Rally Against Refinery Expansion Shows Wilmington is Ready for Change

Young boy at the 2014 "Great March for Climate Action" in Wilmington that took place nationwide from coast-to-coast.

In Wilmington, there has always been a love-hate relationship with refineries. Some residents love the fact that refineries offer good paying jobs with minimal requirements, and other residents hate the fact that refineries are major contributors to the bad air quality in the region which result in life-threatening health consequences impacting the quality of life for communities.

This love-hate relationship still exists in Wilmington but with a change: more residents are resisting as they become aware of the consequences of having refineries as neighbors.

“That is something that we will always fear,” explained Francisco Zarripa about refinery explosions. Zarripa has lived near the Conocophillips refinery for more than 25 years. “We will always have that worry, it will never go away, unless one day they decide to buy this entire area and make it their own.”

Refinery workers have also become more aware of the environmental and health impacts these companies have on nearby communities as well as on workers’ health, and some refinery workers are trying to make their work environment safer. After the 2012 Chevron refinery explosion in Richmond, California, Gov. Jerry Brown assembled an interagency working group to assess the state’s refinery safety regulations.

“For the past 4 and a half years the union and its members have participated in the Governor’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Refinery Safety and helped to formulate important upcoming revisions to the Process Safety Management Standard,” said David W. Campbell, Secretary-Treasurer, United Steelworkers Local 675. “These changes will strengthen safety for both workers and residents of fence-line communities.”

With information readily available through smartphones and social media, more people are learning that they’re not the only ones in their community with children born with respiratory problems, or experiencing rare allergies, or being diagnosed and even losing their lives to cancer. A UCLA study found that more than twice as many children in Wilmington have asthma compared to the national average.

“I know that the refineries constantly violate their emissions requirements and that there is a high level of benzene being emitted,” said Oscar Duarte from Wilmington who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 25 years old. “Benzene has been proven to be carcinogenic to humans… so, yes, this was constantly on my mind, and still is regarding many others who suffer from the same condition,” he said regarding living near a refinery and his cancer.

Despite national resistance against Big Oil, refineries continue to find ways to grow their business in areas like Wilmington. Tesoro’s Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project (LARIC) is a $460 million project the company claims will physically integrate and upgrade its Wilmington and Carson refineries, which also border Long Beach. Those who oppose the project say this is really an expansion project that will increase the crude oil storage capacity.

Under the Trump administration, cabinet leaders have shown support for fossil fuel projects. Many believe this will make it easier for industries to have dangerous projects approved. But environmental advocates and elected officials are continuing their efforts to stop Big Oil’s expansion.

“We have to stand up to have our voices heard,” said Nanette Diaz Barragán who represents California’s 44th Congressional District in a press conference in Wilmington on Thursday, April 20. “In Washington right now what we’re seeing happen is this administration is gutting the EPA, it’s gutting the very organization that is suppose to be providing the oversight and the regulations that is supposed to be cleaning up our air [and] I’m going to fight tooth and nail to make sure that we continue to support all funding efforts to the EPA.”

If Tesoro’s LARIC project commonly referred to as the “Tesoro expansion” is approved, it would make Tesoro the largest refinery in the West Coast. Tesoro claims that this project would improve air quality by substantially reducing local emissions and upgrading refinery equipment.

“The new, state-of-the-art tanks will create enough storage capacity that ships can unload their crude oil cargoes in one dock trip, which will reduce ship emissions,” said Ken Dami, Tesoro’s Director, Southern California Public and Government Affairs. “These ship emissions reductions weren’t calculated for the DEIR, so the reductions are in addition to what the document outlines, and they’re substantial. We believe any emissions reductions help to improve air quality.”

Environmental advocates are concerned about the increase in oil production and exposure to hazardous chemicals. With the expansion, the refinery would be producing 380,000 barrels per day, add refinery Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) railcar deliveries increasing explosion risk, and increase Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), chemicals which are either known or suspected carcinogens, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s very important to prevent and reduce VOC emissions and not increase them, especially in the South Coast that has very high levels of smog — extreme levels of smog — that cause all kinds of problems for health,” said Communities for a Better Environment scientist and engineer, Julia May, in a recent interview with VoiceWaves Long Beach.

The LARIC project would connect Tesoro’s two refineries through 15 gas and oil pipelines routed underground near schools and parks where children play.

Several concerns have also been raised about Tesoro’s repeated history of violating emission regulations and continuous burning of excess gases — better known as flares. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) exists to ensure that these refineries are regulated to protect air quality in the region.

“Our rules are some of the most stringent regulations in the country with respect to leak detection and repair, doming storage tanks, PM2.5 emissions from FCCUs,” said Sam Atwood, Media Relations Manager at SCAQMD.

In August 2016, the AQMD detected leaks at the Wilmington refinery above VOC emission limits. Three days later, a sulfur explosion occurred.

Meanwhile, the City of Carson is considering suing AQMD over safety concerns related to the LARIC project, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti along with Long Beach Mayor, Robert Garcia, have issued letters to AQMD raising concerns about the proposed Tesoro project.

The AQMD has stated it intends to finalize approval of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).  An environmental scientist says that the Air District’s own study shows refinery emissions are far worse than the AQMD estimated.    

 “The full study of [Southern California] oil refineries done jointly by a Swedish Team & the AQMD came out last week, showing emissions including Tesoro’s are grossly underestimated,” said May. “Tesoro for example, had 43 times higher benzene levels…this should make the AQMD take pause, and send the draft EIR back to re-draft and recirculate.”  

Environmentalist are demanding a fair evaluation of the facts and urging community leaders, city officials and other environmental advocacy groups to support their efforts in demanding the AQMD send the draft EIR back for redrafting to correct the gross errors.

This April 29, thousands are expected to participate in the People’s Climate March which will occur nationwide. In Los Angeles about 60 coalition groups have united to host the regional People’s March in Wilmington.

“We cannot be intimidated anymore, we have to stand up to the corporate polluters and we can do that together on April 29, right here in Wilmington,” said Barragán.. “Join us to the People’s Climate March, I will be here.”

Click here for more information on People’s Climate March.


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