A nationwide study of oil refineries ranked Chevron El Segundo’s Santa Monica Bay facility as the top water polluter for nitrogen and selenium in 2021, compared to 80 other oil operations.
The pollutants, which are by-products of the oil refining process, are legally discharged into the Pacific Ocean. The report’s authors, along with conservationists, are calling on federal environmental officials to revise and tighten regulations that allow such discharges into water bodies, saying they have the authority to do so but choose not to act.
“Once again, the U.S. government has turned a blind eye while oil and gas companies are polluting our environment, including our sensitive marine ecosystems, and disproportionately damaging our frontline communities,” Los Angeles Waterkeeper executive director Bruce Reznik said in a press release . “We must now shine the spotlight on essentially unregulated water pollution from oil refineries and demand that [the Environmental Protection Agency] fulfilling their duty under the Clean Water Act by setting, updating and actually enforcing discharge limits for these refineries.”
In an email to The Times, the oil company said it directly treats all of the facility’s process wastewater and stormwater runoff “under a strict discharge permit (known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or ‘NPDES’ permit) issued by Los Angeles became a Regional Water Quality Control Board,” adding that it continues to comply with federal, state and local water regulation standards.
“Chevron has built the capacity to operate, permit and treat all of its wastewater and stormwater runoff rather than charging publicly owned treatment plants,” the statement said, referring to treatment plants owned by government agencies.
The report, released Thursday by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, also ranks Chevron Richmond and PBF Martinez (formerly Shell) refineries in Northern California among the top ten nickel polluters among national refiners, ranking No. 5 and No. 10, respectively.
It also found that two-thirds of the 81 refineries analyzed are disproportionately located in low-income areas and that more than half are “located in areas where the percentage of people of color exceeds the national average.” Of those 81, nearly 70% have contributed to downstream waterways that are too polluted for aquatic life to be sustained or safe for swimming or fishing, the report said.
The Clean Water Act, enacted under a different name in 1948 and restructured in 1972, regulates water pollution in the United States. Part of its purpose is to restore and conserve the nation’s waters.
But the report claims that the EPA, which administers the Clean Water Act’s laws and regulations, has failed to enforce it. EPA responsibilities include reducing venting of pollutants and tightening those limits at least twice every decade as treatment technology has improved.
“But standards for refineries have not been revised for almost four decades since 1985 and only apply to a small handful of pollutants,” the report said. “These weak and outdated standards do not reflect advances in treatment methods or the expansion and change in refinery operations over the past four decades. While some state agencies have included several additional discharge limits in refinery effluent permits, EPA and state environmental agencies rarely enforce them or penalize violators.”
The Environmental Integrity Project evaluated EPA’s enforcement and compliance data and found that more than 80% of the 81 refineries reported exceeding their allowable limits for water toxins at least once between 2019 and 2021. However, most were not punished.
EPA declined to comment on the report’s findings.
In 2021, Chevron El Segundo released 1.6 million pounds of nitrogen into the Santa Monica Bay, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, which analyzed the oil industry’s toxic release reports, permit applications and their monitoring data to compile their findings. According to the report, 5,257 pounds of selenium was also released.
Tracy Quinn, president and chief executive officer of Heal the Bay, called the nitrogen numbers “worrying.”
“While there are no acute health concerns for swimmers and surfers” because the dump is far enough offshore, “the discharge of nitrogen into our coastal waters can have serious impacts on our marine life,” she said in an email. She cited the California Ocean Acidification Action Plan, which states that nutrients like nitrogen can worsen ocean acidification when discharged into coastal waters.
Quinn also pointed out that the Hyperion water reclamation facility in Playa del Rey currently discharges more than 20 times as much nitrogen annually into the Santa Monica Bay as does Chevron El Segundo. She said Hyperion plans to reduce its nitrogen emissions to 1.7 million pounds a year as it upgrades plants to produce recycled water.
In the San Francisco Bay area alone, four refineries — including Valero Benicia and Phillips 66 Rodeo — have at least 1,057 pounds of selenium, 1.2 million pounds of nitrogen, 32,298 pounds of oil and grease, and thousands more pounds of other pollutants such as arsenic and lead, he says the report.
In total, the 81 refineries surveyed across the country discharged 1.6 billion pounds of chlorides, sulfates and other dissolved solids into waterways in 2021. About 60,000 pounds of selenium and 15.7 million pounds of nitrogen were also discharged, among other pollutants.
The study’s authors say contamination could have serious consequences for wildlife and ecosystems. At high levels, many of the toxins can cause reproductive harm in fish and birds. Chloride can also kill fish and plants. Too much of nitrogen Algae can lead to overgrowth, depriving aquatic life of oxygen and clogging rivers and streams. It can also be harmful to small children and livestock, which consume drinking water with excess nitrogen.
Research shows that high levels of selenium are present cause spinal deformities in more than 80% of the juvenile Sacramento splittail, a freshwater fish, in the Bay Area.
The toxic metal occurs naturally in crude oil and can kill entire fish populations, causing mutations and reproductive harm. It can also harm birds, amphibians, and other animals that feed on aquatic life.
The report also found that many US refineries “have outdated and inadequate environmental protection systems” because of their age – they average 74 years old, but some are as old as 140 years. It also claims that the EPA hasn’t updated its refinery limits for nearly 40 years, even though they’ve grown over the past few decades, “increasing both the volume and variety of pollutants they emit.”
“Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public attention and accountability in the United States, and too many are releasing a witch’s brew of pollutants into our rivers, lakes and estuaries,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project in a press release. “This is due to lax federal standards based on nearly 40-year-old wastewater treatment methods.”
The finds bring back memories of LA’s Massive Sewage Accident 2021when the Hyperion plant dumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into Santa Monica Bay.
Area residents complained of rashes, headaches and nausea for weeks, and the incident led to two lawsuits against sanitation officials and sparked dozens of violations by regulators.
The likely causes of the spill were multiple equipment failures, unheeded alarms from rising sewage, and understaffing.
The official report, which analyzed what caused the spill, found, among other things, that sanitation officials had to upgrade equipment at the city’s oldest and largest sewage treatment plant.
Times contributor Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-26/chevron-el-segundo-among-worst-refinery-water-polluters Chevron El Segundo among worst water-polluting refineries