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
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
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
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
"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
"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