New hope for people inhaling toxic air in southern LA County


Marathon’s Los Angeles refinery could face tighter air quality regulations if this California bill becomes law. Photo courtesy of Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

On one side of a chain-link fence, a cluster of toddlers dig in the dirt next to Cabrillo High School in Long Beach. Nearby, a lawn mower prepares the field for the baseball team. It feels safe here, and clean.

But before you even look over the fence, the smell is a dead giveaway.

On the other side, a freight train leaving the Port of Long Beach passes between a convoy of semi-trucks and an endless expanse of oil tanks. A brown haze obscures the blue sky, thick as dust above a recently-driven dirt road.

“Sometimes there's smells of rotten egg, which I imagine might be coming from the sulfur. And sometimes it's a very sickly sweet smell, which reminds me of maple syrup,” says Long Beach resident Whitney Amaya. She’s on a bench, looking at her alma mater, and pointing across the street at Marathon Petroleum LA refinery, the largest oil refinery in California. “It also just smells of petroleum gas.”

Cabrillo High School students are breathing in toxic air. The cancer risk here is about double what it is in the rest of the LA basin. Late last month, the American Lung Association delivered another scathing review of the LA area in its annual air quality report card. The region ranked first in the nation for worst ozone, and fourth for annual particle pollution.

“Even though we're supposed to live in a very environmentally conscious place, there's definitely still a lot of work that needs to be done to address all of the inequities that we see,” says Long Beach resident Whitney Amaya. Photo by Caleigh Wells

“We've been so desensitized by this bad air quality, I think everyone is just going along, going through the motions. But the reality is this air quality is so horrible. It's causing, in some cases, cancer, asthma, nosebleeds,” says lifelong Long Beach resident and California State Senator Lena Gonzalez. “In the summertime, it gets even worse when there’s extreme heat. And then you have bad air quality on top of that, so kids can’t play outside.”

Here in southern LA County, there are plenty of culprits to share the blame: the freeways, the ports of LA and Long Beach, the railyards, the scrap recyclers. But some of the best-studied and most straightforward bad health impacts come from oil refineries. Nearly half of California’s refineries are in the LA area.

Current state law requires refineries to monitor air quality around their property. If Amaya or anyone else in LA wants to complain about bad air, they can call the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD).

But that won’t make the problem go away. The law is full of holes.

“Air quality management districts are applying the law very inconsistently. Some of them are notifying the public, some of them are not,” explains Gonzalez. Plus, she says, some air districts haven’t laid out acceptable pollution thresholds, and aren’t tracking enough harmful chemicals. “Some of them are only reporting out five chemicals when there's 18 chemicals that should be reported out.”

Moreover, some small refineries are exempt, some toxic chemicals aren’t tracked, public access to air quality data is inconsistent, and there’s no requirement for oil refineries to find the root cause of air quality violations.

SCAQMD Executive Director Wayne Nastri says his agency is doing the best it can. “We're focusing on the large facilities because those are the ones that everyone sees that everyone is concerned about. And they require the most attention,” he says. 

Also, Nastri says, when the existing regulations were written six years ago, many toxic chemicals hadn’t been identified as ones worth tracking. “I don't think there was any shortchanging or recognition that we shouldn't be doing it at the time,” he says. “It's just that as time progresses, we learn more, and we have the capability to do more.”

Now Gonzalez is trying to fix that by authoring Senate Bill 674, which gets rid of those exemptions for smaller refineries. It also expands the number of chemicals refineries have to monitor, ensures that relevant air pollution data is publicly available, and requires regional air districts to find the root cause of any problematic chemical spikes, so they can be prevented in the future.

Six of the largest local refineries declined to comment on the bill or never responded to interview requests from KCRW. Two refineries deferred to trade group Western States Petroleum Association, which said in a statement, “SB674 is prescriptive. It does not focus on ensuring that monitoring systems are best suited for a particular community or facility.”

Gonzalez says it’s supposed to be prescriptive: The point of the bill is to guarantee the same protection for everyone, especially those who have suffered under this patchwork of inconsistent regulation. 

“Many of these low income people of color, I feel, have been left behind,” Gonzalez says. “They go outside, they get nosebleeds. Their kids have asthma. It's awful.”