CPUC Probe Says PG&E Mistakes Led to Benicia Refinery Outage
By Ted Goldberg, Jul 19, 2018
State regulators say that PG&E’s inadequate training of operations personnel and its slow response to the failure of an electrical component led to a power outage at a Benicia oil refinery last year.
The 18-minute power failure early the morning of May 5, 2017, disrupted operations at the Valero refinery, triggered a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide and prompted emergency shelter-in-place orders.
Fallout from the incident has included several government investigations, a brief increase in gas prices, a push for Benicia to impose its own oversight of the refinery and a lawsuit filed by Valero against PG&E.
PG&E says it rejects the conclusions of the California Public Utilities Commission investigation into the outage and maintains that the oil company is responsible for the incident.
The CPUC investigative report, completed in April and released to KQED after a California Public Records Act request, lays out the events that began the day before the power failure. The document also outlines the complex way the Valero refinery is tied into PG&E’s electrical network — and how workers’ misunderstanding of the connection led to the outage.
The report says the sequence of events that led to the outage began May 4, with a transformer failure at a substation adjacent to the refinery.
The CPUC report says that the PG&E operator who detected the problem reviewed company diagrams and documents and concluded the transformer issue would not affect a safety system designed to protect the refinery if it’s disconnected from the utility’s electrical network.
The safety system is necessary because the refinery generates part of the electricity it needs from an on-site power plant. The system, known as “anti-islanding” protection, is designed to prevent electricity from flowing out of the refinery. The protection scheme is designed to kick in if both of the major PG&E transmission lines to the utility’s Benicia substation suffer major problems or are taken offline simultaneously.
Early the morning of May 5, the CPUC report says, PG&E operators at the substation de-energized one of the transmission lines as the first step in a long-planned maintenance operation. Cutting power to the transmission line, along with the previously discovered transformer failure, activated the anti-islanding system. Power to the entire Valero facility went down.
The CPUC investigation incorporates findings from Exponent, an engineering firm PG&E hired to analyze the incident.
Exponent found that the PG&E operator who first noticed the transformer failure did not understand that it could play a part in triggering the anti-islanding system.
The engineering firm noted that the PG&E’s document describing the system “is perceived by operators to be unclear on conditions necessary to activate the scheme, the instrumentation equipment … that the scheme depends on” and other key information.
Exponent recommended a series of safety measures — including improved training and maintenance procedures and the use of warning devices to alert operators of potential problems with the anti-islanding system — to prevent future incidents.
The CPUC’s investigation concluded that PG&E violated a state regulation that requires electrical substations to be operated and maintained safely and in a manner to provide adequate service.
In addition to failing to maintain the transformer involved in the incident, the CPUC said,”PG&E did not provide adequate training, documents, or diagrams for its operators to fully understand the anti-islanding protection scheme. If the … substation operators had sufficient training and documentation on the anti-islanding protection scheme, they would have properly identified and resolved the failed (transformer issue) and prevented the incident from occurring.”
On Wednesday, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras reiterated the company’s earlier apologies for the outage, but said it does not agree withthe CPUC’s findings. The utility has maintained the electrical failure was Valero’s fault.
“PG&E denies the CPUC’s specific allegations that we failed to maintain a type of transformer for its intended use and that we failed to provide adequate training, documents or diagrams to operators,” Contreras said in an emailed statement. “Additionally, PG&E maintains that the responsibility for the unplanned refinery shutdown rests with Valero.”
Two previous probes, by Solano County and state workplace regulators, cleared Valero of wrongdoing.
Contreras added that PG&E is adopting Exponent’s safety recommendations.
Steven Weissman, a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a former CPUC administrative law judge, said the company should aggressively implement those measures.
“It’s going to want to be responsive to this,” Weissman said.
A Valero spokeswoman declined to comment on the CPUC report, citing its pending litigation.
But earlier this week, a Valero executive told the Benicia City Council that the refinery and PG&E are working out new rules aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2017 incident.
“We want to limit the number of times PG&E is sticking a screwdriver into the wires that supply our refinery,” Rich Walsh, vice president of Valero’s regulatory and environmental law programs, told council members on Tuesday.
The new protocols would require PG&E crews to consolidate their maintenance work on the electricity lines that serve the refinery into shorter time periods and allow Valero to inspect PG&E equipment before those jobs, among other changes.
Repost from the Benicia Herald [Editor: For a perspective from the ISO Working Group, see here. For more background on the ISO proposal, see here. – RS]
Council denies mayor’s request for ISO rehearing
BY NICK SESTANOVICH
In yet another marathon meeting that lasted almost until midnight, the Benicia City Council voted 3-2 to reject Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s request to rehear the council’s June 19 vote on reviewing a draft Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) for the city. The matter will not be heard again until November at the earliest.
Patterson first requested an ISO reminiscent of the ordinance offered by Contra Costa County following the May 5, 2017 flaring incident at the Valero Benicia Refinery. The issue was not discussed again until June 19 when the decision to review a proposed ISO was struck down, with councilmembers Tom Campbell, Mark Hughes and Alan Schwartzman casting the opposing votes. The general consensus was that a city ISO would be duplicative of the state ISO, which was already based on Contra Costa’s ISO, although the majority felt Valero needed to improve gaps in communication. Additionally, Campbell and Schwartzman said they would change their votes if proposed air quality monitors were not installed by November.
On June 28, Patterson submitted a request for rehearing. At Tuesday’s meeting, Patterson said there were three choices on the table: deny the reconsideration, approve reconsideration for the staff recommendation of an Oct. 2 rehearing while the draft ISO was reviewed or approve reconsideration and agendize the matter for an even earlier meeting, possibly July 24. Among other things, Patterson felt the request to review a draft ISO was not addressed at the previous meeting.
“No need to consider adopting the draft,” she said. “Let’s have a third-party expert in the subject area with public interest, experience and knowledge and legal sufficiency review.”
Additionally, Patterson felt the motion taken by the council did not address what was in the air, provide funds to support staff engagement, tell schools or workplaces what to do during a shelter in place or address what happens at the county level.
“I am asking for reconsideration for review of the draft Industrial Safety Ordinance, not for adoption, not for revision, just a review and report back to the council so we all can be on the same page when it comes to local questions that have been raised about what it does and does not know,” Patterson said.
Speaking on behalf of the ISO Working Group was local attorney Terry Mollica, who said the stipulations requested by the council seemed promising but did not authorize staff to do homework to enable the council to take action in November if nothing changed.
“Not taking action on the reconsideration would just be kicking the can down the road,” he said.
Among other things, Mollica felt certain practices needed evaluation and review, particularly the prevention of power failures.
“Power failures are a fact of life and foreseeable in this community,” he said. “We know that this is a risk that this could happen again, so what steps should be taken to mitigate that issue and has it been adequately mitigated already?”
Valero representatives also spoke to discuss issues brought up at the previous meeting, including the need for information related to the 2017 incident, establishing clear lines of communication, and installing fenceline monitors within 6 months,
“Valero heard very clearly the City Council’s expectations from that meeting,” Don Wilson, the vice president and general manager of the Benicia refinery, said.
Wilson then introduced Rich Walsh, the vice president and deputy general counsel of Valero’s corporate office, who discussed what the Benicia refinery was doing to address the points raised.
“We listened back through all the discussions from the last council meeting,” he said. “We realized we’ve gotta do a better job of communicating.”
Walsh noted in a PowerPoint presentation that a fenceline monitoring team began hosting weekly meetings with engineers and planners as well as representatives from the city, Fire Department and PG&E, and anticipates field construction along the refinery’s fenceline to commence soon.
In regards to the 2017 incident, the PowerPoint noted that Valero has requested a review of PG&E’s overall maintenance program and risk ranked all proposed PG&E work on Valero equipment.
Finally, the presentation discussed actions Valero would do to improve communication. These included providing a 72-hour incident report, collaborating with the city to establish shelter-in-place and evacuation criteria and procedures, coordinating with the Fire Department to incorporate Valero information into the AlertSolano system and work to increase the number of registrants for said system.
“Nobody has more of an incentive to make sure this (incident) doesn’t happen again than us,” Walsh said.”This was a tremendous loss for us.”
After a lengthy public comment period that brought out people from both sides of the issue, the council ultimately voted to deny Patterson’s request for a rehearing, with Patterson and Vice Mayor Steve Young voting in favor of a rehearing, and Campbell, Hughes and Schwartzman voting against.
In other matters, the council voted 4-1 to delay discussion of placing a port tax on the ballot for the 2020 election. Schwartzman was the lone “no” vote.
The council is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, July 24.
Public Comment – Council deliberation on whether to reconsider ISO vote of 19 June 2018
By Ralph Dennis, Benicia, June 17, 2018
Good evening. My name is Ralph Dennis, I’m a resident of Benicia with my wife Vicki. I am also one of the members of the ISO Working Group, and also chair of the Progressive Democrats of Benicia. The Progressive Democrats have been supporters of a Benicia ISO from the beginning of the working group. At its June meeting, PDB members voted unanimously in support of the draft Benicia ISO ordinance presented to Council on June 19.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight.
I ask that you vote tonight to reconsider your June 19 vote concerning an Industrial Safety Ordinance for Benicia.
If the desire is, in fact, to finally do something about determining what is in Benicia’s air, and to provide the City better communication with those businesses affecting Benicia’s air and safety – and that IS what I ultimately heard from the Council’s 3 votes that prevailed on June 19 …
Then, there is nothing to be gained by waiting until November.
Fence line monitoring, once installed, will tell us virtually nothing about what’s in the air. According to Eric Stephenson, who runs the Air District’s monitoring programs, fence line monitors are “designed for ground level monitoring” and “not for emissions that are lofted”. Meaning air borne emissions, i.e., what’s in the air.
So, Valero’s fence line monitoring program is limited at what it will do. Benicia needs a comprehensive, community wide monitoring program, which an ISO would provide and do it much sooner. And, the sooner we get an ISO up and running the quicker the City and community can tap into Air District resources for community monitoring efforts, something else Mr. Stephenson said is possible.
The Air District’s AB617 community monitoring program may include Benicia but not until 2024 at the earliest, based on its recently announced schedule.
And, related Air District efforts toward community monitoring are yet to be clarified and probably depend upon individual community initiative to kick start.
As to Better communications/Is CUPA sufficient?
Last week I saw two Public notices published in the Benicia Herald by the Solano Co Environmental Health Division – CUPA – for Risk Management Plans submitted by two Benicia businesses – Praxair and the City of Benicia Water Treatment Plan.
These plans reviewed by CUPA are required by state regulations for businesses which handle and use hazardous materials, and are now available for review by the public – for 45 days, and counting.
CUPA told me it plans no public meetings. And, when asked, seemed surprised at the question. Also, no copies of Plans for review on-line, or in public libraries like Contra Costa Co officials have done – we need to go to Fairfield to see the Plans.
I don’t know if anyone in the City was notified by these businesses when their Plans were being prepared or when the Plans were filed. Presumably, you saw the Water Treatment Plant’s plan. But, neither existing state regulations, nor CUPA, provided any means for review or comment – until after the fact, plans already filed and reviewed.
Is publication in a local, soon to be 3 days a week paper with limited circulation to be the extent of communication with the Benicia community? With the City?
On plans that affect the community’s air and safety?
A Benicia ISO would make the City and community partners with businesses in the development of these Plans – not a bystander, at best. And, not depend upon CUPA for communication.
I also asked CUPA whether a Risk Management Plan had been submitted by Valero:
Filed in December 2017, but is still under review by CUPA staff.
And, I don’t know if anyone at Valero gave the City a heads up last December that the Risk Management Plan was ready to be filed. Or, asked whether the City wanted to take a look at the Plan before it was filed.
You know, as a courtesy, or even in an effort to improve communication.
But, in any event, CUPA said its Public Notice will be published once review is done. Then, we the public get to see it – including the City of Benicia and its community…for a 45-day period…to provide comments…on a Plan already reviewed and, seemingly, ready for approval. Don’t expect any public meetings from CUPA, and better make sure your subscription is up to date with the newspaper.
For the sake of the community, please vote tonight to reconsider your June 19 3-2 vote, so we can get on with the business of considering an ISO for Benicia.