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Los Angeles region to curb lung-damaging sulfur pollution

November 9, 2010 | 12:37 pm

Sulfur refineries

Amid a gray landscape of oil refinery smokestacks and storage tanks, a massive pile of neon-yellow sulfur sits alongside the Port of Long Beach. That pile, or others like it, are set to grow considerably, now that Southern California air pollution officials are cracking down on sulfur oxide emissions that contribute to an epidemic of asthma and other health problems in the region.

Eleven major refineries and industrial plants in the Los Angeles area will be forced to slash their airborne sulfur pollution by more than 2,000 tons a year under sweeping new regulations, adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The new rules effectively halve the amount of sulfur oxides that can be emitted in the district, which covers Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Sulfur is a component of the minute airborne particles,  2.5 micrometers or less in size, that are responsible for the premature deaths of an estimated 9,000 Californians each year. The particles come from stationary sources such as refineries and cement plants, and mobile sources such as trucks, tractors and forklifts.

Environmentalists hailed the Los Angeles region's crackdown on sulfur, which came after three years of negotiations with the oil industry. "It felt like a nine-round bout between two heavyweights," said Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have filthy air, and we need to tell big polluters like refineries to clean up their act."

The sulfur reductions, amounting to 5.7 tons per day, will phase in between 2013 and 2019 as part of the area's "Regional Clean Air Incentives Market" (RECLAIM), a cap-and-trade system set up in 1993 to reduce sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxide pollution. Emissions on large industrial plants were capped, with the cap dropping over 10 years.

But in 2003, Martinez said, reductions stopped. The sulfur cap has not been lowered in seven years, and the district did not revise its assessment of the technology available to reduce sulfur emissions, he added.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., called the three-year rule-making "grueling" and said oil companies had made a "huge commitment" in accepting "the very tight controls imposed by this rule." Although federal officials are considering even stricter standards for fine particles, Reheis-Boyd warned that any additional controls are unlikely to be cost-effective and "should be avoided."

Air district spokesman Sam Atwood said the new rules will cost the industries an estimated $630 million to $750 million including capital investments and operations. "It was a long process, but what was amazing is that in the end everybody was on the same page," he said. "Industry realized it needed to do everything feasible."

The facilities affected by the sulfur rule include refineries owned by BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Valero and Tesoro; two sulfuric acid plants operated by Rhodia Inc. and ConocoPhillips; a BP coke calciner plant; a California Portland Cement Co. plant; and an Owens Brockway Glass facility.

In the Los Angeles area, trucks transporting goods from the ports to the rest of the U.S. are  also a major source of smog and soot. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday rejected parts of the South Coast district plan to meet federal health standards because they are based on regulations that state officials have said they may revise.

The California Air Resources Board has scheduled a vote in December on whether to soften 2008 regulations to curb diesel truck pollution, a primary source of fine soot particles. Truckers have waged a ferocious battle against the diesel standards. The recession has lowered truck emissions, which officials say may justify stretching out the compliance timetable.

Environmentalists say that without strict diesel rules, regions such as Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley cannot meet federal health standards for air pollution.

-- Margot Roosevelt


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Photo: A mound of sulfur is fed by oil refineries in Wilmington. Air pollution authorities require refineries to remove sulfur from their fuel because it contributes to tiny soot particles that damage human lungs. The companies sell the sulfur to fertilizer and pharmaceutical companies. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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