Heavy Breathing

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.

Several environmentalist lawsuits have been filed against AQMD in the past few years. The most significant is a legal challenge by a coalition of environmental groups to the most recent revised Air Quality Management Plan -- a smog-fighting blueprint so controversial that it still lacks full approval by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A 1997 audit of the service-station program revealed a major flaunting of the law -- some 90 percent of gasoline-vapor-recovery programs were found to be out of compliance. Non-inspection wasn’t the only problem. That audit also revealed that much of the vapor-recovery equipment certified and approved by the California Air Resources Board just wasn‘t working out.

”Yes, there was a problem in Southern California with some of the equipment we certified,“ says CARB spokesman Hirsch. ”Most of the problems derived from faulty or improper installations.“

In June 1998, AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly admitted to the press that the service station self-policing ”honor system just wasn’t working“ and announced a stepped-up inspection-and-compliance crackdown. A yearly fee of $12 per nozzle was imposed on gas station operators to help finance the increased scrutiny. That fee rose to $24 this year.

The findings of the October 5 memo reveal that nearly a year and a half since the crackdown began, the excess-emissions problem is as severe as ever. Both AQMD and CARB officials, however, vow that the problem can and will be solved expeditiously. AQMD staff will be asking its governing board next March to tighten service station rules and to increase funding for inspection and enforcement. Early next year, the Air Resources Board will consider requiring on-site, computerized diagnostic systems that sound an alarm when vapor-recovery systems fall out of compliance.

But in his memo, AQMD supervisor Shaw wrote that the proposed four-year program was ”too little, too late“ and didn‘t cover a whole category of so-called ”balanced“ systems.

In the meantime, after more than two decades of attempts to block toxic emissions from gas stations, tons of pollutants continue to rise skyward.

And not just in Southern California. Environmentalists and air regulators alike confirm that similar leakage problems are plaguing the San Francisco Bay Area. ”There’s no doubt the AQMD is indeed working on this problem. Of this I have no doubt,“ says environmentalist Tim Carmichael. ”I also have no doubt that they still haven‘t figured out how to remedy the problem. That’s for sure.“


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