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Carson sues air quality agency over mega-refinery approval

A groundwater leak at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington could yield a significant penalty for the independent oil producer.
Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington could be combined with a neighboring Carson refinery.

Carson is suing air quality regulators to challenge a plan that would combine two adjacent oil refineries in Carson and Wilmington into a single mega-refinery.

The city on Wednesday filed a notice in Los Angeles Superior Court that it intended to take legal action against the South Coast Air Quality Management District to halt the project to create the West Coast's largest refinery, said spokeswoman Margie Revilla-Garcia.

Sunny Soltani, who represents Carson, said the notice is a precursor to filing a petition alleging violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. The action seeks to set aside the AQMD's approval of the environmental impact report.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District certified the project’s environmental impact report earlier this month. Following an ongoing review of the document by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the AQMD may issue permits for construction of the project.

The merger proposal would take old polluting equipment known as a fluid catalytic cracker at the Wilmington refinery offline, reducing emissions at the plant, AQMD concluded. It would also permit the construction of larger oil storage tanks. Those make the transfer of crude oil from ocean tankers into the refinery’s feeder pipelines much faster, resulting in less air pollution, said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

He said the merged refinery would emit more volatile organic compounds, which are gases that contribute to smog. However other types of emissions overall would drop and health risks to nearby residents would not increase, Atwood said.

Julia May, a scientist with the local environmental group Communities for a Better Environment, said the community fears the new refinery would use ocean tankers to bring in Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

“A lot of the hazard locally would be from the potential for increased benzene which causes cancer,” she said.

In its environmental impact statement, AQMD found the refineries already process Bakken crude oil, so emissions from that type of crude are unlikely to change. 

Petroleum giant Tesoro owns both refineries and says daily production capacity will stay largely unchanged at the new mega-refinery. The project increases the refineries’ oil storage capacity, however the output of the refined product would increase by only about  or 2 percent.

AQMD's Atwood said the new combined refinery could not change the blend of crude oil it refines without seeking additional permits. 

Clarification: This story has been updated with a statement from Carson's city attorney to describe the action filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when AQMD could issue permits for construction at the combined refinery. Those permits could follow the U.S. EPA review of the AQMD's environmental report.