Air-quality officials voted Wednesday to stop issuing citations for pollution violations to the Newhall Refining Co. until Nov. 30, to give the refinery time to repair equipment suspected of emitting foul odors, which community residents said have made them sick.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District voted unanimously to grant the refinery a variance allowing it to continue operating until the deadline without facing fines for new violations stemming from the illegal release of sulfur dioxide.
The refinery, which has been cited 12 times since April for the emission problem, had originally sought a variance that would protect it from citations until late March, AQMD Deputy District Counsel Patti Woods Goldberg said. Each violation carries a fine of up to $1,000.
‘A Closer Watch’
In agreeing to the November deadline, Goldberg said, air-quality officials are “keeping a closer watch on Newhall, making sure they develop a schedule to find out exactly what is going wrong and how to fix it. We’re saying, ‘You can break the rules until then.’ ”
Company officials say it is possible that the refinery will be unable to fix its sulfur-control equipment by Nov. 30. In that case, the refinery could ask for another variance, Goldberg said.
Wednesday’s ruling stems from complaints by the Placerita Canyon Property Owners Assn., many of whose members have been angered by the stench of the sulfur dioxide, which they liken to that of rotting eggs.
“The smell is extremely strong, and the incidents have just become so frequent,” said Jim Mixa, president of the association. “The doses apparently are not harmful, but many of us have had headaches and allergy-type symptoms that we’re sure were caused by the refinery.”
Most of the homeowners live about two miles north of the refinery, which is on Clampitt Road, between the Antelope Valley Freeway and Sierra Highway.
“We know there is concern in the public eye,” Henry Seal, general manager of the refinery, told the five-member air-quality hearing board in El Monte. “If the variance is denied, we’ll have to shut down.”
A plant closure would cost the Newhall Refinery Co. about $30,000 a day, Seal said, and would prevent the company from fulfilling its contracts with public agencies and private firms.
The refinery, which has about 100 employees, processes about 23,00 barrels of crude oil a day into diesel fuel and other products. It is a subsidiary of Pauley Petroleum Inc.
The refinery’s attorney, Robert Gillon, said that to fix the sulfur-control equipment, the company has hired a new chemist and engineer, purchased new equipment, brought in private consultants and set aside about $500,000 for pollution-control devices.
The air-quality district ordered the refinery to meet 13 stipulations or face revocation of its variance, district spokesman Ron Ketcham said.
For example, the refinery must patrol outside the plant to detect sulfur odors and log the information daily, analyze the crude oil for traces of foreign substances, and provide residents with the name and number of a refinery representative who can be contacted, Ketcham said.
Refinery officials, although acknowledging that their sulfur-control equipment is malfunctioning, have maintained that odors in the neighborhood might come from other sources, including nearby natural-gas plants, sulfur springs, oil tanks and septic systems.
Besides the citations for emission of sulfur dioxide, a lung-irritating gas that contributes to acid rain, the company has been accused of running boilers and heaters with fuel containing too much hydrogen sulfide.
According to the company’s petition for a variance, the recent problems stem from malfunctions in a $100,000 sulfur-recovery unit the company installed in 1985 to supplement an older sulfur-control system.
The new system, Seal said, has become clogged with salt deposits, and often “burps” when it is turned off, sending sulfur dioxide into the air.