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Take a deep breath

What company is the biggest air polluter in the county? And how does that affect our health?


Conoco Phillips wouldn’t allow New Times on site to photograph its refinery for “security” reasons.

Every day, San Luis Obispo County companies release thousands and thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air.
Lung-damaging pollutants like sulfur and carbon dioxide. Cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and ethylene. Pollutants with confusing scientific names and state-mandated regulations. Hundreds of different chemicals, each with its own set of warnings and potential problems.

But despite that ominous-sounding list, San Luis Obispo’s overall air quality is pretty good. Since the mid-1990s, the air in most of the county has never exceeded state and federal pollutant levels. The American Lung Association used to regularly give the county a failing grade in its annual “State of the Air” report, but not in 2003: That was the first year the county’s received an “A.”

When it comes to cancer rates, things are also looking good. The federal Centers For Disease Control report that San Luis Obispo’s overall cancer rate is similar to the state average and the lung cancer rate for men is actually falling.

Paul Allen, one of the head managers at the county Air Pollution Control District (APCD), said there might be a lot coming out of area industries, but a lot happens to those chemicals and pollutants from the time they’re released to the time they enter someone’s lungs.

“There’s not a perfect nexus between what comes out of a facility and the air quality around it,” he said.

While some local companies release toxins into the water and land, for the scope of this article we chose to focus on who releases toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air, and on how much they release.

And just because the overall air quality is good, do all those contaminants still pose a health problem for the county?

Despite the many pounds of chemicals released into the atmosphere, the air in most of the county has never exceeded state and federal pollutant levels.

The Conoco Phillips refinery

At the top of the list of companies is an oil and gas refinery just west of Nipomo. Despite its San Luis Obispo County address, it’s called the Santa Maria Facility. Conoco Phillips — the nation’s largest oil and gas refiner — has owned it since 2002.

Built in 1955, the refinery takes about 44,000 barrels of thick, almost semi-solid crude oil every day and converts it into a “semi-refined liquid.”

That liquid is then piped to a Bay Area refinery where it’s converted into other petroleum products. Back in Arroyo Grande, the refining process byproduct — called petroleum coke — is taken to the facility’s carbon plant, cooked in massive ovens until it’s a coal-like substance, and then sold to the phosphorus and metals industries. Another byproduct, sulfur, is either captured and sold as a fertilizer additive or released into the air.

Sulfur’s not the only thing that Conoco Phillips releases into the air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 79,000 pounds of 25 toxic chemicals came out of the refinery and carbon plant’s smokestacks in 2001 — the latest year that numbers are available. Approximately 10,000 more pounds were released into the air from equipment, valves, and storage containers.

That’s not all that comes out of the facility. The California Air Resources Board and the county’s APCD also monitor pollutants — contaminates in the air that aren’t necessarily toxic chemicals. And those two groups report that the refinery released more sulfur dioxide and particulate matter than any other company in the county.

At the same time, the Santa Maria Facility released the second largest amounts of reactive organic gases, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter smaller than 10 microns.

To put some perspective on those amounts, consider this: Every day in 2001, about 17,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released into the county’s air from industry, cars, trucks, and other sources.

Conoco Phillips was responsible for about 15,000 pounds of that total.

So what did that do to the air quality? That same year, results from two testing stations near the refinery and carbon plant show the air never exceeded the state standard for sulfur dioxide.

The state says that over the course of an hour, there can’t be more than .25 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur dioxide in the air. That’s like saying that there can’t be any more than a quarter of a credit card lying in a football field.

While there were several spikes, the sulfur dioxide in the air around the facility never went above .1 ppm in 2001 — far below the state level.

Allen at the APCD said those levels haven’t always been so low: In the late 1980s and early 1990s — long before Conoco Phillips was running the refinery and coke plant — the APCD was concerned not only about the high amounts of sulfur dioxide in the South County’s air but also about how the facility was releasing vanadium, a toxic chemical.

Allen said his agency met with neighboring residents, did a lot of special monitoring, and worked with the facility to get it to improve equipment.

Don Pirolo has run the Santa Maria plant for the past year and a half. He said that while the APCD was working with them, they in turn spent about $100 million on local environmental projects, mostly involving sulfur emissions.

“We took gasses that we had earlier just been burning in heaters at the refinery and actually fed them into our sulfur recovery plant,” Pirolo said.

While some air quality issues have improved, the testing stations around the refinery still register above-state-standard levels for PM10 — particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometers and smaller.

Health officials worry about those levels because the particles are small enough to get into the lower respiratory tract and cause lung damage. With a long and high enough exposure, the particles can also cause cancer or early mortality.

And while the Conoco Phillips refinery produced the second largest amount of PM10 in the county in 2001, they’re probably not the reason why the area’s PM10 levels are so high. Allen said there is a definite problem with airborne particulate matter in the South County and pointed to a potentially surprising source.

“We believe at the moment that the Nipomo Dunes are most likely the [source] of the fine particulate matter in that region,” he said. “That’s just the nature of the sand dunes. We’re hoping to get better information to make that a less speculative conclusion.”

To that end, the APCD just started a yearlong study that will sample particulate matter in the South County to see just what the particles are made of.

Although the refinery’s emissions don’t violate state regulations, some might still wonder if it could be cleaner.

Paramount Petroleum runs a refinery in Paramount, Calif. — just a few miles south of downtown Los Angeles. That refinery is one of the few in the state that has a similar barrel-per-day output as the Santa Maria facility.

However, the Paramount refinery releases far fewer toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air. In fact, a few years ago, a national environmental group called it one of the top 10 cleanest refineries in the nation.

But that’s not a fair comparison, said Pirolo at the Conoco Phillips plant. Most refineries don’t have coke plants.

“You’ve got to compare our emissions here with another refinery’s emissions plus the emissions from offsite wherever the coke is being burned. In reality, you’re comparing apples and oranges.”

When asked whether his facility could be cleaner, Pirolo said all they can do is try to make sure the refinery and carbon plant work smoothly, and therefore cleanly, as possible.

“The one thing we can control is to make sure that we run well,” he said. “When we run well, we run clean.”

When Allen, at the local APCD, was asked the same question, he admitted that there may be ways, albeit expensive ones, to decrease the particulate matter that comes out of the smokestacks. And that’s something his agency will look at in their upcoming study.

But even if it lowers the release amount, he said, “it still probably won’t resolve the predominant particulate problem in that area.”

Duke Energy

While the refinery is one of the largest sources of pollution in the county, it’s part of an even larger picture.

All over the county, sand and gravel companies release particulate matter. Gas stations, dry cleaners, manufacturers who use a lot of toxins, and crematoriums all release either a minute or small combination of pollutants and toxic chemicals. Cal Poly and the California Men’s Colony’s fuel-burning heating systems even show up on county emissions inventory lists.

At the top of the 2001 list, though, are the emissions that came out of the perhaps most-photographed smokestacks in California: Duke Energy’s natural-gas-fired power plant in Morro Bay.

Duke finalized its purchase of the plant in 1998 and recently deactivated two of the plant’s four power-generating units. Patrick Mullen, a spokesman with Duke, said they were smaller, older, and the least efficient of the bunch. Those other two haven’t been running that often, Mullen said, because demand has been low.

“For a plant like Morro Bay, we wouldn’t expect it would run appreciably except in the summertime,” he said.

But back in 2001, when the plant was still running all four units, the state Air Resources Board reported that it released very few toxic chemicals and the most pollutants of any company in the county.

In 2001, 6,255,400 pounds of carbon dioxide and 1,675,600 pounds of nitrogen dioxide poured out of the massive smokestacks. The plant also released 226,000 pounds of reactive organic gases — a key ingredient in smog — and 310,800 pounds of particulate matter.

However, the APCD’s monitoring stations never found too much nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, or ground-level ozone in the air. The agency did not test Morro Bay for carbon dioxide in 2001.

The reason for those low test results can be traced to the smokestacks themselves. Officials at the APCD say their height allows the emissions to dissipate long before they reach the ground.

Local environmental groups counter that with stories of the discharge exacerbating asthma and eating the paint off of cars but those might be moot points if the plant proceeds with a proposed remodel: Mullen said the remodeled plant will still burn natural gas like the existing plant, but 30 percent more efficiently. That in turn would have a big impact on air emissions.

The big picture

For all the talk of toxins and pollutants and how many companies emit what, the APCD thinks there are bigger air quality issues in the county than what industries release. Paul Allen said one of the largest issues is what people burn in their backyards.

“One of the campaigns that we have embarked on in the South County — much to the dismay of some county residents — is discontinuing backyard burnings. People would burn their prunings in the non-fire season and smoke out their neighbors. And that’s bad news,” Allen said.

When Allen was asked what the biggest source of pollution in the county was, his answer was not surprising: cars and trucks. It’s not as bad as the Los Angeles basin where 80-90 percent of the air pollution hazards come from the freeways, he said, but it’s still at the top of the local list.

The numbers from the state air quality agency backs that up: In 2002, mobile sources — cars, diesel trucks, planes, and even the boats on area lakes — accounted for 60 percent of the area’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Even then, Allen said, locally it’s very difficult to point at one specific thing and blame it as a major source of pollution. There are just too many sources and too many factors: “There’s a lot of mixing and dispersion of stuff,” he said.

“And of course there’s a multitude of other sources of pollutants — just a jillion other things contribute to what we experience.” ³

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at


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