|Refinery Flare Pollution
Underestimated By A Factor Of Over 100
January 5, 2003
A jarring article in today's West County Times concludes that the Bay Area Air Quality Control District has been grossly underestimating pollution from refinery flaring for years. The actual level of pollution is over 100 times what had previously been reported by refineries and accepted by the Air Board, whose staff, according to County Supervisor Mark Desaulnier, are way too cozy with refinery officials.
According to the article, "The largest Bay Area refinery, ChevronTexaco in Richmond, so poorly monitored flows into its flares that air district engineers did not include the plant in its estimates. A spokesman for the company could not be reached last week."
For years, every time a CUP is required for a project in Richmond that has significant pollution potential, our City staff has routinely emphasized that we should defer to state or Federal regulatory bodies for regulation. A few people and organizations, including CBE and the West County Toxics Coalition, have maintained that these regulatory bodies cannot necessarily be trusted to look out for Richmond residents' best interests, and that we should be more proactive and independent in making our own assessments and including our own regulations into CUP's.
A recent example is the Western Research Center negative declaration involving the issue of potential radioactivity contamination (See Richmond Planning Department - A Negative Declaration Mill? http://www.tombutt.com/forum/021221.htm) In that case, the Planning Department deferred to the applicant's verbal description of a regulatory agency's conclusions.
Posted on Sun, Jan. 05, 2003
spew pollutants by the ton
For years, people living near Bay Area refineries have complained that gases from unregulated stacks fouled the air they breathe, only to be assured that what they were seeing was insignificant.
Those assurances, it turns out, were wrong.
In a major oversight, Bay Area air quality regulators are finding that gas-venting flares that they historically said had only a negligible impact on air quality may rank as the largest sources of air pollution in the region's five refineries, according to a new report.
In effect, a draft report confirms the gravest suspicions of refinery neighbors -- regulators so badly underestimated flare emissions that they almost entirely ignored what may be the biggest air quality problem at refineries.
The enormity of the error is mind-boggling. Until recently, regulators estimated Bay Area refinery flares -- burnoffs of excess gases -- vented about 200 pounds of gaseous hydrocarbons daily.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District's engineers now believe the correct figure is more than 22 tons a day.
If that figure holds, the flares would be considered a bigger source of smog-forming pollutants than all the other known refinery sources combined, according to the district's statistics. That includes emissions towers, leaking valves, evaporation from storage tanks and every other source of pollution that regulators track.
Even the new figures for flares -- which refinery officials dispute -- could be low because they do not include the area's largest refinery and because engineers conducting the study conservatively estimated that only 2 percent of the gases vented through the flares escape unburned, air district officials say.
"There's got to be two questions asked," said Mark DeSaulnier, an air district board member who in 2001 sought the study as part of a smog-reduction plan. "One is going to be a rulemaking (to begin reducing flare emissions). But there's got to be a look back at how the district miscalculated."
"It does strain credibility that this could go on, both at the air district and in the industry," he said.
An air district critic said the findings highlight a larger problem - that regulators are grossly underestimating pollution from refineries as a whole. In other words, flares may be bad, but refinery emissions may be so badly underestimated that there may be bigger sources still to be discovered.
In fact, the flare study is one of several that are showing surprising levels of pollution from refinery pressure relief devices, tankers, waste water systems and others, said Julia May, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment in Oakland.
"They're finding big, unregulated emissions from many sources. The flares are just the worst," May said.
The flare report is nearing a final version and could change. Air district officials said the emissions are difficult to estimate because of poor monitoring of what goes into, and comes out of, flares.
Refinery officials say the district's figures are inflated or that flares are being used properly.
"We are engaged in some ongoing dialogue concerning the flares," said Mark Hughes, spokesman for the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery at Avon. It was cited in the report as venting more gases from flares -- 14 tons a day -- than any of the other three refineries for which estimates were developed.
Hughes said the Tesoro refinery gave incorrect data to the air district, which led engineers to overestimate the actual amount of gas vented from Tesoro's flares.
Nevertheless, the refinery is taking steps to reduce flaring in the coming months, Hughes said.
"You're soon going to see dramatic reductions in our flare emissions," he said.
Refinery flares are meant to safely vent gases when there is a problem at a refinery. But after reviewing operations at 28 flare stacks, the air district found that they are in fact "routinely used as gas disposal systems."
Mary Jen Beach, a spokeswoman for the ConocoPhillips, said its refinery uses its flares properly.
"At Rodeo, we use our flares as a safety control device and not on a routine basis," she said. Refinery officials at this point neither dispute nor agree with the district's flare emissions figures, she said.
The largest Bay Area refinery, ChevronTexaco in Richmond, so poorly monitored flows into its flares that air district engineers did not include the plant in its estimates.
A spokesman for the company could not be reached last week.
A West County resident who tracks the refineries was incredulous.
"We've always been told the flares are a very insignificant source of emissions and the flares are not a worry except in case of a problem -- and in that case it's a good thing" because venting through a flare is better than venting straight to the atmosphere, said Henry Clark, director of the West County Toxics Coalition. His organization has repeatedly complained about "excessive" flaring at the Chevron refinery.
"Now, we're being told the flaring is 22 tons per day, which is incredible," he added. "How could there be such a wide gap in their calculations?"
One answer to Clark's question is that regulators uncritically accepted that flares were being used as they were supposed to be used, said Jim Karas, an air district engineer who is overseeing the report.
"I think traditionally - if you look at any publication - that's what they train people to think," Karas said. Instead, Karas said, refiners use the flares as a cheap way to dispose of gas.
DeSaulnier had another answer. He said regulators and refinery officials have been too cozy.
"I think the board and the staff were too close to the industry for years," DeSaulnier said. "We're much more serious about it now than we have ever been before, and we're going to hold these guys accountable."
DeSaulnier, a Contra Costa County supervisor, said air district employees resisted his request for the flare study. "Staff was saying the same things that industry was saying, that there wasn't much there," DeSaulnier said. "People weren't listening to people from the communities that were most affected. (But) they were right."
It was only at the insistence of environmentalist May and other activists that the air district agreed in 2001 to undertake the flare study and tentatively to raise its estimate of refinery flare emissions from 0.11 tons per day to 13 tons a day, noting that flare pollution "could be as high" as that figure.
Few in the district suspected that the actual number would be higher.
"I think the facilities are amazed themselves," said Karas, the district engineer. "I don't think they realized how much flow they had going on."
Karas said the report is consistent with new information from around the country and in Canada where air quality officials are finding far more pollution coming from flares than was believed.