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Diane Bailey’s Blog

Refinery Smoke: How do we monitor what's in it and how it affects our health?

Diane Bailey

Posted August 23, 2012

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It’s hard to believe that for all the technology in the Bay Area, there are no real-time air monitors near the Chevron Richmond refinery, the largest refinery in the state.  This was particularly troublesome on August 6th when thousands of Richmond residents streamed into health clinics and hospitals after a major fire that sent plumes of smoke billowing ChevronFire.jpgover the neighborhood (Photo courtesy of Richmond Progressive Alliance).  What were they breathing?  Why were they sick?  No one could say. A big reason they couldn’t say is because the nearest air monitors weren’t even registering the massive pollution source.

It is puzzling that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, with the 28 air monitors that it runs throughout the region, does not have any monitoring stations close to the Chevron refinery. The closest stations don’t measure fine particulate matter, which was thought to cause many of the health impacts felt by area residents.  Now, weeks later, we still do not have good air monitoring data to tell us what people were exposed to that night. 

We can guess that a fire at a crude oil unit of a refinery will put out a lot of fine particulate and toxic organic compounds like benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The soot and fumes may sicken people at the moment but nobody knows what the long-term health implications are.  Communities for a Better Environment, with their strong presence in Richmond communities, has done a great job informing residents about the health risks and advocating for improved safety and environmental standards.  But should we rely on community groups exclusively to provide fundamental public services? We need institutions like the air district and Chevron to step up and improve the air monitoring system, fix the early warning system for residents, and shore up any safety hazards at California’s biggest refinery.

Improving our air monitoring systems by both data accessibility and location of monitors is an issue NRDC is also pursuing in Los Angeles, a region dramatically underserved by only 35 monitors for a region of more than 9 million residentsWe filed litigation early this year against the EPA seeking to ensure air monitors are placed along LA’s highways to better inform the local air district about the hazardous levels of particulate air pollution, and to arm them with the information necessary to take action to protect the region’s residents.  

The issue of harmful air pollution cannot go unaddressed, and at the minimum must be properly monitored if we’re to safeguard people in all communities.

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