San Bernardino gas station operator James Hosmanek balks at having to comply… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
James Hosmanek, an ex-Marine, has operated his San Bernardino Chevron station for 21 years, patiently installing equipment to control gasoline emissions, even as the region's air grew smoggier.
Now he says he can't, and won't, obey the latest mandate: a state order to buy sophisticated nozzles and hoses to capture more of the vapors that cause respiratory disease and cancer. "It may be necessary to protect public health," he says. "But it's unaffordable."
Today is the deadline for California's 11,000 gasoline stations to comply with the nation's most stringent controls on the fumes that seep from refueling cars. And Hosmanek is among the estimated one of five station owners who have joined an open rebellion against air pollution authorities.
Last week, spurred by a high-decibel campaign by gasoline trade associations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on the Legislature to delay enforcement by a year.
"Improving California's air is of the utmost importance," he wrote legislators. But "enforcement flexibility is an absolute necessity to ensure against the job and financial losses that could come from stations being shut down or fined for non-compliance."
If the Legislature agrees, it would be the second time in the last two months that business interests have succeeded in rolling back a major pollution regulation. In February, a measure was added to the state's budget package allowing construction firms to delay retrofitting diesel bulldozers and other equipment.
Ten public health and environmental groups have vowed to fight the vapor rule rollback.
"We are extremely disappointed with the governor's action," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen of the American Lung Assn. "California must not bend to pressure from a small group of gasoline station owners who are using the current economic situation as an excuse."
A campaign against the measure in recent weeks was laced with misleading information, according to officials with the California Air Resources Board. One alert mailed by the Responsible Clean Air Coalition, a group led by a former John McCain campaign staffer, Tom Kise, charged that, "On April 1st, more than 6,000 gas stations statewide are going to shut their doors because of zealous Sacramento bureaucrats."
But in a letter to legislative leaders Friday, local air pollution districts charged with enforcing the rule said, "Air districts do not intend to shut down any stations on April 1." Station owners have known about the deadline for four years, the letter said.
Owners who have applied for permits and made arrangements to install equipment will not be cited, the letter said. Some fines will be levied, but, "only the most recalcitrant operators who absolutely refuse to comply could be subject to significant penalties."
That reassurance does not comfort Hosmanek. Battered by competition from cheaper chains such as Thrifty and Arco, the 51-year-old businessman said he was refused credit by banks and equipment lenders. Refitting his eight nozzles and hoses would cost more than $60,000, he said. "Even if I could get the funding, I couldn't make the payments."
With fewer customers, Hosmanek has laid off eight of his 18 employees. Down the road, he said, a Shell station began installing the equipment Friday.
"I asked the guy how he did it, and he said he put it all on credit cards," Hosmanek said. "That's financial suicide."
Single-station owners like Hosmanek aren't the only ones hurting. David Berri, an Irvine businessman whose family owns 22 stations in Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties, said he put a 25% deposit on vapor equipment last year. But his bank has since canceled his credit line. His family has put seven stations up for sale, but so far, there are no buyers.
"The economy snuck up on us," he said. "If I complied, I'm at the point this could bankrupt me, and I have a family to take care of."
State officials say they have little choice when it comes to imposing pollution rules. Federal law requires states to clean their air. The rule, they note, would prevent 10 tons a day of vapor emissions.
"That's a big deal in a state where nearly three-quarters of our residents breathe air that still fails to meet federal health standards for ozone," said the air board's Tom Cackette.
Board officials also note that letting laggard station owners off the hook would be unfair to the three-quarters of stations that have ordered equipment. Fewer than 5% of pumps, many of them in carwashes, convenience stores or car dealers, have indicated that they would voluntarily shut down, officials said.
In the Legislature, Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Solana Beach) and Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) are leading the charge to delay enforcement. On Monday, Cox called for the resignation of state Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols for being "recalcitrant" in refusing Schwarzenegger's request for a delay.
But a compromise may be in the works. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin (D-Redwood City) would provide $8 million in grants to stations for the equipment.
That could help owners like Hosmanek, who shows no sign of backing down.
"I'm not going to shut down," he said, despite facing what he contends could be thousands of dollars in fines. "I'm going to stand up and fight."