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Lawsuit Challenges Air Board’s Failure to Protect Southern California from Oil Refinery Pollution

Delayed pollution safeguards in favor of business-friendly measures prompt community and environmental groups to act
The Los Angeles skyline.

The Los Angeles skyline.

IM_photo / Shutterstock
March 9, 2016
Los Angeles, CA —

Community and conservation groups today sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District for allowing L.A.-area oil refineries and power plants to continue spewing massive amounts of smog-forming pollutants, threatening the health of millions of people already breathing the nation’s dirtiest air.

Location of Los Angeles, California.
Smog-forming pollutants from L.A.-area oil refineries and power plants threaten the health of millions of people.

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice in the Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of a coalition comprised of Communities for a Better Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and challenges the air district governing board’s decision in December to adopt an oil industry-developed smog-prevention measure.

Today’s suit says the air board violated California law by rejecting staff-proposed reforms to the NOx RECLAIM program, instead approving an oil industry-backed measure that allows refineries and other major polluters to delay installing equipment to reduce dangerous particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxide, or NOx.

The suit says the program violates California’s Health and Safety Code, which requires market-based cap and trade programs like NOx RECLAIM to achieve the same pollution reductions as direct pollution controls. Southern California refineries have already saved approximately $205 million since 2007 by delaying installation of pollution-control equipment.

The air board approved the weak smog measure hours after it was made public by an oil industry trade group, despite warnings from air district executive officer Barry Wallerstein that the new plan was legally indefensible. The board fired Wallerstein last week.

“This weak smog rule lets polluters off the hook and especially endangers people of color living near oil refineries in L.A.’s Wilmington neighborhood and around Southern California,” said Alicia Rivera, a community organizer with Communities for a Better Environment. “The air board should be protecting our air, not allowing huge industrial facilities to delay pollution controls that could save the lives of children with asthma.” 

“Air pollution kills, and the air board violated California law by bowing to the oil industry and failing to protect us from smog,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, an L.A.-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The air district’s own experts opposed this weak measure for good reason. This smog rule is scientifically unsound, legally indefensible and dangerous to the well-being of every person who breathes.”

Community and environmental groups are concerned this business-friendly decision marks a new direction for the air board. One new board member recently said that protecting businesses is just as important to him as preventing air pollution.

“It’s unacceptable that the air board is helping oil refineries save millions of dollars by delaying critically important pollution controls that would protect the health of millions of Californians,” said Adrian Martinez, an Earthjustice staff attorney. “This dangerous decision will make it that much harder for the air district to adopt a credible plan later this year to meet federal smog standards.”

“This lawsuit is a warning to the air board that Californians won’t stand by when vital emissions rules are weakened to benefit polluters,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If board members continue to water down regulations that should protect our air, they can expect a fight every step of the way.”

“The ouster of Dr. Wallerstein, and the Board's sustained failure to adopt reasonably strong pollution measures show that the District has ceased looking out for the health and safety of kids and is more concerned about the shareholders of fossil fuel companies,” said Evan Gillespie, campaign director for the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign. “The out-of-control air board seems bent on returning Southern California to a time when pollution made it hard to breathe, and when profits trumped people.”

Read the legal document.


Every year more people die in Southern California from air pollution-related diseases than from all traffic accidents and crime-related deaths combined, according to the air district’s own educational material.

The South Coast air basin is classified as “extreme” for all ozone standards under California and federal clean air laws. There is no classification more polluted than “extreme.”

Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems in children and adults, including chest pain, coughing, and congestion. Smog can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue, aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, lead to hospital admissions and emergency room visits, and impair the body’s immune system defenses.