State Supreme Court faults AQMD for error


The South Coast Air Quality Management District improperly permitted an oil refinery to implement a new industrial process without an environmental review even though the project might have caused substantially more air pollution, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided Monday.

The state high court faulted the air quality district for determining that the project by ConocoPhillips Co. in Wilmington would not significantly hurt the environment. The court said the air district applied the wrong base rate when calculating the effect of the emissions.

The project by ConocoPhillips was designed to meet federal and state environmental requirements for production of an ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel.

But environmental activists said the industrial process the company used to produce the new diesel increased nitrogen oxide emissions by several hundred pounds a day. Nitrogen oxide is a major contributor to smog and causes asthma and other respiratory ailments.

The refinery, which produces various fuels and chemical products, covers about 400 acres near commercial, recreational and residential neighborhoods.

A group called Communities for a Better Environment, labor organizations and individuals who live or work near the ConocoPhillips refinery sued the air district on the grounds the permit had been wrongly granted.

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, writing for the court, said even the district’s own estimate of nitrogen oxide emissions from the project provided “substantial evidence supporting a fair argument for a significant adverse impact.”

In ruling against the air district, the court said a proper environmental review must now be done, even though the project was completed in 2006.

“In all likelihood, mitigation measures will be identified in that report, which can be adopted retroactively,” said Richard Frank, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center on Law, Energy and the Environment, which represented the plaintiffs.

Kurt Wiese, general counsel of the air district, said it would order mitigation if the environmental review finds it is necessary.

A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips declined to comment.