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California Attorney General Rob Bonta today secured a court decision requiring the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District (Air District) to comply with state air monitoring requirements for refineries. Petroleum refineries are among the largest non-vehicle sources of air pollution in the state and are often located in communities that already suffer from significant health disparities associated with exposure to pollution. This disproportionately includes low-income communities and communities of color. In an effort to address the air quality issues experienced by these communities, the legislature enacted a refinery air quality monitoring law and tasked local air districts with implementation. However, in December 2019, the Air District adopted regulations effectively exempting all four of the refineries in its jurisdiction from the full suite of air monitoring requirements. Today’s decision by the Fresno Superior Court finds these regulations unlawful and orders the Air District to adopt new regulations that do not contain illegal and arbitrary exemptions for the refineries in its jurisdiction. 

“For far too long, San Joaquin Valley has been home to some of the worst air pollution in the nation, and its residents have suffered the resulting health consequences,” said Attorney General Bonta. “At the bare minimum, these communities have the right to information on the air they breathe. It’s a matter of transparency — and it’s the law. Today’s decision by the Superior Court will ensure that San Joaquin Valley refineries comply with critical air monitoring requirements.”

Decades of discriminatory land use practices have concentrated heavy industries, including petroleum refineries, near low-income communities and communities of color. The San Joaquin Valley is no exception. The Californians that reside within a one-mile radius of each of the district’s petroleum refineries suffer from adverse health conditions far in excess of other communities in the state, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and babies born with low birth weights. As a result, air quality monitoring is vital to the residents surrounding refineries in the San Joaquin Valley.

In October 2017, the California Legislature enacted Health and Safety Code section 42705.6 (Refinery Statute), which requires air districts and petroleum refineries to install and operate air quality monitoring stations at or adjacent to petroleum refineries and within neighboring communities by January 2020. The air districts are also required to collect the data from the air monitoring stations and make this data available to the public as fast as possible. But in adopting regulations to implement the Refinery Statute, the Air District created exemptions for refineries not currently engaged in crude oil refining activities and for refineries with less than 40,000 barrel-per-day crude oil refining capacity, effectively exempting all of the petroleum refineries in its district from complying with most of the Refinery Statute’s air monitoring requirements in violation of California law.  

In early 2020, Earthjustice and the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court on behalf of several community-based organizations challenging the Air District’s regulations, claiming that the exemptions violated the Refinery Statute and were arbitrary, capricious, and lacking in evidentiary support. Shortly after, the California Department of Justice intervened in support of those claims on behalf of the People of the State of California. In today’s decision, the Fresno County Superior Court found in the People’s and the community organizations’ favor and ordered the Air District to comply with the Refinery Statute by adopting revised regulations removing the illegal and arbitrary exemptions. 

A copy of the decision can be found here.