general's office, or possible suspension of Chevron's discharge permit. The latter, Gildersleeve noted, is unlikely because of its severity--Chevron, he said, could not operate its plant without the discharge pipe.
Chevron has appealed the December deadline of the cease-and-desist order, and maintains that the violations result from inadequacies in the system that can be corrected only by the construction of its proposed $19-million project, which would provide holding tanks for the system's overflow.
6 Million Gallons a Day
Currently, Chevron funnels about 6 million gallons of waste water daily through a system that is divided into two streams, Graessley said.