Big West of California officials said Monday they’re open to a new proposal that would allow the company to boost gas and diesel output without introducing new hazardous chemicals into the community.
The company’s comments were the first in response to a revised environmental impact report released Friday that detailed an alternative option with fewer environmental impacts than the company’s plan, which involves the use of a toxic acid.
“We still think the current proposed system is a good one but we also think (the new alternative) would work,” said Big West Health, Safety and Environmental Director Bill Chadick. “The county will ultimately make that choice and we’re comfortable either way.”
“Alternative D,” as it’s called in the report, would convert gas oil into gasoline and diesel by building a new processing unit similar to one currently operating at the refinery. Not only would it reduce hazards from toxic chemicals but it would also reduce air pollution, greenhouse gases and create less odor, the report said.
Critics of the refinery’s original plan were cautiously optimistic about the new option.
“I think the fact that people organized around this issue, put pressure on the company to come up with a less toxic alternative, is a win for local residents,” state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, a vocal critic of the refinery’s plans to use the hazardous chemical modified hydrofluoric acid, said in an e-mail.
Big West should get credit, Florez said, for “including a less toxic alternative” in the environmental report.
Betsy Ramsey, spokeswoman for Bakersfield Citizens Against Hydrofluoric Acid, a group of local residents, nurses, police officers and firefighters opposed to modified HF, said the new option sounded like a good idea but the group wanted more time to thoroughly review the report before commenting.
Asked why the refinery hadn’t considered the alternative previously, Chadick said the decision to expand the refinery was made by executives with parent company Flying J when it purchased the Bakersfield refinery more than three years ago. The design is based on processes used at Flying J’s only other refinery, located in Ogden, Utah.
But with community concern raised here about the use of dangerous chemicals, Chadick said managers at the local refinery decided to look at other ways the facility could be expanded.
Chadick agreed Monday that “Alternative D” was “clearly the environmentally superior project” but cited several reasons the company prefers its original plan.
The company’s proposal would allow it to produce its own alkylate, a highly sought-after and key blending component for the production of clean-burning fuels. “Alternative D” would require that Big West continue to purchase alkylate from other producers.
“It’s a smart business decision to be able to have your own … so we’re not subject to whatever people want to sell it for,” Chadick said.
The company has also already placed orders and paid for equipment needed for the project design it proposed. It’s likely another company could buy the equipment but not without some financial loss, Chadick said. He didn’t immediately know how much the company could lose.
Gloria Smith, a San Francisco-based attorney representing local residents and environmental groups concerned about the expansion, said “Alternative D” may be a good option to address concerns about toxic chemical risks. But she said other environmental issues are still a concern.
For example, soil around the refinery is known to be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and chromium. Smith’s clients are concerned the contaminants might get swept into nearby neighborhoods by winds during construction.
Smith has hired experts to review the new report and said she would comment further once they’ve conducted a full review.
The release of the report Friday started a 45-day comment period leading up to a vote on the project by the Planning Commission in September and the Board of Supervisors in October.
Kern County Planning Department Division Chief Lorelei Oviatt said the agency is interested in public input on the project and “Alternative D.”
Planning Department staff will eventually make a recommendation on whether the Planning Commission should should approve or deny the project. The department could condition approval by requiring Alternative D, Oviatt said.
Following a planning commission vote, the project will require final approval by the Board of Supervisors because the county is also seeking to adjust the refinery’s current “by-right” zoning so that any significant projects in the future must undergo environmental review and public decision-making.
The county suggested the zone change due to the refinery’s location in a heavily populated area.
Since the 1950s, the refinery has been under “by-right” zoning, meaning that, with a few exceptions, new industrial development or modifications can take place on the property without county approval or environmental review.
Environmental review was only required for the expansion because certain conditional use permits were needed for storage tanks, injection wells and height exceedences on some equipment.
Kern County Planning Director Ted James said the new zoning would give “the county a better way of controlling and providing information to the public about land use changes on this property.”