SAN FRANCISCO -- On Dec. 10, 1992, the Tosco Corp. oil refinery belched a noxious, oily gas over parts of Concord, Calif., for four hours, drawing dozens of complaints from residents of headaches, nausea and "real stinky air."
After eight months of wrangling with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over two citations for improperly burning waste gas, the refinery finally paid its fine: $1,010.
From Richmond to Benicia, where five major refineries each day handle roughly 740,000 barrels of crude oil worth nearly $15 million, small fines are the rule. While polluting Bay waters with oil could cost companies more than 500 times as much, the median punishment for refineries that befoul the air is $625, an Examiner investigation shows. Since 1990, the refineries -- Tosco in Martinez, Chevron Corp. in Richmond, Exxon Corp. in Benicia, Shell Oil Co. in Martinez and Unocal Corp. in Rodeo -- have committed 1,007 violations of pollution rules. On 666 occasions they were fined for breaking regulations aimed at stopping black clouds, gas and vapor leaks, hazardous chemical discharges and pollution of neighborhoods. Sixty-nine of the fines were greater than $1,000; 597 were $1,000 or less. An additional 144 such violations are being challenged by the refineries, and there were 197 violations considered less serious. The analysis mirrors an Examiner review of air board practices in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since then, there has been no reduction in the yearly number of violations, nor have the fines increased. Roughly two weeks after an explosion killed one man and injured 44 others after a 12-inch oil pipeline ruptured at Tosco, there is renewed interest in whether penalties are stiff enough to deter health and safety violations. "Perhaps it's time we ought to review the imposition of penalties for violations of the air laws," said state Sen. Byron Sher, a Palo Alto Democrat and author of the California Clean Air Act. "This is an issue that ought to be revisited. Why is it you have one standard for oil spills and another for air emissions?" Under the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act, passed by the Legislature the year after the disastrous Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, the state requires a $500,000 fine for those who "reasonably should have known" they were causing more than a barrel of oil to spill into marine waters. But if refineries dump toxic chemicals into the air, the state Health and Safety Code dictates that fines range from $1,000 to a maximum of $50,000, depending upon whether the violation is accidental, negligent or intentional. Negotiations between refineries and the air board usually result in smaller fines. "If you start out with a low fine, then there's no incentive to make improvements at the refinery," said former Assemblyman Bob Campbell of Richmond, now a member of the California Coastal Commission. "Hell, yes, I'd pay $1,000 fine three or four times rather than pay $800,000 to fix what may be wrong," he said. "The fines are too cheap. That's like telling your son or daughter, `If you don't behave, I'm going to take a penny out of your $3 allowance.'" After a 1993 accident at General Chemical Co. in Richmond sent 22,000 people to the hospital for checkups, Campbell introduced a bill that would have increased penalties for toxic air discharges, including heavy fines for catastrophic events. The bill, supported by the California District Attorneys Association, passed the Assembly but failed in a Senate committee in August 1994 under heavy lobbying by the oil and chemical industries. Refineries say bigger penalties won't make for cleaner air and safer conditions. "The biggest incentive for our company is an incident-free operation," said Hal Holt, manager of public affairs at the Chevron refinery in Richmond. "We intend to be in compliance or beyond compliance all of the time. "Irrespective of any fining, those are our goals and our objectives. …