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AQMD Seeks Record Fine

The agency asks for $319 million in penalties for fumes, false reports at Carson refinery. BP-Arco says the impact was 'minimal.'

March 13, 2003|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

BP-Arco committed thousands of violations of air pollution rules at its Carson oil refinery and submitted false reports to regulators, according to air quality officials, who are seeking a $319-million penalty.

In its complaint, filed Wednesday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District charges that over an eight-year period, the company repeatedly violated rules governing storage tanks at the refinery. Officials of the air district said that given the number of infractions, the high penalty was justified.

The AQMD also charges that BP-Arco failed to adequately control emissions from flare gases and that noxious fumes led to complaints of headaches and nausea at Broad Elementary School and Wilmington Middle School that led to the evacuation of some classrooms two years ago. School officials did not return phone calls on the matter.

A spokeswoman for BP-Arco acknowledged it had submitted reports that "contained inaccurate or inadequate information" but downplayed the problems, saying they "involved process and procedures that were inadequate."

The AQMD, citing a chronic pattern of noncompliance with clean-air laws, charges that the company failed to control smog-forming fumes leaking from above-ground storage tanks, falsified reports and barred inspectors from examining equipment.

"This is by far the largest penalty ever sought by AQMD," Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the agency, said in a prepared statement. "The company committed thousands of violations involving excess air pollution while routinely submitting records to AQMD that showed no violations."

The alleged violations took place between 1994 and 2002 at an Arco refinery. BP and Arco merged three years ago.

The fine being sought is as high as it is because the air district says numerous infractions occurred every day over the eight-year period.

Those allegations are contained in a 106-page civil complaint the district filed against BP West Coast Products LLC in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday.

Paula Barnett, a spokeswoman for BP-Arco, said that all the tanks have been repaired and that emissions from the refinery pose no risk to human health or the environment. She said the company intends to challenge the lawsuit.

"We're surprised by the amount [of the penalties]. We believe it's disproportionate to the impacts, which we believe were minimal," Barnett said.

Meanwhile, the investigation has broadened to other oil refineries and tank farms in the region. Peter Mieras, chief prosecutor for the AQMD, said that violation notices have been issued to Exxon-Mobil and Chevron for similar infractions.

At the heart of the matter is a self-policing program the AQMD established in 1994 for the oil industry. It covers 1,000 tanks and allows companies to inspect and maintain those tanks that lack fixed lids but that contain jet fuel, gasoline, crude oil and other chemicals. To prevent the substances from evaporating to form ozone, a key component of smog that can cause lung damage, the companies are required to install floating covers on the tanks and file reports with the district.

Although companies initially reported improved compliance, AQMD inspectors eventually grew suspicious about the BP-Arco facility. The company hired consultants to make sure that the floating lids were functioning properly several years ago, and by 2002 the reports they submitted to the AQMD on behalf of BP indicated no problems with floating tank covers and virtually no repairs, according to the lawsuit.

When AQMD inspectors went to the Carson refinery in June to see for themselves, they said they were repeatedly turned away and gained access only with a search warrant and the aid of sheriff's deputies. A BP-Arco spokesperson said the regulators were denied access because they lacked proper equipment and training, although the AQMD disputes that.

Regulators reported finding that 80% of the more than three dozen tanks had numerous leaks, gaps, torn seals and defects that led to excessive emissions, problems not mentioned in the self-reporting documents, the lawsuit alleges.

Tim Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air, an environmental advocacy group, praised the AQMD for seeking substantial penalties, but questioned why the violations went undetected for so many years.

"What took them so long to figure out there was a problem?" Carmichael asked. "We are leery of self-reporting regulations, but we've generally accepted them with a provision that they are periodically audited."

The lawsuit comes less than one year after the company agreed to pay $45.8 million to settle a separate case with California officials who accused the company of failing to make required safety improvements in underground fuel tanks at 59 service stations throughout the state.

Those underground tanks were investigated for leaking fuel and the gasoline additive MTBE.

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