gavel.jpgA coalition of environmental groups, unions and citizens won a ruling from the California Supreme Court in San Francisco today requiring further study of a Los Angeles oil refinery upgrade.

The state high court unanimously ordered the South Coast Air Quality Management District to prepare a full environmental impact report on changes to a ConcocoPhillips Co. refinery.

Richard Drury, a lawyer for Communities for a Better Environment, said the changes have already been made, but said the forthcoming environmental study may result in new requirements for reduction in the pollution emitted by four 1950s-era steam boilers.

“This ruling is one of the most significant decisions from the state Supreme Court on the California Environmental Quality Act in a long time,” Drury said.

“It means that old dirty facilities that were built before the act was passed are not exempt from the law,” he said.

The refinery occupies 400 acres in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles and produces gasoline and diesel fuel.

The changes, including increased use of the four steam boilers used to power the plant, were made to produce ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel in compliance with a state law ordering reductions in the sulfur content of vehicle fuel.

Communities for a Better Environment, two union groups and neighborhood residents claimed the increased use of the boilers could boost daily emissions of nitrous oxide by 455 pounds per day.

Nitrous oxide contributes to smog formation and can cause asthma and other serious respiratory problems.

The air district and Houston-based ConocoPhillips argued that a full environmental study wasn’t needed because the increased use of the boilers was within the maximum capacity previously allowed, even though the maximum capacity hadn’t been used.

But the state high court said the district should compare the new use of the boilers with the actual use at the time just before the changes were made.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, quoting from an earlier court ruling, wrote that using hypothetical maximum use as a baseline “can only mislead the public as to the reality of the impacts and subvert full consideration of the actual environmental impacts.”

A spokesperson for ConocoPhillips was not immediately available for comment.

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