Each morning, Stella Wells peeks out the door of her home in western Whittier, takes a deep breath and checks which way the wind is blowing.
If the sulfur smell of rotten eggs is in the air, Wells keeps the children indoors. If the wind is blowing from the direction of the Powerine Oil Co. refinery, Wells keeps the children indoors.
It is a routine Wells began in July, after the refinery 3 miles away in neighboring Santa Fe Springs released a sulfur cloud that left three children in her care gagging and gasping for breath.
"I guess it's just fear," Wells said about the daily ritual.
Her eyes welled up with tears when she recalled piling the children in her car and escaping the cloud that summer day: "It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. . . . You think it's coming back, and it panics you."
Air pollution from Santa Fe Springs' two oil refineries--operated by Powerine and Golden West Refining Co.--has been a chronic complaint of residents and businesses in the surrounding areas. This year, the refineries have been cited nearly 40 times for air and water pollution violations and last year were fined nearly $400,000 for emitting hundreds of tons of pollutants that exceeded legal limits, according to records of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Scrutiny of the company's operations has increased after two serious summer incidents. In July, hundreds of residents flooded AQMD and city switchboards with complaints about Powerine's sulfur cloud. In June, Golden West's release of contaminated waste water into a treatment plant in Cerritos sent seven sewage workers to a hospital.
In reaction to the incidents:
The county district attorney's office is studying whether to file criminal misdemeanor charges against both refineries.
Health and air pollution officials are helping to organize a network of residents to track industrial odors in the area.
Santa Fe Springs has asked the AQMD to deny requests from the refineries to continue operating while repairing breakdowns in pollution control equipment.
The refineries have responded by meeting with residents and city officials, modifying equipment and even paying for carwashes for workers in a neighboring business park who complained that refinery emissions were affecting auto paint.
But refinery critics said the companies are dealing with the symptoms of the pollution problem and not the cause.
"Now they call us when something happens instead of having us wait until the smell hits us," said Gary K. Sloan, city administrator of La Mirada, whose residents frequently complain about odors from Golden West. "I don't care if they're nice guys. I want them to cure the problem."
A cure is unlikely until at least Jan. 1, 1996, the deadline for complying with a recent AQMD order requiring all oil refineries to reduce emissions of air pollutants by 70%.
While refinery equipment is being modified to comply with the order, company officials pledge to remain responsive to the community concerns about pollution.
"We do not have the cavalier attitude that because we were here first . . . we do not have to be responsible to the community," said John T. Miller, Golden West's vice president for refining.
But residents also must understand that "we're dealing with an operation with complex equipment, and on occasion it will break down or a worker will make a mistake," said A. L. Gualtieri, a senior vice president at Powerine.
Refinery officials also said that most odors from the refineries are not life threatening and that there must be some tolerance for problems that occur during the refining process, if the public wants the gasoline and diesel fuel produced by the refineries.
Odor Shrouds Refineries
A faint odor of sulfur and gas shrouds the refineries, whose enormous tanks, compression units and miles of intricately woven pipe operate 24 hours a day. "It can be intimidating," Miller acknowledged.
West Whittier resident Stella Wells said it's frightening: "I go past Powerine, and it's so scary to see clouds coming out of there."
The reaction is a familiar one, said Gualtieri, who is heading the company's effort to improve relations with the community.
During a tour of Powerine's 100-acre refinery just north of Norwalk, Gualtieri stopped in front of a 3-story steel stack framed by a halo of white smoke.
"You might look at that and see some kind of dangerous chemical cloud," he said. "I look at that and see steam," which is emitted if the refinery is functioning properly.
But environmental records show that the refineries continue to malfunction. The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts have billed Golden West $19,000 for the cost of cleaning up the June spill that hospitalized sewage workers.
Exceeded Oil-Grease Limits
Powerine has also been cited for exceeding oil and grease limits in more than half the samples taken by the sanitation districts since last year.
The Regional Water Resource Board is also pressing Golden West and Powerine to clean up contamination of ground water beneath both refineries. Such contamination is common at oil refineries, but the pollution at Golden West is particularly severe, said J. T. Liu, an engineer for the Regional Water Resource Board.
Tests have found aviation fuel floating on the surface of two aquifers beneath Golden West, Liu said. The fuel is believed to have been produced at the refinery about 40 years ago. The refinery is investigating to see whether the contamination has migrated from the site.
The tainted aquifers do not affect drinking water, which is drawn from a deeper water source, Liu said.
31 Violations Between Them
But most public concern about the refineries has centered on air quality. The AQMD has cited Powerine for 20 violations this year and cited Golden West for 11. Powerine has paid about $5,000 in AQMD fines this year for sulfur emissions above the legal limit; Golden West has paid more than $36,000 in similar fines.
Most air complaints follow malfunctions in the equipment that handles sulfur, a byproduct of the oil refining process. Powerine's July sulfur cloud was released after failures in the machinery that recovers sulfur after it has been separated from oil.
When a mechanical failure occurs, causing the refinery to violate air standards, the refinery asks the AQMD for a 24-hour emergency exemption from the standards to fix the machinery. Repairs can usually be completed in the 24 hours, but the refineries occasionally seek extensions of the variance period.
$17,100 Fine Paid
The refinery pays fees for excess emissions during these emergency periods. For example, Golden West paid a $17,100 fine in September for emitting more than 81 tons of sulfur gases over 10 days.
Santa Fe Springs rarely intervenes on air quality, but in August Mayor Ronald S. Kernes said in a letter to AQMD that "it is in the best interests of the city to protest the granting of variances or delays . . . requested by either Powerine Oil Co. or Golden West Refinery" to complete repairs or install new equipment.
Santa Fe Springs, which began as an oil boom town in the 1920s, is trying to phase out the oil industry and has barred the building of more refineries. The number of active wells in the city has dropped from about 300 to fewer than 100. City officials are recruiting light industry to occupy the former oil fields.
The two refineries were built in the 1930s, when Santa Fe Springs was nothing but farmland and orange groves. Developers eventually built homes in La Mirada within half a mile of Golden West and built a business park across the street from Powerine.
Both Small Refineries
Golden West and Powerine are two of 15 oil refineries in the Los Angeles metropolitan areas. They have a lot in common: Both are independently owned, buying crude oil piped from Alaska or off the California coast and selling the refined product locally. Both are also considered small refineries, each employing about 250 workers and processing about 45,000 barrels of crude daily. Chevron Oil Co., which runs the area's largest refinery in Torrance, processes about four times that amount.
Residents often ask why the refineries do not shut down when there is a problem, said Miller of Golden West. "To shut the whole refinery down and start it back up emits more pollutants than if we just keep going," Miller said.
Air pollution violations occur frequently during start-ups when steam and oil is suddenly forced through machinery, he said.
Many times, a slight sulfur release drifts to a nearby area without refinery workers noticing. These releases, which Whittier resident Wells said she has detected 21 times since July, are also hard for the AQMD to verify because the smell may have disappeared by the time an inspector arrives.
Mere Temporary Nuisances
Health officials classify the sulfur odor as a temporary nuisance rather than a long-term health threat. But that assessment is of little consolation to such area residents as Sandra Kersley, whose 4-year-old son was in Wells' care the day of the Powerine sulfur cloud.
"A nuisance? They don't live here," Kersley said. "They tell us to stay in our houses and call them when the odor stops. They want us to be the canaries in the cages. The community is serving as a test sample."
Paul Papanek, a toxic epidemiologist with the state Department of Health Services, said sulfur emissions can cause nausea, headaches and respiratory irritation.
These symptoms are not severe enough for health officials to shut down a refinery, he said. "When you're in a nuisance situation, sometimes it's very tough to take action," he said. "It's halfway between a health threat and a public health nuisance a large percentage of the time."
But Sloan of La Mirada said he worries that health officials have not fully researched the effects of sulfur inhalation: "I certainly wouldn't discount what the health officials say now, but I certainly would be worried they would find something new in a year or two."
Roving Bands of Sniffers
In response to Kersley's complaints, health and air quality officials have asked her to organize 10 to 15 area residents to pinpoint the emission source. Scattered through the Whittier-Santa Fe Springs area, the network will start early next year keeping diaries of weather conditions and the time and type of odor detected.
Since July, Kersley and other residents have distributed about 800 copies of an AQMD brochure throughout western Whittier, advising residents how to report suspicious odors. Both Powerine and Golden West have 24-hour odor hot lines, as well.
Powerine had encountered financial problems and closed its refinery for about 3 years but resumed operations in late 1986.
The company had become "a bit complacent" about its operations after reopening, Gualtieri said. "That will not happen again.".
Charcoal Filters Installed
Powerine has paid for the installation of charcoal filters at two businesses across the street where workers complained of nausea and dizziness after sulfur gas entered the ventilation system. The refinery has also proposed installing an alarm system in the business park to notify workers of noxious emissions, Gualtieri said.
"We're really not too happy" with Powerine, said Tim Faley, a sales representative for Pioneer Business Forms across the street from the refinery. "Every other day you get a horrible stench if the wind is blowing our way."
Pioneer's employees charge their car washes to Powerine, and Faley said he has filed a claim with the refinery for a new paint job on his 1988 car, whose dark blue paint has become specked by emissions from the refinery.
"It gets frustrating," Faley said. "It's tiresome to have to keep contacting them again and again" about the smell.
Worst Violation of the Year
Golden West's worst environmental violation this year was the discharge of contaminated water. After that incident, the county sanitation districts forced the refinery to install a new discharging system. There have been no water-quality violations since July, said Paul Martyn, an engineer with the districts.
Almost all residential complaints about Golden West's refinery come from La Mirada.
Sloan said he does not believe his city's situation to improve.
"It's not a problem that occurs every day of the week, but when it does occur it's a major nuisance and it creates health concerns," Sloan said. "Maybe we could be cohabitable if they just did what they're supposed to do and not release that stuff in the air."