Oil giant ConocoPhillips agreed to pay millions in fines and to clean up nine refineries — including one in Ferndale that for years emitted cancer-causing and hazardous pollutants.

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Oil giant ConocoPhillips agreed to pay $4.5 million in fines and $525 million to clean up nine refineries — including one in Ferndale — that for years emitted cancer-causing and hazardous pollutants in violation of the Clean Air Act.

The settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency is part of a string of agreements around the country in recent years to upgrade pollution controls at refineries and force them into compliance with federal law.

Fifty-seven refineries covering half the nation’s petroleum-refining capacity have reached such settlements in the past five years, including most of those in the Puget Sound region.

But watchdog groups maintain that such agreements are merely the first step, and suggest that the agency’s track record of enforcing the agreed-upon changes is less than stellar.

“I was at EPA when these multi-year settlements were started, and I applaud them,” said Eric Schaeffer, former head of EPA’s enforcement office who resigned in 2002 accusing the Bush White House of lax enforcement of air pollution laws. “The problem, and the emerging question is, what happens after they issue the press release?”

While oil refineries are significantly less dirty than coal-fired power plants they are among the nation’s largest air polluters. They emit cancer-causing benzene, asthma-causing fine particles, acid-rain causing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxides. EPA believes the refining industry accounts for 5 percent of air pollution nationwide.

EPA has charged that for decades the industry failed to upgrade pollution controls as plants increased their refining capacity. In many cases, rather than make air emissions cleaner, as the Clean Air Act required, refineries continued to operate under old permits, and just ignored emissions limits.

EPA finally began suing the industry under the Clinton administration, and the federal government has been negotiating settlements ever since.

ConocoPhillips had sought approval as far back as January 2001 for a new type of emission controls, but performance tests finished last year indicated it would not reduce pollution to meet the Clean Air Act.

In yesterday’s settlement, ConocoPhillips agreed to reduce its sulfur emissions by 37,000 tons a year from nine plants in seven states. “These actions will improve environmental performance and support continued safe and reliable operations of the refineries,” the company said in a statement.

As a comparison, Washington state’s largest single industrial polluter — the TransAlta Centralia Power Plant — emits about 10,000 tons a year, according to the EPA.

John Keenan, an environmental engineer with the EPA in Seattle said the settlement at the Ferndale refinery ultimately could reduce the plant’s sulfur and nitrogen emissions by 95 percent. The company also will increase its capacity to detect leaks.

But all that depends on how well the agreement is followed.

Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper reported the government had quietly let refineries across the country miss their court-ordered deadlines, and didn’t let the public know — even when legal settlements required such notification.

“That’s where EPA is struggling,” Schaeffer said. “It’s a non-political problem. It’s partly resources. They’re just stretched thin.”

Jamie Randles, director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which oversees air regulations in Whatcom, Skagit and Island counties, said his agency will get $600,000 from the penalty. The Ferndale refinery also will spend $400,000 locally to replace old fireplaces and wood stoves in low income houses with cleaner-burning equipment, help local governments cut energy use, and buy a new fire truck for the refinery that can be used to help surrounding areas.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

Staff reporter Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.