KQED: EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News

EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, August 23, 2017

An 18-minute power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero refinery in Benicia led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide was released into the air.

The Valero Energy Corporation is facing a deadline in the coming days to respond to questions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about power issues at its Benicia oil refinery several months after an outage shut down the entire facility for weeks, leading to a major release of pollution.

The EPA wants detailed information about the outages that have led to flaring events at the refinery over the last three years, and it wants inspection records for all of the facility’s process units.

“EPA believes that much of the requested information is, or should be, readily available at the facility,” wrote Enrique Manzanilla, director of the agency’s Pacific Southwest Superfund Division, in a letter obtained by KQED.

The agency has asked Valero to explain its policies on handling outages, its risk management program and its flare system.

“The company may not withhold any information from EPA on the grounds that it is confidential business information,” the July 27 letter states. The EPA says Valero is required to respond to the agency within 30 days of receiving the letter.

The outage initially sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. It would later lead to several local and state investigations, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, a decrease in profits for Valero and a push for more refinery oversight by the city of Benicia.

A Valero official says the company is working on providing answers to federal officials.

“We did receive the EPA request, and we intend to respond accordingly,” Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokesman, said in an email.

The EPA’s demands seem to go against the image the Trump administration has established as less interested in strong regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

“This letter is a bit surprising given that Trump’s EPA seems to be ignoring many public health issues to the delight of just about every polluter in the country,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “The EPA must think Valero’s practices are especially concerning if it’s asking for this information.”

Still, he says the agency is not being aggressive enough. “This might be little more than a public relations exercise in the face of increasingly high-profile pollution problems at Bay Area refineries,” Kretzmann said. “There’s no assurance that any of this information gathering will lead to meaningful action.”

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley who has long advocated for strong solutions to climate change, says the EPA’s demand for information from one of the nation’s largest oil companies in connection with a local emergency should be the kind of on-the-ground work the agency does, no matter who’s in the White House.

“Actual workers at the EPA have to continue their jobs irrespective of political interference,” Kammen said.

If the EPA did not act on its federal mandate to react to Valero’s pollution release, it could be sued by environmental groups, according to Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.

“Despite (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt’s stance on climate and environment in general, in numerous decisions he has shied away from taking actions that will certainly lose in court,” Wexler said.

The agency’s demands are part of a review of the refinery prompted by the May 5 outage, according to EPA officials who declined to comment further on the agency’s letter to Valero.

They came a month after Valero filed a lawsuit against PG&E, blaming the utility for the power failure. The oil giant is seeking in excess of $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue it says was the result of the shutdown that took place after PG&E “shut off all electricity” to the Benicia facility.

PG&E has said the power failure was triggered by an “inadvertent operation” to protect electrical circuits. It has hired an engineering firm to review the cause. That company, Exponent, has yet to turn over a report to PG&E, according to utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide from flaring in the days and weeks after the outage.

In June, KQED revealed that the refinery released more than 74,000 pounds of the toxic gas during 14 days of flaring after the outage, described as a “huge amount” by experts. That information came from a report the company filed with state officials and was obtained through a California Public Records Act Request.

Valero filed a separate report with the California Office of Emergency Services last month that showed the refinery released more than 8,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide on June 18 and 19.

The outage prompted several investigations, including one that revealed damage to part of the facility.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected the refinery after the power failure, closed its investigation the same month and decided not to issue any violations afterward.

But the outage did damage one of the refinery’s flares, according to Cal/OSHA. “Attention was given to the South Flare, due to damage on flare tips and the dump stack,” wrote Cal/OSHA safety engineer Sean Sasser in a notice after the inspection.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued several notices of violation against the company due to the flaring in the days after the shutdown. Its investigation is ongoing, according to district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management also launched a probe. That review is ongoing and is expected to be completed in October, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the department’s director.

Experts say the outage led to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices.

And the shutdown hurt Valero’s bottom line. Its lawsuit claimed that the company lost a “substantial amount of profits.” The company’s second-quarter earnings, released last month, fell by more than 30 percent, apparently because it took several weeks to get the refinery back online.

The outage has also prompted Benicia city leaders to consider increasing their oversight of the refinery and improve how they communicate with residents about emergencies.

On the day of the shutdown, authorities imposed shelter-in-place evacuation orders for parts of the city, and at least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

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    Call to Action: Air District as apologist for Big Oil, Phillips 66

    Letter to the editor by Larnie Fox, Benicia
    August 15, 2017

    Phillips 66 Marine Terminal Permit Revision

    Larnie Fox, Benicia CA

    Last night I attended a Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) presentation on Phillips 66’s plan to expand their marine terminal. It was sponsored by Solano County Supervisor, Monica Brown, and held in Benicia’s City Hall. Five or six BAAQMD staff members were present, as were many members of the community and members of community organizations. Monica Brown deserves our thanks for bringing this issue to light.

    The BAAQMD made a short and somewhat vague presentation. It is now soliciting public input before preparing an environmental impact report. The project would allow Phillips 66 to double the amount of tankers coming through the Bay to their refinery in Rodeo, (4½ miles upwind of us in Benicia), but they couldn’t say what kind of crude the tankers would be carrying.

    In the ensuing Q & A, it became clear to everyone present that the company plans to bring in crude from the Canadian tar sands – the BAAQMD staff members did not deny this. It also became apparent that taxpayers would bear much of the cost of any fires or spills.

    Not all crude oils are alike. Tar sands crude is dirty, heavy, and corrosive. Because of its density, it will sink to the bottom of the Bay (and kill everything there) if it is spilled, making an effective cleanup nearly impossible. In order to ship it, it needs to be mixed with benzene and other volatile carcinogens prone to explosions and fires. It is dirty – releasing more toxins and carcinogens when processed than ordinary crude. It is considered a “sour” crude, which means it has a high sulfur content. This makes it more likely to corrode tanks, pipes, and oil tankers – leading to leaks and explosions.

    I was very disappointed to see that BAAQMD staff were acting as apologists for big oil in our City Hall. Their mission is to protect our air, not to protect the profits of Phillips 66.

    Most of the oil refined here will be shipped to Asia. The cost in terms of the environment and our health is not worth it. California now produces one-third of its electric power from wind and solar. Electric cars are becoming affordable; many homes have solar panels on them where they can charge their new electric cars. As we enter the age of clean fuels, we are free to move away from fossil fuels, and their associated environmental catastrophes.

    I don’t aspire to be an activist. I am a working artist, and I would much rather be in my studio. Perhaps you don’t aspire to be an activist either, but what Phillips 66 is proposing is an unacceptable threat to all downwind of it and will contribute to climate change and environmental degradation. It requires a concerted effort to stop it, now.

    What to do:

    Contact the BAAQMD before August 28 with your views on the Phillips 66 project. The email they provided for this purpose is <P66MarineTerminalPermitRevision@baaqmd.gov>.

    Contact your elected officials, local, state and national, and urge them to ask the BAAQMD to deny the project.  [Editor: Find Your Elected Officials]

    Post information about the project on social media and write letters to editors.


    Editor: More info here:
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      Mayors of Vallejo and Benicia join 150 to say no to hate groups

      Vigil announcement

      A Unity Vigil drew 150 citizens from Vallejo and Benicia on Sunday evening, August 13.  The crowd expressed solidarity and heartfelt outrage following the violent white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rally in Charlottesville, VA last week.

      Of particular note was the presence of the Mayors of both cities.  Mayor Elizabeth Patterson represented Benicia, and Mayor Bob Sampayan represented Vallejo.

      The Benicia Independent stands firm in opposition to the moral depravity of white nationalism, the KKK and neo Nazi ideologies.

      • From the Benicia Herald (appearing in the print edition only):

      Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson addresses the crowd at an informal vigil Sunday evening in Vallejo’s Unity Plaza. The event was put on in response to a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. over the weekend that resulted in – among other things – a car being intentionally driven into a crowd of protesters, injuring 19 people and killing 32-year-old legal assistant Heather Heyer. The event was organized by Vallejo Benicia Indivisible and Benicia Indivisible for Justice and also featured speeches by Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan and Vallejo Poet Laureate Genea Brice. A moment of silence for Heyer was held at 7 p.m. | Photo courtesy of Vallejo Benicia Indivisible

      • From the Vallejo Times-Herald:

      Vigil Held in Support of Charlottesville – Vallejoans fill Unity Plaza to stand against bigotry, hate

      Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan addresses a group of residents during a unity vigil Sunday evening in Vallejo.
      Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan addresses a group of residents during a unity vigil Sunday evening in Vallejo. | John Glidden — Times-Herald
      By John Glidden, 08/13/17, 10:28 PM PDT 

      With the classic “We Shall Overcome” as their rallying cry, Vallejoans took to Unity Plaza Sunday night to take on the hate they had seen on their TV screens over the weekend.

      About 150 residents sang the legendary civil rights anthem, denouncing the bigotry ­— and violence ­— that led to tragedy Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

      The gathering was in response to the death of Heather Heyer, who was intentionally hit by a car Saturday while she protested a white supremacist rally.

      “Was I mad? Hell yes. Did I put blame? Hell yes. Did I point my finger at certain people in our (presidential) administration? Yes, I did,” Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan said, attempting to stifle his tears. “But do I hate? No. Because that, my friends, is what caused Heather’s demise. Hatred.”

      Sampayan lauded the ethnic diversity of Sunday’s vigil participants.

      “That’s what really makes me proud,” he added.

      Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson also spoke, proudly proclaiming that “Benicia and Vallejo stand together.”

      Patterson said she has no idea how to stop the type of hate shown in Charlottesville during Saturday’s white nationalist rally which caused bloody clashes with counter protesters.

      “I am looking for your help and your ideas because even though it happened across the country, we have to be prepared for what could happen here,” Patterson added. “I’m worried.”

      Vallejo activist and Neighborhood Rising founder Hakeem Brown expressed determination that the events in Charlottesville would not come to Vallejo.

      “It’s our responsibility to make sure hate doesn’t take root in Vallejo,” he said to applause. Brown said a divided America allowed for the election of President Donald Trump.

      “Our division aided his rise,” Brown said.

      He urged residents to stand together and vote to overcome the hate he says Trump and his supporters are spreading.

      Several in attendance carried signs, calling for unity and/or for love. Those who addressed the audience stood in front of a large American flag.

      At exactly 7 p.m., a moment of silence for 32 seconds temporarily stopped the speeches, as those assembled remembered the 32-year-old Heyer.

      Genea Brice, the city’s inaugural poet laureate, was incredulous as she spoke about Heyer’s death.

      “Somebody died because they were standing for what they believed in,” Brice said. “Somebody used a car as a weapon.”

      Brice then read a poem she wrote about unity.

      She said the events in Virginia will not happen “because we are standing together.”

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        Now YOU can help monitor the air in Benicia and the Bay Area!

        With major input from Benicia and area activists and experts, Air Watch Bay Area is now up and running…

        Press Release, Wednesday, August 9, 2017
        [Contact listing at end]

        Air Watch Bay Area launches new digital platform for reporting and investigating oil refinery pollution

        Staying informed about what’s in the air is a priority for Bay Area residents living near the region’s five oil refineries. As we mark the five-year anniversary of the Chevron Richmond refinery fire, a new suite of digital tools designed to reveal and act on air pollution is now live at: http://airwatchbayarea.org/. The Air Watch Bay Area website and reporting app (available for Android or iOS) build on and extend residents’ successful activism for real-time air monitoring for many of the region’s frontline communities (Richmond, Rodeo, Crockett and Benicia). The website and app enable users to:

        1. Report air pollution — rate smells, upload photos, and describe symptoms;
        2. See pollution reports in context, alongside chemical levels, wind direction, and reports from other community members;
        3. View the history of chemical levels measured by fenceline and community monitors;
        4. Contribute to an independent community database of incidents, while also submitting reports to regulatory authorities at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD);
        5. Connect with community organizations and resources to advocate for cleaner air, particularly in frontline communities;
        6. Grow the community of people engaged with Bay Area air quality and environmental justice advocacy.

        Frontline community residents, in collaboration with the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University and the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, helped to develop these tools — to build capacity for broadened civic engagement with air quality. “Air Watch Bay Area builds on a community of people who are dedicated to refinery air quality vigilance and for the first time shows the Big Picture of all the refineries in the Bay Area,” according to Constance Beutel of the Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee.

        Exposing oil refineries to public scrutiny
        In a region where many are committed to environmental sustainability and health, local oil refineries too often operate beyond public scrutiny. Air Watch Bay Area helps expose refineries to scrutiny by highlighting air pollution data across frontline communities in Richmond, Crockett, Rodeo, and Benicia. As fenceline monitoring requirements recently adopted by BAAQMD come into force, the site will expand to include data from Martinez, where neither Shell nor Tesoro currently have fenceline monitoring programs, as well as additional data from other communities.

        Air Watch Bay Area features residents’ own pollution reports alongside both historical and real-time air quality data, made available through successful environmental justice advocacy. The site is the first to present such archival air quality data, which are necessary to help residents “connect the dots” between chemical levels in ambient air and health issues that may not appear until hours or days after exposure. Residents from all refinery communities can make pollution reports, adding to available air pollution data even where monitoring is not being conducted.

        Holding regulators & public officials accountable to public health, environmental justice
        Ultimately, Air Watch Bay Area’s digital tools offer Bay Area residents new levers for holding regulators and elected officials accountable to public health, environmental justice, and sustainability. “Often when citizens file air pollution complaints, the information seems to drop into a black hole. The ability for fenceline communities to archive their complaints is key to holding refineries and regulatory agencies accountable,” stated Nancy Rieser of Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (C.R.U.D.E.).

        When people report odors or photos to Air Watch Bay Area, they contribute to a publicly visible “paper trail” of incidents. This public paper trail, alongside individuals’ direct reports to BAAQMD, helps Bay Area residents advocate for cleaner air. It helps foster community empowerment and ownership of data, to address persistent air quality problems. “This site will be an important tool for anyone researching and evaluating refinery emissions that endanger health in our community,” said Rieser.

        New data stories: Giving monitoring “teeth”
        “Air monitoring has become a popular answer to the environmental health concerns of frontline communities. Just look at the state of California’s recent move to increase community air monitoring while undercutting environmental justice groups’ calls for caps on refinery emissions [in AB 617 and 398],” says Dr. Gwen Ottinger, Drexel University professor and principal investigator on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the creation of Air Watch Bay Area. “The problem with that approach is that monitoring in isolation is toothless.”

        For monitoring to really have an impact, communities need to be able to leverage air quality data while challenging “upstream” causes of emissions. According to East Bay resident Cheryl Holzmeyer, a research and outreach associate of the Air Watch Bay Area project, “It’s crucial that air monitoring go hand-in-hand with efforts to cap emissions and prevent the refining of tar sands and heavy crude oil at Bay Area refineries. Decision-makers need to embrace new data stories — bridging people’s lived experiences of health and illness, refinery emissions levels, oil feedstock quality, and alternative visions of just transitions away from fossil fuel dependency.” By making historical data accessible and bringing people’s experiences into the picture through online pollution reporting, Air Watch Bay Area’s digital tools offer new ways to contribute to such stories.

        Please look for us at these upcoming events:

        ● August 12th, 12-3pm: Our Power Festival, Nicholl Park, Richmond
        ● August 24th and 31st, 4-7pm: Benicia Farmers Markets
        ● September 5th, 7pm: Benicia City Council Meeting
        ● September 6th, 7pm: Benicia Community Meeting at Ruszel Woodworks
        ● September 14th, 4-6pm: Benicia Farmers Market
        ● September 19th, 7pm and 26th, 6pm: Benicia City Council Meetings
        More events on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AirWatchBayArea/


        Contacts:
        Constance Beutel (Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee) 707-742-4419
        Kathy Kerridge (Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee) 707-816-2401
        Nancy Rieser, Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (C.R.U.D.E.) 510-322-1459
        Jay Gunkelman (Vallejo) 707-654-8899
        Cheryl Holzmeyer, Fair Tech Collective, Drexel University 510-417-9348
        Gwen Ottinger, Fair Tech Collective, Drexel University 610-608-2146

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