Community Health Wins!

After a second public meeting lasting more than five hours, with comments from the public and the agency’s board members, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) Board of Directors voted overwhelming to support a strict standard for controlling pollution emitted by oil refineries. The lopsided 19 – 3 vote, with two abstentions, at the July 21  virtual meeting is a tremendous victory for environmental justice over corporate profits: the new standard will require the Chevron and PBF refineries located in predominantly Black and brown Richmond and Martinez neighborhoods to install scrubbers that reduce emissions of health-harming particulates by 70%.  Chevron and PBF fought hard against the strict standard, using the threat of plant closures to mobilize scores of employees and contractors to speak in favor of a “no” vote. Advocacy over 16 months of public forums by numerous environmental and community activists helped the BAAQMD board members make the right decision and put our health first. 

The July 21 vote was an up-or-down one on whether to adopt the stringent .01 micron standard passed by the Board’s Stationary Source Committee headed by Director John Bauters of Emeryville. This standard for the permissible maximum size of emission particulates requires a significantly larger investment and operational cost than the .02 micron maximum standard supported by the refineries, hence their opposition. The current technology for achieving the .01 standard is the wet gas scrubber WSG), widely in use in refineries in Texas and elsewhere. The 3-4% required increase in the plant’s water usage is another argument in favor of ending fossil-fuel reliance but not significant in light of the expected improvement in community health. There is no safe level of particulates smaller than .025 microns, which contribute to childhood asthma, health problems in cardiac, respiratory, and neurological systems, and premature deaths. 

Speaking against the strict standard were scores of Chevron and PBF employees, union members who work at the plants, contractors, and some community members. Their arguments centered on concerns that the companies’ threats of plant closures would be realized and be devastating to themselves, their families, and the community. The strategy of using vulnerable people to deliver this message may have back-fired with the board members, since oil companies have in the past threatened layoffs in similar situations but not actually followed through. 

Members of the community who spoke in favor of the .01 standard shared moving stories of personal and family health problems linked to pollution from the refineries. Doctors from Climate Health Now and health professionals from the Service Employees International Union talked about the severity of pollution’s impact on the patients they serve. Environmental activists from 350 Contra Costa, Fossil Free California, the Sierra Club, and other groups spoke about the disproportionate burden on the low-income communities of color closest to the plants.

Most of the board members discussed the considerations that led to their positions on the .01 micron rule. John Bauters gave a strong defense of the necessity to reverse the externalized costs of pollution so unfairly placed on nearby Black and brown residents. A number spoke of the complexity of the factors involved in their decisions, with some lamenting the framing of the issue as a choice between jobs and clean air. Cindy Chavez brought up what appeared to be a bad faith, last minute proposal from Chevron to collaborate with the Board, noting that the company had instead fought the strict standard from the beginning. That beginning was in 2015, when Rule 6-5 requiring an emissions standard was passed. Many of the board members who supported the .01 standard cited its health impact, with some thanking health professional activists for educating them about the problems. Karen Mitchoff attempted to send the standard back to staff for study but her motion didn’t carry. 

The refineries have five years to implement the .01 standard. Board members expressed concern about the litigation that Chevron and PBF are highly likely to pursue. John Goia stated that in his 15 years on the BAAQMD board, such lawsuits had been unsuccessful and had not been able to get a judge to put a stay on the regulation. So, in 2026, 11 years after the original passage of the regulation requiring control of refinery emissions, Bay Area residents should be able to breathe easier.