When oil industry supports legislators, air quality suffers
By By Kathryn Phillips, April 22, 2019
California journalists have reported over the last two election cycles on the effort by the Legislature’s “moderate caucus,” composed of conservative Democratic state legislators, to increase the caucus’ influence
During normal times—say, when the planet’s very future hasn’t depended on dramatically cutting combustion fueled by oil and methane gas—such facts would be just interesting data points for analyzing the Legislature’s political dynamics.
Now, though, the caucus members’ devotion to maintaining California’s oil dependence is having health-threatening consequences.
This devotion is especially playing out in the Assembly Transportation Committee. The committee is chaired by Jim Frazier, a Democrat from Discovery Bay, a leader of the moderate caucus.
California’s notorious air and climate pollution is driven by transportation. The smog and toxic particles that spark maladies ranging from low birthweight to asthma and heart disease are tightly linked to tailpipe emissions.
Reams of data, scientific papers and regulatory agency reports point to the need to transition California’s cars and trucks to zero-emission vehicles if the state is to ever have clean air or avoid the worst effects of climate change.
So one would expect to see growing devotion by the Democratic-led California Legislature to do more to help Californians access electric cars and cut pollution from delivery trucks.
Instead, the California Assembly is the graveyard for legislation designed to help advance zero-emission vehicles.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Frazier has a commanding, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners style of governing. He has demonstrated that style by stopping bills to advance clean transportation by refusing to schedule them for a hearing in his committee.
One of the most recent victims is Assembly Bill 40, which would require the regulatory agency responsible for tailpipe emissions regulations, the California Air Resources Board, to produce and deliver to the legislature a strategy for fully transitioning brand new cars sold in California to zero-emission by 2040.
That is, the bill by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting would have asked for a study to be done and sent to the Legislature. It did nothing more. Yet it’s a bill the oil and gas industry and the California Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose. The bill isn’t being scheduled for a hearing.
There are a few bills in the Senate that advance clean transportation that may pass in that house. But they are sure to face the buzzsaw in the Assembly once they reach Frazier’s committee.
How can a single legislator stop progress in advancing technology and cutting pollution?
He can do this by not acting alone. The Assembly Transportation Committee includes at least four other moderate caucus members who won’t buck the chairman, and whose votes, when counted with the handful of Republicans on the committee, can stop any bill.
In essence, the committee is stacked against zero-emission technology.
Frazier isn’t the only pro-oil Democrat sitting in a leadership role this year. Rudy Salas, Jr., a Democrat from Bakersfield, is chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. His first action was to try to get an expansive and expensive audit of the air resources board’s work on transportation.
It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Salas’s audit request, which failed to garner the votes needed, echoed the complaints commonly heard from the oil and gas industry about the air resources board’s transportation policies.
Who pays campaign costs has consequences. In the California Legislature, the consequences are that we all live with more health-threatening transportation pollution with no end in sight.
Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California, the legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the Sierra Club’s 13 local chapters. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.
More than 4 in 10 Americans Live with Unhealthy Air; Eight Cities Suffered Most Polluted Air Ever Recorded
American Lung Association’s 20th annual ‘State of the Air’ report sounds the alarm on worsened air quality driven by climate change, placing health and lives at risk
(April 24, 2019) – CHICAGO The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report finds that an increasing number of Americans—more than 4 in 10—lived with unhealthy air quality, placing their health and lives at risk. The 20th annual air quality “report card” found that 141.1 million people lived in counties with unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution, an increase of more than 7.2 million Americans since the last annual report. Eight cities recorded their highest number of days with unhealthy spikes in particle pollution since the nation began monitoring this pollutant 20 years ago. And the nation recorded more days with air quality considered hazardous, when air quality reached “emergency conditions”—Maroon on the air quality index—than ever before.
“The 20th annual ‘State of the Air’ report shows clear evidence of a disturbing trend in our air quality after years of making progress: In many areas of the United States, the air quality is worsening, at least in part because of wildfires and weather patterns fueled by climate change,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. “This increase in unhealthy air is eye-opening, and points to the reality that the nation must do more to protect the public from serious, even life-threatening harm. There is no clearer sign that we are facing new challenges than air pollution levels that have broken records tracked for the past twenty years, and the fact that we had more days than ever before when monitored air quality reached hazardous levels for anyone to breathe.”
The 2019 “State of the Air” report analyzed the three years with the most recent quality-assured data collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies: 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history. When it comes to air quality, changing climate patterns fuel wildfires and lead to worsened ozone pollution. This degraded air quality threatens the health of Americans, especially those more vulnerable such as children, older adults and those living with a lung disease.
Each year, “State of the Air” reports on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution. Each is dangerous to public health and each can be lethal. The 2019 “State of the Air” report found that more than 20 million people lived in counties that had unhealthy levels of air quality in all categories.
Particle Pollution Unhealthy particles in the air result from many sources, including wildfires, wood-burning devices, coal-fired power plants and diesel engines. Particle pollution can be deadly. Technically known as PM2.5, these microscopic particles lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can cause lung cancer.
The report has two grades for particle pollution: One for “short-term” particle pollution, or daily spikes in the pollutant, and one for the annual average or “year-round” level that represents the concentration of particles day-in and day-out in each location.
Short-Term Particle Pollution
More cities experienced days when there were spikes in particle pollution, with eight cities of the 25 most-polluted reaching their highest number of such days in the report’s 20-year history: Fairbanks, Alaska; Salinas, CA; Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA; Missoula, Montana; Bismarck, ND; Bend-Pineville, OR; Spokane-Spokane Valley-Coeur d’Alene, WA-ID; and Yakima, Washington. Wildfires in 2017, especially in Montana, Washington and California, and woodsmoke from heating homes contributed to many of these dangerous spikes. Bakersfield, CA, remained the #1 most polluted city for short-term particle levels, as it has for eight of the past 10 reports. Overall, daily spikes in particle pollution are getting more frequent, and, in many cases, more severe, with four days reaching hazardous, Maroon alert levels in 2017, the highest number ever. Nationwide, more than 49.6 million people suffered those episodes of unhealthy spikes in particle pollution in the 76 counties where they lived.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5):
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
Year-Round Particle Pollution
More than 20.5 million people lived in counties with unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution, which is more than in the last two annual “State of the Air” reports. Steps to clean up emissions that cause particle pollution helped reduce some averages. Meanwhile, major sources like agriculture, power plants and industrial sources still emit too much particulate matter, and wildfires in the western U.S. contributed to higher levels of particle pollution in several cities. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA, topped the list as most polluted by year-round particle levels in this year’s report, tying its previous record for the highest level ever reached.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM2.5):
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
El Centro, California
Medford-Grants Pass, Oregon
Ozone Pollution Ozone pollution, often referred to as smog, harms lung health, essentially causing a sunburn of the lung. Specifically, inhaling ozone pollution can cause shortness of breath, trigger coughing and asthma attacks, and may shorten life. Warmer temperatures make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up.
Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2019 report than in the last two “State of the Air” reports. Approximately 134 million people lived where they experienced too many high ozone days, the highest number of people exposed since the 2016 report. This report shows the changing climate’s impact on air quality, as ozone pollution worsened during the global record-breaking heat years tracked in the 2019 report.
Of the 10 most polluted cities for ozone, seven did worse than in last year’s report, including many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Los Angeles’s air quality worsened, and it remains #1 for most ozone-polluted city in the nation. Only Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera-Hanford and San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland had fewer days with high ozone than in the 2018 report.
Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, California
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Houston-The Woodlands, Texas
New York-Newark, New York–New Jersey-Connecticut-Pennsylvania
The “State of the Air” also recognizes the nation’s cleanest cities, and just like last year’s report, only six cities qualified for that status. To rank as one of the nation’s cleanest cities, a city must experience no high ozone or high particle pollution days and must rank among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle pollution levels during 2015-2017.
Cleanest U.S. Cities (listed in alphabetical order)
Burlington-South Burlington, Vermont
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida
Wilmington, North Carolina
“Every American deserves to breathe healthy air that won’t make them sick. The American Lung Association calls on the Administration and Congress to protect and prioritize Americans’ health by taking urgent action to fight air pollution and address climate change,” Wimmer said.
Learn more about the 20th anniversary of the “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, the health impacts of climate change and threats to air quality in metro regions nationwide, contact Allison MacMunn at the American Lung Association at Media@Lung.org or 312-801-7628.
More than four in 10 people live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe. Learn More
Which cities have the highest levels of air pollution? Which are the cleanest? Check out the lists here. Learn More
Ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread pollutants—and among the most dangerous. Learn More
For the Media
Journalists can access press releases, experts available for interview, b-roll, the full “State of the Air” report and more. Learn More
Repost from KQED The California Report [Editor: UPDATE AS OF APRIL 12, 2019: According to sources, the refinery’s partial shutdown will continue for maybe another month. Valero reports that they will not be back online until sometime between early and mid May. – R.S.]
Valero’s March Pollution Release Exposes Weaknesses in Benicia’s Air Monitoring System
By Ted Goldberg, Apr 10, 2019
When a major malfunction caused Valero’s Benicia refinery to spew out pollution last month, leading city officials to warn residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors, the agency that regulates air in the Bay Area had to send a van to monitor the situation.
That’s because there is no stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas, even though the city is home to one of the largest refineries in California.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District took a series of air samples, but none during the height of the emergency that Sunday morning of March 24, when a plume of black smoke filled the air for hours, convincing officials to issue a health advisory.
Several people called 911 to report breathing problems at the time of the refinery breakdown. The air district said it received about a dozen complaints.
There’s also no evidence that Valero monitored the air in those residential areas during the time period when the releases were most extreme.
The refinery problems sent soot into the air and followed two weeks of more minor releases that regulators thought were tapering off. The plume that morning eventually led Valero to shut down a large part of its facility, a move that has contributed to the increase in the cost of gas statewide in recent weeks.
Several public agencies and companies conducted air monitoring work to measure for a variety of chemicals that may have spewed from the refinery’s stacks.
Some local officials say those tests may prove that, for the most part, elevated levels of particulate matter and toxic gases did not waft into nearby residential neighborhoods.
Indeed, it looks so far like the pollution was not as bad as the extreme release of toxic sulfur dioxide that accompanied Valero’s May 2017 power outage, one of the Bay Area’s worst refinery accidents in years.
But Benicia’s mayor, along with a leading air quality expert and two local environmentalists, say these most recent releases confirm that the small North Bay city needs a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of its largest employer.
“It seems that right now, if there’s an incident, what happens is folks kind of drive around and see if they can catch the plume,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.
The refinery malfunctions began on March 11. Two days later, Valero hired an Arkansas-based consulting firm, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), to take air samples around the refinery to test for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
During eight consecutive days of testing, the firm detected more than a thousand small readings for particulate matter less than 10 microns wide and 2.5 microns wide, known as PM 10 and PM 2.5, respectively.
That work ended when regulators and Valero believed the releases were coming to an end. On March 23, petroleum coke began again belching from the refinery’s stacks.
But the CTEH did not restart air sampling until the following afternoon, well after the health advisory had ended and officials told the public the air was OK.
Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s concerning that the CTEH data does not include the time period during the height of the releases.
“There is a huge gap of data that we are missing,” Kretzmann said.
A CTEH spokesman referred questions to Valero, which declined to answer questions about the firm’s work.
Valero runs fence line monitors around the refinery, but the site that publishes its data includes a warning that all of its measurements should be considered “questionable until further notice” because several of its parts require adjustments before they can produce reliable and accurate data.
Air district monitoring efforts
On March 24 and 25, BAAQMD inspectors drove the agency’s mobile monitoring van near the refinery to measure for hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as benzene, toluene and butadiene.
The agency compared those concentrations for acute, chronic and work-time exposure to state health standards, according to Eric Stevenson, the district’s director of meteorology and measurements
“What we saw in these results was nothing above those levels,” Stevenson said. “That being said, we did them on Sunday after a lot of the worst visual impacts were detected.”
Stevenson said the district did not collect air monitoring data when the health advisory was in effect in order to protect the health of its staff and because county officials did not request it.
“When the health department declares a shelter in place, we do our best to provide any information that they request. They didn’t request any information from us prior to that shelter in place,” Stevenson said.
Solano County spokesman Matthew Davis confirmed that the county did not request tests from the air district before it issued the health advisory.
‘”All of the air readings up to that point, during and afterwards, were ‘good’ to ‘moderate’ and at no time did the county or CTEH results show ‘unhealthy’ levels for sensitive individuals or the general public,” Davis said.
Elevated particulate levels
However, an air monitoring log from the Benicia Fire Department shows six occurrences when particulate readings were elevated in the early morning hours before the advisory. Fire crews did not take any samples during the hours-long health advisory.
“The fire department’s monitoring shows particulate matter pollution repeatedly spiked to very high levels, far higher than what would be considered safe for daily air quality,” Kretzmann said. “It raises big concerns for vulnerable people, like kids with asthma.”
The fire department’s log also includes several instances in which crews noted moderate to strong petroleum byproduct odors.
“This is concerning since those could be toxic,” said Wexler, the UC Davis air quality expert.
By the time Solano County inspectors restarted tests that morning, at 9:45 a.m., the particulate levels had dropped.
The county also tested areas in the refinery on one day to determine whether high levels of heavy metals were in the petroleum coke dust coming from the stacks.
Those tests revealed that the releases did not include elevated levels of heavy metals, according to Jag Sahota, the county’s environmental health manager.
Calls for change
“You can’t fix what you don’t know,” Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said in an interview on Monday.
Patterson said the city needs a stronger air monitoring program, money to run it and expertise to understand it, similar to the one in Richmond, where Chevron’s refinery is located. A program there provides air quality readings from monitors in three neighborhoods.
“It’s not helpful if you don’t know the full extent of the public impact,” said Patterson. “If you don’t have the personnel and you don’t have the funds and you don’t have a clear path of information, you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t take measures to protect public health and safety.”
“We really need to surround the plant with monitors in the neighborhoods where people are living and breathing,” he said. “If the facility can’t get control of its situation, it should incur some costs to protect the people who live in the region.”
Andres Soto, a Benicia resident and organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, said the city has gone too long without an efficient and robust air monitoring program.
“We need to have a very comprehensive monitoring system that is looking at both the greenhouse gases as well as the particulate matter,” Soto said. “We needed to do that 10 years ago. It’s beyond critical.”
Kretzmann, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said the refinery and air district do not have a plan in place to capture the most critical data when pollution threatens Benicia residents.
“There’s no telling what information we’re missing, and the community still doesn’t know the true extent of danger it’s facing,” he said. “The city needs a system that can accurately and comprehensively measure air pollution when dangerous events occur.”
More monitoring on the horizon
The air district said it’s planning to add monitoring stations to areas near all five of the Bay Area’s refineries.
“These stations will be sited to help evaluate and track refinery emission impacts in the surrounding communities,” said air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann, adding that the agency is “identifying and attempting to secure suitable space for the site in Benicia.”
Valero also plans to help fund work on community monitoring devices, as part of a 2003 settlement with a local environmental group. That group, called the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, is planning to hire staff to run a community air monitoring device in the city’s northwest corner.
That might ease the community’s concern but not lead to the best data, said Dr. Bela Matyas, Solano County’s health officer.
“More monitors would clearly give more refined information,” Matyas said. “But in places where that’s been done, that does not yield more accurate estimates of risk over the long term over that area.”
During major incidents, like Valero’s recent malfunction, he added, mobile air monitoring is still necessary to capture data that a stationary device would not be able to collect.