Will Refinery Expansion Mean Better or Worse Air for Long Beach’s Poor?
Story By: Crystal Niebla. Originally Published by VoiceWaves.
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Maurice Weiner noticed a dark substance gathering inside his West Long Beach home. He ran his finger on the walls and windows.
“That’s soot that’s flying and coming into our homes, not just in my area, [but] across Santa Fe [Avenue] all over in the westside,” said Weiner, 67, who lives less than three miles from the towering Tesoro Refinery in Carson.
After a decade of living near multiple refineries, freeways and truck stations, he and his family started developing coughs. The doctor didn’t have good news for them.
“All of the sudden we have asthma, bronchitis,” he said.
Farther down Santa Fe Avenue, 57-year-old Graciela Cortez lives about a mile and a half from Tesoro’s second oil refinery in Wilmington.
Her husband, Rafael, died from cancer at age 56. Among his many illnesses, Rafael suffered from asthma for his entire life, and Graciela said living in a polluted area for 13 years didn’t help his lungs.
Within the epicenter of Long Beach’s worst air, residents and local environmentalists worry that life there in the often-called “dead zone” will worsen as Tesoro, one of the largest oil refineries on the West Coast, plans to connect its two nearby facilities via new pipelines.
Tesoro’s project would invest $460 million to physically integrate and upgrade its Wilmington and Carson refineries, which already sit within two miles of Long Beach schools, parks and neighborhoods.
Known as the Los Angeles Refinery Integration and Compliance Project (LARIC), Tesoro says that it would also improve air quality by substantially reducing local emissions and upgrading refinery equipment.
It also proposes to shut down its fluid catalytic cracking unit — a tool used for crude oil conversion — in Wilmington, potentially reducing greenhouse gases and harmful levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and carbon monoxide.
LARIC’s website reveals that at the same time, however, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) would increase. VOCs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are emissions that include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects.
That’s why Julia May, a scientist and engineer with over 25 years of experience in monitoring pollution, believes that Tesoro’s claims that the project will lower emissions are misleading.
May said that along with smog production, VOCs may yield emissions more toxic than others such as benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer.
“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,” May said.
The neighborhoods bordering the project’s site, among Long Beach’s most diverse and poorest, have been known to have higher rates of cancer, low birth weights and respiratory issues for years.
At the westside’s Hudson Park, for example, the carcinogenic risk is about 1.8 times higher than at the eastside’s El Dorado Park, according to data analyzed from the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s (AQMD) carcinogenic risk map.
Hudson Park also has an asthma score of 80, while El Dorado Park scores 24 based on a zero to 100 percentile range, according to the state’s EPA mapping software.
Though the air has improved over the last decades, the South Coast air basin “still [has], essentially, the worst air quality in the nation,” AQMD spokesperson Sam Atwood said.
A state study this year reported that exposure to traffic and outdoor air pollutants cause asthma and can trigger asthma attacks, especially for poor communities.
“If these two refineries were to merge, [Tesoro] would be the largest refinery on the West Coast, and we’re in an already overly-burdened community in terms of pollution,” said Taylor Thomas, a research and policy analyst at East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ).
To connect Tesoro’s two refineries, 15 gas and oil pipelines would be routed underground and on South Alameda Street and East Sepulveda Boulevard, less than two miles from Elizabeth Hudson Elementary School and Admiral Kidd Park.
Tesoro’s history of repeated leaks, toxic burning of excess gases — better known as flares — and last year’s refinery explosion are also raising more concerns.
Neither Tesoro or Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia responded to repeated interview requests.
Before Tesoro can get the OK for its project, the AQMD must review LARIC’s potential impact on air quality with an updated Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The latest draft drew controversy from environmentalists who said the report left out information on potential dangers.
That includes building a dozen new pressure relief devices for flares — which may emit very large emissions during emergencies — and having certain operations switch to more explosive, carcinogenic crude oil imports such as Bakken crude.
“[The AQMD] didn’t evaluate that at all, and that’s a clear deficiency,” said May, also a senior scientist for Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental activist organization.
Carson officials stated last year that the EIR underestimated the project’s impact on poor residents and used overly technical language. Atwood, AQMD’s spokesperson, said they cannot comment on the project until the EIR’s release in a few weeks.
“[State guidelines] emphasize that EIRs should readily be understandable by the layperson,” Carson City Manager Ken Farfsing wrote in an objection, echoing views by some Long Beach residents.
Whitney Amaya, 24, who has lived at her West Long Beach home for 18 years, believes that Tesoro lacked transparency and outreach with non-English speakers.
“They’re a company, so they’re motivated by profit, not necessarily by the needs of the community,” Amaya said.
She would have been oblivious to Tesoro’s expansion plans if she hadn’t joined EYCEJ, the local environmental health advocacy group, she said.
But other residents like Graciela Cortez, a 57-year-old who only speaks Spanish, have not been made aware of the project.
After seeing her husband suffer from asthma and ultimately die from cancer, she remains living in the same home, being unable to afford moving elsewhere, inside the city’s “dead zone.”
“Where can I go?” she asked in Spanish. “I need to endure.”