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Chemicals lingered in the air above Richmond after the Chevron refinery fire. (Photo by: Tawanda Kanhema)

Violators ignore fines for years, so how effective is BAAQMD at policing polluters?

on May 9, 2024

Under a historic settlement with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Chevron recently cleared all 678 of the air pollution infractions that had been pending against its Richmond refinery.

With the settlement, BAAQMD, the regional agency that enforces air quality standards, cleared part of a major backlog. While the air district has a history of issuing infractions, it also has a pattern of letting most fines go unpaid for years as it works through cases and negotiates with polluters.

Over 90% of the Notices of Violation the district has issued in the past 17 months are still pending. And a Richmond Confidential analysis of air district data found that in the past five years, 57% of the 4,537 violation notices were unresolved. 

This seemingly lax approach has caused some environmentalists to lose faith in the agency’s ability to deter pollution.

BAAQMD has “a history of being beholden to industry, more than to the people that they’re supposed to represent,” said Tarnel Abbott, longtime climate activist and former chair of the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s environmental action team.

In comparison to the state’s 34 other air quality management districts, BAAQMD is one of the most progressive, said Richmond climate activist Marisol Cantú, adding, “That does not mean that they have been doing their job.”

NOVs, the biggest tool at the air district’s disposal, typically come with a fine and a requirement to take corrective action. Notices are issued for a wide array of violations, from dangerous flaring to failure to submit timely records, said Meredith Bauer, BAAQMD deputy executive officer of engineering. That scope is important context for the number of pending violations, she noted. As for the backlog, Bauer said the air district is working through it.

“We’ve inherited a bit of a historical situation here, where they just kind of backed up,” she said, referring to a leadership change in 2022 that included a new executive officer and legal counsel. 

The February settlement, involving both the Chevron and Martinez refineries, was the highest in the air district’s history, at $138 million. The only violations that weren’t wiped in Chevron’s agreement were 11 incidents where “good-faith settlement agreements” were already underway.

“It feels as though the air district staff has lowballed the community through this penalty process with Chevron,” said Margaret Gordon, during public comments at a BAAQMD committee meeting on April 22. Gordon, who is part of the district’s community advisory council, said the refineries should be paying billions, not millions, for the “historical harm” done to the Bay Area.  

An aerial view shows the
Aerial view of Chevron Richmond Refinery. (Ryan Dexter)

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who is also a BAAQMD board member, said that one of the reasons the district changed its general counsel was to be more aggressive about penalties.  

Both settlements require the refineries to lower emissions within the limits of Rule 6-5, which regulates particulate matter. The district passed the rule in July 2021. 

Rule 6-5 is “the most stringent emissions limit in the country for catalytic cracking units, which are the largest sources of pollution at most refineries,” Greg Nudd, the district’s deputy executive officer of science and policy, said at the meeting. 

In September 2021, the two refineries each filed Superior Court petitions in Contra Costa County, arguing that the rule was too expensive and violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The February agreement settles those claims. 

The most common way to curb pollution from catalytic cracking units is wet gas scrubber technology. Chevron has six months to apply to the city for a permit to install a wet gas scrubber and has until July 2027 to begin construction on it. The Martinez refinery’s agreement allows it to use an alternative monitoring system to get emissions down. 

Caitlin Powell, a Chevron spokesperson, said in an email that the settlement “provides for an extended compliance timeframe to navigate California’s difficult permitting landscape and settles the BAAQMD’s five-year backlog of enforcement actions.”

Under the agreement, the air district must process Chevron’s permit application for a wet gas scrubber “expeditiously without expanding its scope to include other matters.” 

Chevron calls process ‘broken’

The company is “committed to working with the BAAQMD to improve the permitting process,” said Powell, adding that the system has been plagued by delays. “As of the end of March, we have 14 permit applications that have been awaiting approval for over a year. Several permit applications related to projects that would improve air emissions remain outstanding.” 

Bauer confirmed that Chevron has submitted multiple permit applications, most related to the units that a wet gas scrubber would work on. She said the complexity of these units requires multiple permits. 

“We are waiting on Chevron to provide the necessary information to determine if they meet the Air District and federal permitting requirements,” she said via email. 

Powell said the Bay Area is home to “some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world.” In a post about the settlement on its website, Chevron blamed California’s high gas prices on those regulations.

“We remain concerned that the BAAQMD’s rulemaking process is fundamentally broken,” the post read.

Chevron has until July 2029 to finish constructing the wet gas scrubber, but must still get emissions down by 2026, the original compliance date set in Rule 6-5. Gioia said it’s unlikely the company will reach this benchmark because of the delays brought by the court action.   

“They still need to comply by the original compliance date. They just won’t because the permitting and construction time is going to most likely take them longer than two years,” he said. 

To make up for this, Chevron agreed to pay a community air quality fund as part of the settlement. It includes $20 million up front and $20.5 million yearly after 2026, while the company installs the equipment. The Air District board members will approve uses of these funds.

As of the April 22 meeting, Chevron was on track in its discussions with the city and the district about permitting for the new device, according to Nudd. 

Cleanup complete after a Chevron oil spill in February
The shoreline two weeks after a 2021 Chevron refinery diesel spill. (Courtesy of Fish and Wildlife)

Lengthy litigation between refineries and the air district are not new. It took seven years for BAAQMD to reach a $147,000 settlement with Chevron over air quality violations starting in 2016. In 2022, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife settled with Chevron for $200,500 over a diesel spill in San Francisco Bay the year before. 

Abbott, the Richmond activist, pointed out that while the settlement sounds like a lot, a lawsuit is a “drop in the bucket” for a company like Chevron with $2.3 billion in earnings in its final quarterly report in 2023.

“I do not think that NOVs in and of themselves have been a major deterrent to refineries in general. They’re not high enough,” Gioia said, noting the state puts limits on penalties. 

California caps fines for air pollution violations at $10,000 per day. 

Gioia and Alan Abbs, the air district’s legislative advocate, pointed to the agency’s sponsorship of bills that could raise these limits, including an Assembly Bill passed last year that would triple air pollution fines for refineries and large manufacturers. The bill has yet to pass in the Senate. 

Abbott and Cantú said that the city of Richmond also has a history of complicity.

In 2018, Richmond settled violations from a 2012 fire at Chevron for $5 million, a sum many found too low, considering over 15,000 people sought medical care because of the fire and heavy smoke over the city. 

Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, who was mayor during the 2012 fire, said the power at the city level is in the permitting process for any major projects the refinery brings forward. 

Asked what more the city can do to curb pollution, McLaughlin cited a tax agreement between Richmond and area manufacturers — the largest of which is Chevron — from 2010, which guaranteed the city $114 million for 15 years, on top of normal utility taxes that those industries pay. 

That period will expire next year. In the meantime, the community is working on other measures of accountability.

Path to Clean Air

Cantú is part of a statewide steering committee for the Community Air Protection Program, overseen by the California Air Resources Board. The committee has been working with neighborhoods throughout the state that are overburdened by poor air quality, aiming to have those most impacted by the problem create the solution. 

The committee drafted a Path to Clean Air Plan that includes recommendations for a just transition away from fossil fuels, improvements to community health, engagement with the public and ways to hold government accountable for implementing the plan — including effective enforcement of regulations. 

On May 1, the district’s board of directors formally adopted the plan. It will advance to the Air Resources Board for approval in the next three months, Cantú said.

“Adoption of the Path to Clean Air Plan is a significant step forward in achieving on-the-ground improvements in air quality and public health in a community that has long been overburdened by air pollution,” Philip Fine, the air district’s executive officer, said in a news release. “All Bay Area residents deserve healthy air quality.”

This story was co-published with East Bay Express.

Updated on May 10 to correct Tarnel Abbott’s title.

State agency cites Chevron for 4 violations from this week’s flare

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