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Refinery, 3 Officials Fined $177,750 for Releasing Pollutants

March 23, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

A Santa Fe Springs oil refinery with a history of air quality violations and three of its executives were fined $177,750 last week after pleading no contest to charges that the company knowingly released pollutants into the air, county officials said Wednesday.

The fine against Powerine Oil Co., one of two Santa Fe Springs refineries under heavy criticism by residents and local business owners, includes a $25,000 contribution by the company to a South Coast Air Quality Management District account that finances clean fuel research, said David Guthman, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.

The fine, imposed March 15 by Whittier Municipal Judge Alfonso D. Hermo, is among the largest recently levied and the second such penalty against a Southern California refinery this month, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Macksoud.

Effect of Pleas

Powerine Oil pleaded no contest to 26 misdemeanor violations of state health and safety codes and AQMD rules, Macksoud said. The plea acknowledges guilt, but protects the company from civil liability in connection with the criminal charges, he added.

The fine followed by one day a $75,000 penalty against Unocal Corp. after the company pleaded no contest in Los Angeles Municipal Court to charges that its Wilmington plant had released excessive emissions in June and August of 1987.

Unocal paid $70,000 of that fine to the AQMD's alternative fuels fund, which was established in 1987 as a five-year, $30.4-million program to pay for research on cleaner burning fuels.

Macksoud said that some of Powerine Oil's emissions violations remained uncorrected for as long as a year. "This case was an aggravated case," Macksoud said. "We put a heavy hand on these people so they'll learn not to violate clean air rules."

Company officials were unavailable for comment.

Officials Named

In January, the district attorney's office filed 38 misdemeanor charges against Powerine Oil, Macksoud said. Company officials Don H. Baker III and Walter Ziemba, who serve as environmental coordinators, and Senior Vice President A. L. Gualtieri also were named in those charges. Those officials were responsible for overseeing some of the faulty equipment that released pollutants, Guthman said.

The air quality violations, which included improper storage of refined fuel and the release of hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere, occurred between Dec. 18, 1987, and Jan. 2, 1989, Macksoud said.

Residents, business owners and some city officials have long complained that Powerine Oil Co. posed health hazards in the surrounding communities.

Last July, for instance, the Powerine refinery allowed a sulfur cloud to escape into the atmosphere, causing residents to stay indoors. Many of them said they were sickened by the smell of rotten eggs, but no one was injured.

After last week's plea, Powerine Oil was fined $50,000 and ordered to pay an additional $67,500 in other penalties and the $25,000 contribution to the alternative fuels fund. Prosecutors dropped 12 of the 38 original charges.

The three company officials each were fined $5,000 and ordered to pay additional penalties of $6,750 apiece for failing to correct the violations, Guthman said.

AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly said that the regional environmental agency is satisfied with the fines imposed.

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