A mound of sulfur is piled up at Valero's Wilmington facility. (Christina House / For The…)
Eleven major oil refineries and industrial plants in the Los Angeles area will be forced to slash sulfur pollution by more than 2,000 tons a year under sweeping new regulations, but the move may not be enough to meet federal health standards for the region unless the state maintains strict curbs on truck pollution.
The new rule, adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, takes aim at airborne sulfur that, along with other pollutants, forms soot. It effectively halves the amount of sulfur oxides that can be emitted in the district, which covers Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
But the western regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threw some cold water on the move Monday when he warned the district that its overall plan to eventually bring the region into compliance with federal air standards for soot might be insufficient.
The pair of actions highlighted just how complicated the process of altering Southern California's toxic air chemistry will be, given the layers of bureaucracy and politics involved.
The EPA warned that it may eventually reject the AQMD's plan, along with one from the San Joaquin Valley.
"California has a history of adopting aggressive rules," said regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld in a statement. "But we need to redouble our efforts."
The EPA said that the success of air quality plans by local agencies depends on rules about to be reconsidered in Sacramento. State air officials are now mulling whether to soften 2008 regulations to curb diesel truck pollution, a primary source of fine soot particles, because of the recession, which has lowered emissions and hammered industry. Truckers have waged a ferocious battle against the diesel standards.
"EPA believes this will give us 'backbone' to maintain our diesel rules in the face of continued opposition from the trucking industry," said California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols. "It's a reminder that the health standards under the federal Clean Air Act set the ultimate limit for what we can do."
In its warning, EPA said that it would tentatively reject portions of the two region's plans, because "they rely heavily on emissions reduction from rules that are being revised and have not been submitted to EPA for review." A final decision will come in 60 days.
Airborne soot, in minute particles of 2.5 micrometers or less in size, is responsible for an estimated 9,000 deaths of Californians each year. Stationary sources such as refineries and cement plants, and mobile sources, such as trucks, tractors and forklifts, are to blame.
AQMD governs stationary sources, but has little control over mobile sources such as trucks and construction equipment, governed by the state air board.
The South Coast district played down the impact of the EPA warning Monday. "EPA's partial disapproval in our case is relatively minor and amounts to clarification by us on a few points," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. The bigger issue, he added, is whether the California Air Resources Board will scale back its diesel regulations.
Environmentalists hailed the Los Angeles region's crackdown on sulfur emissions, which came after three years of negotiations with the oil industry. "It felt like a nine-round bout between two heavyweights," said Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have filthy air, and we need to tell big polluters like refineries to clean up their act."
The sulfur reductions, amounting to 5.7 tons per day, will be phased in between 2013 and 2019 as part of the area's "Regional Clean Air Incentives Market, a cap-and-trade system set up in 1993 to reduce sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxide emissions from big plants. Emissions on large industrial plants were capped, with the cap dropping over 10 years.
But in 2003, Martinez said, reductions stopped. The sulfur cap has not been lowered in seven years, and the district did not revise its assessment of the technology available to reduce sulfur emissions, he added.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., called the three-year rule-making "grueling" and said oil companies had made a "huge commitment" in accepting "the very tight controls imposed by this rule."
Although federal officials are considering even stricter standards for fine particulates, Reheis-Boyd warned that any additional controls are unlikely to be cost-effective and "should be avoided."
The facilities affected by the sulfur rule include refineries operated by BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Valero and Tesoro; two sulfuric acid plants operated by Rhodia Inc. and ConocoPhillips; a BP coke calciner plant; a California Portland Cement Co. plant and Owens Brockway Glass Container Inc.