The Unocal oil refinery in Wilmington has been charged with knowingly polluting the atmosphere and could be fined up to $125,000 in the first prosecution using a tough state anti-pollution law, according to Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn.
Hahn said that if convicted, the refinery faces a fine of $25,000 for each of five violations of the state Health and Safety Code, contrasted with fines of $1,000 per incident before the law took effect Jan. 1, 1987.
A smokestack at the refinery belched excessive particle pollution on June 3, Sept. 24 and Oct. 14 last year, according to the charges. On the first and last dates, the refinery's emissions were excessive in both volume and density, while on Sept. 24 they were excessive only in volume, leading to the total of five charges, Hahn said.
Hahn said the emissions were "particularly irresponsible" because Unocal supervisors continued to operate a refinery unit after they realized that its pollution filter was broken.
Unocal spokesman Barry Lane denied that the refinery released excess pollutants.
In an interview last week, he said Unocal was granted a variance by air quality officials on June 3 and Oct. 14 to operate with just one pollution filter while a second filter was being cleaned. The refinery operated within pollution standards even with one filter down, Lane said.
On the third day, the company said, its filtering systems were functioning normally and did not emit excess particles.
Hahn said the pollutants came from a catalytic cracker, which breaks down molecules of crude oil and releases solid particles, as a byproduct, into the air.
Hahn said in a prepared statement that the prosecution is the city's first under the more stringent law, which provides for higher fines for knowing violators.
Investigators for the South Coast Air Quality Management District said they discovered the violations during regular inspections of the refinery. They said the illegal emissions continued after Unocal was told to remedy the problem.
Arraignment is scheduled for June 23 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
Unocal was cited last month after the company admitted that it released hydrogen sulfide into the air after an unrelated equipment failure. The air quality district's legal staff is considering filing a lawsuit or criminal charges for that release, according to spokeswoman Jacqueline Switzer.
A noxious cloud covered much of the South Bay the morning after the hydrogen sulfide leak, and air quality inspectors said they believed, but could not prove, that the cloud came from Unocal.
More than 1,000 residents complained to authorities about the April 6 leak, and nine people were briefly hospitalized.
Unocal denied responsibility for the leak.