The management board responsible for monitoring air pollution in the Bay Area is right to increase the number of air monitors it places near oil refineries in the wake of the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond. Clearly, more are needed.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District board said Monday that the extra equipment should be able to pick up routine long-term pollution as well as toxic releases during emergencies or during accidental releases.
One can only hope but, honestly, we are skeptical.
BAAQMD's performance immediately after the explosion and fire at the refinery was, shall we say, less than stellar. In fact, it was another in a string of public-relations disasters for the air board.
As columnist Daniel Borenstein reported in these pages after the incident, the district put out misleading information the day after the fire that its air samples showed levels of toxic pollutants to be under state standards and "not a significant health concern."
That was news to the more than 15,200 people who sought treatment at local hospitals for lung, eye and throat irritation and headaches and dizziness.
This is the same agency that has outraged many by adopting a winter anti-pollution policy that enlists neighbors to turn in neighbors for burning a fire in their home fireplace on Christmas Day and was at the heart of a plan to spend more than $250,000 for a party so local elected officials could hobnob with former President Bill Clinton. That event, not surprisingly, was postponed when the public became aware of it.
In the wake of this latest disaster, the agency is scurrying to evaluate many different kinds of monitoring devices and strategies. It had planned to take more than a year to write a new rule to regulate what pollution information refineries will be required to collect and report to the public, but its executive director now says that will be done more quickly as a result of the Chevron fire.
John Gioia, chairman of the BAAQMD board, said industry will fund the purchase of any new monitoring equipment.
The air district currently has about 40 fixed pollution monitors, including eight that monitor for fine soot particles -- the pollutants suspected of causing the most health problems after the fire.
Eric Stevenson, the district's director of technical services, told this paper's reporter Denis Cuff that the air board will investigate the latest technology for portable soot monitors but they are not as reliable as portable monitors for gaseous pollutants.
It's not enough to get some pollution data, but rather results that can be quickly analyzed, understood and communicated to the public, Stevenson told Cuff.
We agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. Such information can be critical for the public but only if it is accurate and timely and communicated effectively and efficiently.
Based on its performance in the Chevron incident, the air board has a long way to go in that regard.