Above the Law: How California's Big Air Polluters Get Away With It

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, July 29, 2004

OAKLAND, Calif. — Refineries, power plants and other large industrial facilities in California that violate clean air laws typically pay penalties lower than what an SUV driver may legally be fined for a smog violation, according to an investigation of enforcement records by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Since 1999, half of all air quality violations by large industrial facilities in the Bay Area, South Coast, San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento air quality districts were settled for $2,000 or less. EWG's new report, Above the Law: How California's Major Air Polluters Get Away With It, at www.ewg.org, details enforcement activity by district:

  • The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which regulates the refineries that are the worst repeat violators in the state, issued a median fine of $1,450, lowest of the four districts investigated.
  • The South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, which regulates the region with the dirtiest air in the nation, levied a median fine of $2,000.
  • The San Joaquin Unified Air Pollution Control District, recently downgraded to an "extreme" level of noncompliance with federal clean air standards, issued a median fine of $2,100.
  • The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality District, where the air quality also exceeds federal health standards, levied a median fine of $2,045.

Although penalties have risen in the last five years, they remain a minute fraction of polluters' profits and are clearly seen as a minor cost of doing business. Since 1999, eight major facilities have violated their air pollution permits an average of more than once a month. Two Northern California refineries — Shell in Martinez and Chevron in Richmond — violated their permits an average of twice a month.

"The air district is supposed to be protecting our children and communities from airborne toxic chemicals, not making it easy for refineries to keep polluting with no real consequences," said Belen Ramirez-Rocha, whose neighborhood in Rodeo, Calif., is adjacent to a Conoco Phillips refinery that has violated clean air laws at least 32 times since 1999.

Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, said the report documents a double standard of justice for polluters, an inequity made worse by fact that refineries and other major air polluters are predominantly located in lower-income communities of color.

Adjusting for income, an SUV driver with a dirty exhaust system can be fined 250 times more than the biggest fine paid by a refinery over the last five years. And the $5.7 million collected from refineries in the South Coast and Bay Area for civil penalties over the past five years is less than half of the average daily income of the refineries' parent companies.

"Again and again, the air districts have promised to crack down," said Holly Gordon, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment. "Until the regulators get serious about enforcing the law, polluters won't get serious about cleaning up their act."

EWG also found:

  • In 1997, one in 30 fines levied statewide were larger than $30,000. Over the last five years, only one in five penalties assessed were more than $30,000.
  • The state recommends that districts try to settle violations within 90 days. In 2003, the Bay Area district took an average of 21 months to settle a violation; the San Joaquin district took 13 months.
  • Violation and enforcement records are difficult to access, hard to understand and and, by the districts' own admission, often unreliable, posing a barrier to Californians who want to know about toxic chemicals in the air they breathe.