The refinery was formerly owned by Ultramar, and before that by Tosco. The permit was issued by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board and was challenged by environmental groups because it failed to adequately restrict the plant's discharges of dioxin, a chemical known to cause cancer and birth defects. The suit was filed by San Francisco BayKeeper, a project of WaterKeepers Northern California, and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) in March of last year.
The decision is expected to result in more stringent discharge limits statewide for pollutants that impair California waterways.
"It's about time state water boards stopped letting oil companies poison the fish people eat," said Greg Karras, Senior Scientist for CBE.
"Judge McBride's decision is a victory for the Bay and for the environment in California. The ruling closes a loop-hole that would have stalled water quality improvements for a decade or more," said San Francisco BayKeeper Leo O'Brien. "The Water Boards will now be forced to change dozens of illegal permits."
In June, 2000 the Regional Water Quality Control Board announced that the Refinery would be allowed to increase its dioxin discharge limits into San Francisco Bay by nearly five times. Tosco Corp. had threatened to shut its Avon refinery unless its pollution limit was weakened, but announced two weeks later that it had negotiated the sale of the refinery to Ultramar, Inc.
The San Francisco Bay is already identified by the State and US EPA as being "impaired" by dioxins. Because dioxins bioaccumulate in fish, local anglers who regularly eat fish from the Bay are exposed to unsafe levels of the toxin.
According to research by CBE, subsistence fishers and their families are exposed to dioxins at a level up to 30 times higher than the general population. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the general population is already exposed to dioxins at unsafe levels and has ruled that dioxin health threats to Bay anglers are a "high priority." Dioxins are the most toxic synthetic chemicals known and cause increased risk of cancer, endometriosis, immune system disorders, learning disabilities and other developmental injuries.
BayKeeper and CBE charged that the permit change violated the federal Clean Water Act and state law because it failed to set the dioxin discharge limit at a level which protects public health and the environment and established an illegal 10-year delay of action to stop ongoing Bay dumping of dioxin and other toxic pollutants despite EPA's findings that these same pollutants are already causing "high priority" health threats in the Bay.
"The Regional Board attempted to use its failure to come up with a plan to clean-up dioxins in the Bay as a rationale for easing up on the refinery's permit requirements," explained Earthjustice attorney Michael Lozeau, who represented the environmental groups. "Permits are supposed to clean up pollutants, not perpetuate toxics in the Bay."
The Tesoro permit roll-back has since become a watershed event resulting in weaker discharge permits for industrial facilities around the state.
San Francisco BayKeeper and CBE are represented by Michael Lozeau of Earthjustice and Richard Drury of CBE.