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Air Polluter 'Malfunction,' or Business as Usual?

Even when fully complying with federal clean-air laws, refineries are nasty operations, spewing tons of hazardous pollutants into the air of neighboring communities. But under a regulatory loophole, refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities have been allowed to pollute even more during an equipment malfunction, or when shutting down and starting back up following a malfunction.

Why is it not surprising to learn that some of the nation's most notoriously dirty facilities evade clean air law by claiming that they are in startup, shutdown, or malfunction mode much of the time?

Excess emissions occur routinely at industrial facilities throughout the country, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington, residents report seeing the tell-tale signs of refinery malfunctions—gas flares and billowing smoke—at the area's four refineries on a nearly weekly basis.

In September 2005 and again last October, a power outage caused pollution and safety controls to fail at three Wilmington-area refineries, blanketing the neighborhood in black and yellow smoke. In Texas, one of the few states that tracks these emissions, 30 refineries reported releasing 45 million pounds of pollutants in one year during malfunction, shutdown and startup.

Not any more. A federal appeals court has just ruled, in a suit brought by Earthjustice against the Environmental Protection Agency, that refineries must meet the standards of the Clean Air Act all the time, not just under "normal" operating conditions.

Wilmington residents and those in our neighboring refinery communities are elated that the court has agreed that polluting industries should be held accountable for their environmental and public health impacts," said Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Wilmington-based Coalition for a Safe Environment.

Also unsurprisingly, the Bush Administration's EPA defended the loophole, with support from the American Chemistry Council, which sounds like a high-minded research group but is really the lobbying arm of the chemical industry. Memo to the incoming Obama Administration: EPA's supposed to enforce pollution laws, not defend violations.

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