The company submitted documents over a four-month period to regulators that said gasoline refined in Washington and shipped to Contra Costa County contained permissible levels of toxic and cancer-causing compounds, including benzene, when in fact the fuel failed to meet state standards, the lawsuit says.
"It's a chemistry measurement issue," said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "You'd think a petroleum company that prides itself on its chemistry would be able to do these straightforward measurements." Young said it was not clear whether the company simply made errors or deliberately misled regulators, but BP is a "repeat offender" that has been fined by the board more than 30 times for clean-fuel violations over the last 10 years, he said.
BP has in recent years seen the green image it had been fostering -- at one time it adopted the slogan Beyond Petroleum -- fade with a refinery explosion in Texas in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010.
"It seems like there's a pattern here," said Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Do they have a system in place, or is this going to be a recurring pattern with this company?" In an emailed statement, a company spokesman said BP had not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
"However, BP has engaged in discussion with CARB since (2009) to address the agency's concerns about this issue. Unfortunately, BP and CARB could not reach a resolution," wrote company spokesman Scott D. Dean.
"I should also add that we are disappointed that CARB filed this action without any notice to us," Dean wrote in a second email. "When we last met with CARB 6 months ago, we believed we had addressed their concerns regarding this matter." The violations occurred during shipments between December 2008 and March 2009, Young said.
In all, about 85 million gallons of dirty gasoline was sold by BP through storage tanks and pipelines along the Martinez shore, the air board said. That's enough fuel to run 170,000 cars for a year, according to Young.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Contra Costa Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages.
According to court documents, state regulators first detected a problem when a test of a random sampling of BP's gasoline did not match up with what the company told regulators. The state Air Resources Board launched an investigation and contends that eight shipments to Martinez contained higher levels of pollutants than the company's documentation claimed.
Young said the actual concentration of a class of chemicals called aromatic hydrocarbons was about 10 percent higher than the company said. Some aromatic hydrocarbons are toxic and can cause cancer. In addition, they lead to increased smog.
"The clean-gasoline program is one of the most important pollution standards to protect public health that we have," said Hwang. "It's very troubling if there's any company out there that's selling gasoline that is dirtier than what is legally allowed."
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