Each morning, Stella Wells peeks out the door of her home in western Whittier, takes a deep breath and checks which way the wind is blowing.
If the sulfur smell of rotten eggs is in the air, Wells keeps the children indoors. If the wind is blowing from the direction of the Powerine Oil Co. refinery, Wells keeps the children indoors.
It is a routine Wells began in July, after the refinery 3 miles away in neighboring Santa Fe Springs released a sulfur cloud that left three children in her care gagging and gasping for breath.
"I guess it's just fear," Wells said about the daily ritual.
Her eyes welled up with tears when she recalled piling the children in her car and escaping the cloud that summer day: "It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. . . . You think it's coming back, and it panics you."
Air pollution from Santa Fe Springs' two oil refineries--operated by Powerine and Golden West Refining Co.--has been a chronic complaint of residents and businesses in the surrounding areas. This year, the refineries have been cited nearly 40 times for air and water pollution violations and last year were fined nearly $400,000 for emitting hundreds of tons of pollutants that exceeded legal limits, according to records of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Scrutiny of the company's operations has increased after two serious summer incidents. In July, hundreds of residents flooded AQMD and city switchboards with complaints about Powerine's sulfur cloud. In June, Golden West's release of contaminated waste water into a treatment plant in Cerritos sent seven sewage workers to a hospital.
In reaction to the incidents:
The county district attorney's office is studying whether to file criminal misdemeanor charges against both refineries.
Health and air pollution officials are helping to organize a network of residents to track industrial odors in the area.
Santa Fe Springs has asked the AQMD to deny requests from the refineries to continue operating while repairing breakdowns in pollution control equipment.
The refineries have responded by meeting with residents and city officials, modifying equipment and even paying for carwashes for workers in a neighboring business park who complained that refinery emissions were affecting auto paint.
But refinery critics said the companies are dealing with the symptoms of the pollution problem and not the cause.
"Now they call us when something happens instead of having us wait until the smell hits us," said Gary K. Sloan, city administrator of La Mirada, whose residents frequently complain about odors from Golden West. "I don't care if they're nice guys. I want them to cure the problem."
A cure is unlikely until at least Jan. 1, 1996, the deadline for complying with a recent AQMD order requiring all oil refineries to reduce emissions of air pollutants by 70%.
While refinery equipment is being modified to comply with the order, company officials pledge to remain responsive to the community concerns about pollution.
"We do not have the cavalier attitude that because we were here first . . . we do not have to be responsible to the community," said John T. Miller, Golden West's vice president for refining.
But residents also must understand that "we're dealing with an operation with complex equipment, and on occasion it will break down or a worker will make a mistake," said A. L. Gualtieri, a senior vice president at Powerine.
Refinery officials also said that most odors from the refineries are not life threatening and that there must be some tolerance for problems that occur during the refining process, if the public wants the gasoline and diesel fuel produced by the refineries.
Odor Shrouds Refineries
A faint odor of sulfur and gas shrouds the refineries, whose enormous tanks, compression units and miles of intricately woven pipe operate 24 hours a day. "It can be intimidating," Miller acknowledged.
West Whittier resident Stella Wells said it's frightening: "I go past Powerine, and it's so scary to see clouds coming out of there."
The reaction is a familiar one, said Gualtieri, who is heading the company's effort to improve relations with the community.
During a tour of Powerine's 100-acre refinery just north of Norwalk, Gualtieri stopped in front of a 3-story steel stack framed by a halo of white smoke.
"You might look at that and see some kind of dangerous chemical cloud," he said. "I look at that and see steam," which is emitted if the refinery is functioning properly.
But environmental records show that the refineries continue to malfunction. The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts have billed Golden West $19,000 for the cost of cleaning up the June spill that hospitalized sewage workers.
Exceeded Oil-Grease Limits
Powerine has also been cited for exceeding oil and grease limits in more than half the samples taken by the sanitation districts since last year.