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Bay Area Refineries Must Dramatically Cut Pollution, Air District Says in Historic Vote

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The PBF Energy refinery in Martinez, pictured in August 2018 when it was owned by Shell.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Local air regulators moved Wednesday to require two of California's largest oil refineries to significantly reduce the amount of pollution they spew into the air.

The board that oversees the Bay Area Air Quality Management District voted 19 to 3 to force Chevron's Richmond refinery and the PBF Energy-owned refinery in Martinez to cut down on the particulate matter emitted by a key part of their plants.

The vote came after two separate days of hours-long hearings and threats of a lawsuit from the oil industry, along with pressure from environmentalists, health advocates, refinery workers and labor leaders.

"Whatever we do we're going to face a legal challenge and that's the name of the game," said Nate Miley, a member of the board and an Alameda County supervisor. "I want history to show, at least my vote, that I was on the side of protecting communities, putting the health of people above cost, above money, above refineries."

To satisfy the new rules, the two oil companies would most likely need to buy and install air pollution devices known as wet gas scrubbers at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The vote is the culmination of work started by air district staff in 2019. Dozens of agency workers researched the proposal, worked with outside departments and took comments from the public.

Wednesday's hearing was the second before the full board on the proposed rule. In early June, so many environmentalists, refinery workers, union officials and local residents offered public comment that the board had to delay the hearing.

In all, more than 300 people spoke during the public comment periods of both meetings, according to the air district.

After Wednesday's public comment period, board director John Bauters, a member of the Emeryville City Council who chaired the district committee that first approved the rule, implored his colleagues to act aggressively to protect people who live near the region's refineries.

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"Oil and gas companies have built a multi-billion dollar industry at the expense of largely brown, Black, impoverished or politically underrepresented communities for decades," Bauters said. "They have externalized hazardous materials, pollution and waste onto the people we as a board collectively represent."

Environmentalists and health advocates have urged the board to approve the proposal. They emphasized the need to protect the health of residents who live near the refineries, many of whom are low-income people of color in areas with higher rates of respiratory disease. Refineries in other parts of the country use the wet gas scrubbers, they said, and the ones in the Bay Area could easily follow suit.

"I am asking the air district to stand with me for our mothers and our babies and to remain true to their mission," said Dr. Teresa Muñoz, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Richmond, at a press conference in late May held a few blocks from the Chevron refinery. "Please keep your word."

Some oil executives, labor leaders and refinery workers urged directors to go with a less stringent proposal. They said the one the board approved Wednesday will hurt jobs, raise the cost of gasoline and hurt local airports that rely on the two refineries. They also said the large devices they may need to buy to satisfy the new rule use too much water and won't achieve the environmental gains predicted by the air agency.

In a statement after the vote, Chevron said it has already reduced its particulate matter releases, argued those reductions were greater than the ones required under the new rule and indicated it might sue the district.

"Unfortunately, rather than rely on actual data from our facility, Air Board Members adopted a rule based on erroneous data that fails to significantly improve local air quality at an extreme cost that could impact Bay Area consumers who rely on affordable energy in their daily lives," company spokesman Brian Hubinger said in an email.

"The rule threatens the supply of affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy at a time when our regional economy is still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, the rulemaking effort is so flawed that we will investigate our legal options to ensure we can meet environmental goals, continue to provide fuels that meet strict environmental standards and save energy jobs in our community," Chevron's Hubinger said.

PBF Energy executives have told the air district the rule would force them to close down their refinery.

In a statement after Wednesday's hearing, PBF's Western Region President, Paul Davis, said the company expected the vote would come down the way it did and emphasized that the new rule only required emissions reductions, not necessarily the installation of a wet gas scrubber.

"PBF has previously planned projects that will be implemented over the coming months that will allow our Martinez refinery to achieve emissions reductions significantly closer to the desired level in the first quarter of 2022," Davis said.

"We will continue to work with the BAAQMD to arrive at our mutually desired goal of improving air quality and continuing to provide our vital products to one of the largest fuel markets in the world," he said.

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A proposal floated during Wednesday's meeting to delay the vote and bring along the other, less-stringent rule to a future hearing lost steam after a growing number of directors indicated they wanted to move forward now.

Director Davina Hurt, a Belmont City Council member, likened efforts to delay the vote to the nation's slow pace in responding to calls for racial equality.

"People are being asked to wait. It's very reminiscent to what my parents and their parents have heard living in the South and in Indiana and [which was] prominent during the civil rights movement and even emancipation," Hurt said.

"In this case, you need to wait to breathe clean air," she said. "'Wait' almost always means 'never.'"

The rule change is aimed at cutting down the amount of particulate matter released into the air from refineries' fluidized catalytic cracking units. Those units use a chemical catalyst to help break down heavy crude oil into lighter components for products like gasoline. During the cracking process, the catalyst is coated with a carbon material called coke, which is then burned off.

The air district said that the procedure emits more particulate matter than any other part of the refining process and makes up a significant portion of each plant's total emissions.

Air district staff said the rule change will save lives and millions of dollars in health costs. They said agency studies found that the predominantly Latino and Black communities in the areas around the refineries were exposed to particulate matter at a disproportionately higher rate than others in the Bay Area.

Some directors and others expressed concern about the amount of water wet gas scrubbers use - and that bringing them on in a drought would exacerbate the region's worsening water supply. Air district staff and other supporters of the proposal said the increase in water use is small compared to what the refineries already use.

The rule is set to take effect in five years.

This story has been updated.

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