For years, the Powerine oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs drew heavy fines from air pollution agencies and a litany of complaints from neighbors. Residents said that fumes from the 62-year-old plant burned their eyes and caused painful rashes.
But since financial problems forced owners to wind down operations three years ago, neighbors say they have enjoyed a respite.
That is about to change, some residents and environmentalists warn. The plant is scheduled to resume full operations sometime next year under the aegis of televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson. CENCO Refining Co.–controlled by the Robertson Charitable Trust–bought the plant in August. J. Nelson Happy, CENCO’s chief executive officer, said the company plans about $ 20 million in upgrades to make the plant one of the safest and cleanest in the region.
“It’s going to be the leader in safety and environmental compliance,” Happy said, adding that the plant’s prior problems stemmed from its owner’s financial problems. “We want to be good neighbors.”
But some residents say this is one revival they don’t want to witness. They question whether an aging refinery with a history of pollution problems has any place in an urban community.
“Just when we start to get better air and are able to open our windows, we hear that this hulking dinosaur is going to be open again,” said James Flores, who lives downwind from the plant. “It’s horrific. It’s really being done without conscience, without concern for the welfare of the community.”
The cold, gray towers and rust-streaked tanks at the 75-acre refinery provide a lonely reminder of how oil once dominated the area’s landscape. More than 2,000 wells dotted the area after the discovery of oil in the 1920s.
But decades later, heavy industry and then commercial developments moved in as the oil ran out. Today, Santa Fe Springs is a blue-collar town of 16,000 residents, and Powerine overlooks a city of squat warehouses, offices and single-family homes.
Robertson plans to fire up the 50,000-barrel-a-day plant to break into the California gasoline market. Purchase and start-up costs will reach about $ 200 million. Once running, Happy said, the plant will help produce cheaper, environmentally safe fuel for California consumers, with plenty of benefits for Santa Fe Springs.
The company predicts that the venture will create at least 350 jobs and provide the city with $ 500,000 in annual property taxes. Most refinery profits will go to fund evangelical and charitable work conducted by the Robertson trust, Happy said.
But Robertson’s plans have brought up memories of past pollution disasters.
The former head of the Christian Coalition has been forced to give ground in Huntington Beach, where residents and city officials objected to plans to reopen an offshore terminal. The terminal was the site of a catastrophic oil spill in 1990.
CENCO promised to abandon those plans after the city of Huntington Beach threatened legal action. Instead, the company will look to existing pipelines and terminals in Long Beach.
Now opposition is mounting in and around Santa Fe Springs. Though some residents remain unconcerned about the reopening, others say the refinery’s troubled history means it deserves to remain closed.
Over the last decade, government agencies levied fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars for pollution problems at Powerine. Neighbors complained that plant emissions speckled their cars. Prevailing winds, they said, regularly wafted a stench like rotten eggs over homes, sending people scurrying indoors.
Concerned residents point out that businesses, homes, schools, a hospital and a church are within walking distance of the plant. But legal battle lines over the reopening have been drawn over the more technical question of what kind of environmental review is needed.
CENCO has made back payments for South Coast Air Quality Management District permits left unpaid by Powerine’s former owners, but the company must also reapply for new ones. Some businesses and residents near the refinery have filed letters of opposition with the AQMD. A district spokesman said the agency is still considering what type of review to conduct.
Last month, city officials extended Powerine’s operating permit, but only under certain conditions. After the city Fire Department’s environmental protection bureau conducted a review, the city insisted that CENCO make nearly 70 safety improvements to the site. The company said it would comply.
In a lawsuit filed this month, the group Communities for a Better Environment accused the city of skirting environmental laws and acting with little regard for the city’s mostly Latino residents.
The city should have conducted a full environmental impact report, with the public involved in the process, said Carlos Porras, the group’s Southern California director. That never happened, he said.
Instead, the public was not asked to provide comments for the city’s environmental review. City officials approved the project in a back-room deal that shielded CENCO’s plans from public scrutiny, Porras said.
“I think it was negotiated to circumvent environmental laws , to reduce the cost of reopening and reduce the amount of criticism that will come as a result of the opening,” said Porras, who said he worked as a city employee across the road from the refinery for 18 years.
Happy dismissed the group’s allegations, saying an environmental impact report was conducted four years ago. He said CENCO will establish and fund a community advisory committee to register concerns about the refinery. The company has also promised to set up a hotline to deal with any odor complaints.
City Manager Don Powell said a full public review is unnecessary because CENCO bought an existing refinery rather than starting a new one. The city already conducted a sufficient analysis outlining detailed requirements, he added.
One of those requirements includes using a modified form of hydrofluoric acid, a chemical that if leaked in its natural state can spread ground-hugging clouds of lethal gas over miles of terrain. The modified version maintains the chemical in gel form, limiting its ability to spread, according to Happy.
Porras maintained that even the modified version is dangerous. Plans to use any form of the chemical at the plant deserve a thorough and public environmental review, especially in light of the refinery’s history, he said.
But Powell disagreed.
“Nobody is thrilled about having a refinery in the community,” Powell said. “But the point is that it is a business, and the owners of the business are making commitments to meet all of the requirements that we’re laying down. If they don’t adhere to them, we’re going to shut them down.”