CapRadio: Proposed California bill aims to boost air monitoring near petroleum refineries

April 18, 2023
Long Beach has a history with oil. The city, located in Southern California, is home to numerous petroleum refineries as well as one of the largest oil fields in the state. 

Saul Ventura, a resident who grew up in West Long Beach, attended a high school located near the refineries. Although he’d long been aware that they existed, he said he’d never been taught about what their emissions might mean for his own health. 

But like many of his classmates, Ventura remembers mysterious but consistent discomforts in his day-to-day life.

“My eyes were always red and irritated, like every day,” he said. “It wasn't like I didn’t have enough sleep — it was that my sinuses were so irritated and then I'd get headaches.”

Ventura added that he didn’t have asthma but knew many others that did. 

“We just think it's normal because as kids, we grew up here, so we don't have any other context of what normalcy actually is [or] what it should be,” he said. 

In California, petroleum refineries are required to gather data on air quality in areas near their facilities and share it with the public. But environmental groups and community advocates say current monitoring is inconsistent and gathered data isn’t easily accessible to the public. 

A new bill aims to boost air monitoring systems near petroleum refineries. Senator Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat representing the Long Beach area and the bill’s author, says it would create standardized measures for these monitoring systems and offer more easily accessible information to surrounding communities. 

“They’re not capturing the full context of what I think fenceline monitoring should include,” she said of current monitoring systems. “So this bill would hopefully be more comprehensive and more transparent as well.” 

Jan Victor Andasan, a community organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said many people in Long Beach have long dealt with issues that could be linked to pollution from nearby refineries. 

“If we had the data and [it was] publicly available and done more consistently, we can actually connect the data with the stories and show a bigger picture of what's happening,” Andasan said. 

New standards created by the bill would include requirements for which pollutants are measured and quarterly reports that are more easily accessible to the public. It would also require that refineries send out electronic notifications to alert the public when the “emissions threshold” of a pollutant is exceeded. 

“If the air quality is not good, then what was the root cause of the incident?” Gonzalez said. “We shouldn't have incidents where [any] refinery is hiding information or is piecemealing information. It should be everything out there for the public to know.”

Dennis Uyat, a member of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said they had long noticed health issues among the people around them. They added that they didn’t realize this might be unusual until learning more about the experiences of other communities located near refineries. 

“That's when it dawned on me,” Uyat said. “This isn't an everyday experience for … a lot of people.”

Andasan said additional data could also help impacted residents understand how nearby pollutants could impact their health in the long run. 

“For us, the hope is all this information allows us to make better decisions about our lives and also what's happening to our bodies,” they said. 

The Western States Petroleum Association has criticized the bill, calling it “prescriptive” and said in a statement that it “does not focus on ensuring that monitoring systems are best suited for a particular community or facility.”

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