CA Superior Court Ruling Closes Dangerous Loophole for Petroleum Refineries


Court orders Valley Air to comply with state mandates on monitoring refinery emissions


Oscar Espino-Padron, Earthjustice

Today, the CA Superior Court ruled that San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District (Valley Air)’s loopholes exempting petroleum refineries from monitoring their toxic emissions are unlawful and ordered the air district to remove these exemptions. This ruling is an important victory for California’s fenceline communities living alongside refineries and sends a strong message to industry that no refinery is exempt from the state’s emissions monitoring mandates.

In 2017, California’s Legislature passed AB 1647 to require all refineries monitor their air pollution crossing into fenceline communities. This important law was designed to bring some much-needed transparency to refinery operations and provide frontline communities with vital information they need and deserve to protect their health. Instead of implementing this law, Valley Air tried to subvert it by adopting weak regulations that illegally exempted petroleum refineries in the San Joaquin Valley from monitoring emissions of a number of toxic chemicals known to be hazardous to our health. 

Central Valley Communities filed a lawsuit challenging Valley Air’s unlawful loopholes last year. In response to this lawsuit, Valley Air asserted unfettered discretion to exempt any and all refineries despite the state’s explicit emissions monitoring mandates under AB 1647. The court underscored the region’s poor air quality and disagreed with Valley Air’s interpretation, which would undermine the purpose of AB 1647 and the Legislature’s intent.

California is home to the third largest concentration of petroleum refineries in the nation, after Texas and Louisiana. These refineries are concentrated in Kern County, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. Residents living near these refineries are subjected to health harms from routine toxic releases and safety risks from fires, explosions, and other malfunctions occurring at these facilities.

The organizations who filed this lawsuit offered the following responses to the ruling:

  • Associated of Irritated Residents President Tom Frantz: “The air district has yet again been caught defiling state law and the public trust on behalf of big polluters. Air Board members should be ashamed of themselves for schilling for oil companies instead of enforcing laws essential for public health and safety.”
  • Clean Water Action Community Organizer Jesus Alonso: “As a lifelong resident of Lamont, I wholeheartedly agree with the court’s decision. Understanding refineries’ harmful emissions is a vital first step to holding this industry accountable for the damage they continue to cause in our community. It’s time we start putting the health of our kids first, not the industry’s bottom line.”
  • Comité Progreso de Lamont President Jose Mireles: “This ruling is a victory for all residents in California, but particularly for residents in communities like mine who live on the fenceline of refineries. We will now receive real time information on refinery emissions. But let me be clear: this fight is not yet over. We will continue to hold Valley Air accountable to ensure the new rules are consistent with the law and do as AB 1647 intends to ultimately protect community health.” 
  • Committee for a Better Shafter President Anabel Marquez: “Today’s court ruling is momentous for our Central Valley communities who continuously have to fight for the health protections granted to us by law. While we still have a long way to go to achieve true environmental justice in our communities, today’s ruling signals to government agencies and industry that they must abide by the law and that exemptions to rules that protect community health will not be tolerated.” 
  • Earthjustice Staff Attorney Oscar Espino-Padron: “Today’s ruling is a strong warning to air districts across the state that you can’t keep turning a blind eye to refinery emissions. Air Districts must end illegal exemptions and comply with state law by providing fenceline communities with the vital information about toxic emissions they need to protect their families and neighbors.”

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.