The Bay Area air-quality board approved some of the most aggressive toxic-emissions regulations in California on Wednesday, a move one official described as “unprecedented.”
The rule, passed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), reigns in toxic emissions at facilities varying from oil refineries to mom-and-pop dry cleaners. The unanimous vote is considered a victory for local environmental groups and communities living in the shadow of the Bay Area’s worst polluters, such as Chevron in Richmond.
The rule would require sources such as refineries and chemical plants to reduce the health risk from certain pollutants to below “10 in a million.” This means 10 out of every 1 million people exposed to the toxic emissions run the risk of contracting cancer.
The current threshold is 100 in a million.
“This rule is unprecedented,” said Jack Broadbent, the air district’s executive officer. “It is going to drastically improve public health levels in the Bay Area.”
An analysis of the Bay Area’s nine counties showed the rule could affect an estimated 400 facilities.
Commercial gas stations and locations that use only a backup diesel generator will not be impacted by the rule.
In Richmond, at least 16 facilities would need to update technology or change practices to meet the new standard. High-priority sites include the Chevron refinery, the Chemtrade plant and the West Contra Costa County Landfill.
Under the rule, the air district will measure and inventory the toxic contaminants that a facility produces. If they are more than the 10 in a million threshold, facilities have five years to make reductions. They can appeal to the board for an additional five years.
All in all, the process could take up to 10 years.
“We like the fact that they want to reduce the human risk down to 10 deaths,” said Andrés Soto, the Richmond organizer for Communities for a Better Environment. “And we are neither shocked, but we are certainly dismayed, that it will take so long to see any quantifiable changes at any identified excessive emitting sources.”
In an email to Richmond Confidential, Western States Petroleum Association Bay Area director Bob Brown wrote the proposed regulation would reduce a “hypothetical risk.”
“Adding more bureaucracy based on purely hypothetical computer models would be a costly mistake,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Chevron did not respond to requests for comment.
In the district’s packed hearing room on Wednesday morning, a small army of industry representatives made a last ditch effort to postpone the vote. Royal Dutch Shell, which operates a refinery in Martinez, sent a delegation at least 20 strong. Chevron sent more than 30.
Representatives from Phillips 66 and Endeavor (previously Tesoro) were also present.
So were environmental activists from 350 Bay Area, Communities for a Better Environment, Friends of the Earth, the Oakland Climate Action Coalition and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others.
All in all, 50 people commented in support of or against the regulation during the public hearing:
“The worst cancer risk is not around the refineries, it’s elsewhere in the Bay Area. We are, merely by this rule, creating the illusion of making a difference,” one commenter said.
“We need to begin working toward some justice for the communities that live with this air quality every day,” another told the board.
The comments continued:
“Risk is a theoretical probability. You’d have greater odds of dying from a bee sting.”
“When industry talks about cost-benefit analysis, watch out, because the public always loses.”
“The science is not clear.”
Other air districts — such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is responsible for the greater Los Angeles area — have set the threshold at 25 in a million, and oil industry representatives would like to see a similar standard set for the Bay Area.
“We don’t necessarily think we need to follow others,” Broadbent said. “We think the Bay Area should have the cleanest air as possible and that the public should not be exposed to these toxics.”
A case study of the Chevron refinery showed that with the rule’s 10 in a million threshold, more than 8,000 people would see a reduced risk of exposure to toxic air contaminants. With the less stringent 25 in a million pushed for by the oil industry, fewer than 600 people — most living in Richmond’s wealthy Point Richmond neighborhood — would benefit.
Many, though, would like to see an even more stringent policy adopted:
“Why is 10 people dying from cancer from toxic emissions acceptable?” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane asked.
“I personally think zero is acceptable.”