Water Quality Agency Fines Phillips 66 Refinery, Again, for Polluting Bay

The Phillips 66 oil refinery in the Contra Costa County town of Rodeo.  (Craig Miller/KQED)

State water regulators have issued a $285,000 penalty against the Phillips 66 refinery for releasing millions of gallons of industrial wastewater into San Pablo Bay early last year.

The penalty, part of a settlement agreement that became public late last week, is the 11th issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board in the last 17 years against the Houston-based oil company. Its refinery sits on the bay shore in Rodeo, just south of the Carquinez Strait and Vallejo.

The most recent violation covers a discharge that took place on Feb. 14, 2019, when the refinery released 8.45 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the bay, exceeding the allowed daily volume by about 5.4 million gallons. That release, in turn, led the refinery to violate a daily limit on "suspended solids" in its runoff — with an estimated 7,200 pounds of toxin-laden dirt washing into the bay.

In the days leading up to the release, a series of storms pounded the Bay Area with heavy rain, with about 5 inches falling on the refinery.

The resulting runoff clogged a filter at the Phillips 66 wastewater treatment plant. The regional water board says the facility would normally have sent the resulting overflow to a 9 million-gallon storage tank but couldn't because it was being used to temporarily store crude oil.

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Adrienne Ursino, a refinery spokeswoman, said the 2019 storm "temporarily created operational challenges for our capacity to handle the large stormwater flows collected in our refinery systems." She added that tests of the runoff that escaped into the bay showed it was "well within" regulatory limits on toxic material and water quality set by the facility's discharge permit.

The head of a Bay Area group that monitors the health of local waters said the runoff posed serious environmental risks.

"Industrial wastewater, especially from an oil refinery, can contain pollutants like toxic heavy metals and petroleum waste that are harmful to the bay, wildlife, and people," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

She said Phillips 66 was negligent for having taken its storage tank offline to store oil.

"It was sheer dumb luck that their negligence didn't cause more harm," Choksi-Chugh said.

"Phillips got off easy," she said. "The Regional Board had the authority to fine them millions of dollars for polluting the bay. I'd venture a guess that this slap on the wrist is not going to force the refinery to take their pollution controls more seriously."

Since 2003, the water board has now penalized Phillips 66 a total of 11 times for violating limits on releases of various toxic materials, including chlorine, copper, selenium and other pollutants, into the bay. Including the newest fine, the violations have resulted in about $1.2 million in penalties.

The largest of those fines came in 2010, when the refinery was hit with a $600,000 penalty for 14 separate "acute toxicity effluent violations."

Last year when Phillips 66 paid $80,000 to settle charges it violated chlorine limits in water it released into the bay over a five-month period in 2018.

In September 2016 a crude oil spill at the facility's marine terminal caused an overpowering odor that sickened Vallejo residents. Regional air regulators filed "public nuisance" violations against both the refinery and the tanker's owner in that case.

The following year Phillips asked local air regulators for permission to more than double the number of oil tankers that travel through San Francisco Bay to unload crude at its refinery.