By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
An internal memo written by a high-ranking supervisor at Southern California’s smog agency says up to 30 tons a day of gasoline fumes are spewing into the region‘s air because a gas station--inspection program ”is not working.“
The October 5 memo, written by inspections supervisor Ben Shaw at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), said a staggering three-fourths of vapor-recovery equipment fails to meet clean-air standards.
The memo, obtained by the L.A. Weekly, said the program continues to be ”plagued“ by a laundry list of problems, including too few inspectors, falsified testing results and generally unreliable technology. The inspection program, ratcheted up last year, was supposed to be a cornerstone of the agency’s efforts to clean foul air and reverse years of inaction by both inattentive station owners and the AQMD itself.
”There‘s no way around it,“ says Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. ”An excess 30 tons of emissions is a whole lot of tons. That’s equivalent to the emissions from probably several hundred thousand cars.“
One air-quality inspector agrees the emissions could match those of six oil refineries. In any case, 30 tons of excess emissions represent more than one-half of the total emissions targeted by the service stations‘ vapor-recovery system. Excess means over and above the 22 tons of fumes regulators allow gas stations to spew into the environment under the program.
When working properly, the vapor-recovery equipment captures carbon-based molecules -- known as hydrocarbons -- which are released from gas fumes and react with sunlight and other pollutants to become a major source of Los Angeles’ persistent smog. The gas fumes are also laced with dangerous carcinogens including benzene, toluene and xylene. Also present in the fumes are other hazardous chemicals not measured by the AQMD such as the compound known as MTBE. ”This excess emission is a concern not only because of its contribution to smog,“ says Tim Carmichael, executive director of the environmentalist Coalition for Clean Air, ”but we are also concerned about the effects of immediate, intense impact. How does this affect the person standing right next to the gas pump as it leaks away?“
The AQMD memo was sent to Carol Coy, the smog-fighting agency‘s top engineering and enforcement official. In an interview, she noted ”a good and improving trend“ in the effectiveness of the program, but agreed that the many flaws mean that it ”is still nowhere where we’d like it to be.“
The memo said recent audits of the service-station program reveal that some 65 percent of all underground storage tanks are leaking and that about one-fourth of vapor-recovery systems are ”operating at low or zero recovery.“ These findings, the memo says, ”are surprising because of the number and magnitude of the problems found.“ And yet, the memo continues, at the current resource level, the AQMD will be able to inspect each of the 5,700 local gas stations only once every 19 to 24 months, a ”frequency [that] has been shown inadequate to achieve high compliance rates.“ Last decade, stations were inspected at least once a year.
Coy confirmed the accuracy of the figures contained in the memo. She blamed service station operators for ”not doing their job“ in keeping equipment up to standards. She also confirmed another allegation made in the memo: that certified technicians from companies maintaining and repairing the vapor-recovery systems were submitting tests that, in her words, ”did not reflect reality.“
Coy hastened to add that the leakage of as much as 30 tons a day of excess emissions from local gas stations was ”significant.“ She continued, ”There are some entire rules we bring before our board that in totality reduce only a ton or so of emission daily.“ Coy also agreed that the inspection rate ”was still not adequate.“
When it finds a gas station owner using faulty equipment, the AQMD issues citations, which generally range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. But the shortcomings in the inspection program have not subjected the agency to fines.
The roots of the current crisis are complex but, in part, can be traced precisely to an AQMD policy of non-inspection. In 1995 the agency adopted an ”honor system“ that replaced on-site inspections with self-policing by service stations operators.
”The simple truth is that the AQMD dropped the ball,“ says a veteran agency field inspector. ”The state health and safety code says we are required to enforce the rules. And we decided to ignore that, saying industry would do a better job. AQMD went along because it wanted to cut back inspection staff, and they did. They made service stations a low priority even though that‘s the place where the general public has the most intense exposure to toxic emissions.“
This non-inspection policy was reflective of an increasingly business-friendly attitude by AQMD -- an attitude severely criticized by environmental groups as a betrayal of the agency’s mission to ruthlessly stamp out smog. Born during the gubernatorial administration of Jerry Brown, AQMD was initially seen as a sometimes radical environmentalist foothold inside the government bureaucracy. But in the ensuing years, the agency has lost much of its bite and has been increasingly accused of too generously accommodating the polluters it‘s supposed to be policing.