Cathy Bennett: Is it safe to open your windows in Benicia?

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Cathy Bennett: Is it safe to open your windows, Benicia?

By Cathy Bennett, Special to the Herald, June 24, 2018
Asphalt: Plastic Road

When the subject of Valero comes up most of us think about the refinery.  For many of us, this is a reminder of the toxic emissions it releases into our air on a daily basis.  That’s troublesome enough, but most of us are unaware that Valero also operates the largest asphalt production plant in California, right here in Benicia located on the perimeter of the Valero refinery.  This means that in addition to all the toxic emissions we are exposed to from Valero’s refinery, Benicians are in double jeopardy due to the extremely high levels of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) being released into the air from Valero’s asphalt production plant.

I first learned about the asphalt production plant last April after we had our first hot spell.  During the warm stagnant evenings, I started sleeping with my windows open.  When I awoke in the mornings I had a headache, irritated eyes and throat, and a bloody nose!  These being unusual symptoms for me, I made some inquiries and subsequently did some research.  It turns out these are classic symptoms of toxic exposure to H2S.  And one of the highest concentrations of H2S come from asphalt production. Here’s what I learned.

Relatively “safe” limits of H2S are between 30 to 50 ppm (parts per million). At exposure to 50 ppm, one’s sense of smell is deadened (you cannot smell it any more) & nose, throat & lung irritation occurs. At 100 – 500 ppm  a potentially fatal build-up of fluid in the lungs & pulmonary oedema can occur.  At 500 – 1000 ppm respiratory paralysis, chest pain, heart failure, shortness of breath, collapse & death can occur.

There are two types of Asphalt: Paving asphalt (which the production of routinely emits H2S at 100 to 300 ppm) and rubber modified asphalt (which the production of can easily emit H2S between 500 and 3,000 ppm). Valero produces rubber modified asphalt (according to Wright Asphalts Products), the most toxic kind with potentially lethal H2S concentrations!

Asphalt – Highly toxic H2S comes from asphalt production.

In a nutshell, hydrogen sulfide is created during the process of refining crude, and then it is extracted to improve the fuel product. The remaining heavy residue is the asphalt.  Valero then takes that asphalt and adds synthetic rubber and a sulfur compound catalyst to treat the rubber.  In this process, the H2S vapor can easily elevate from the base asphalt at 100 to 800 ppm to more than 3,000 ppm inside the processing plant.  Valero’s asphalt processing equipment is not a closed system, and hazardous H2S vapors routinely escape into the environment. Valero relies upon gas collection systems to capture and treat the escaped H2S, and relies upon the wind to disburse it when it is released into the air.   Leaks, accidents and vapor escape is hardest to contain during the handling, transfer and transportation of the asphalt product. Valero moves this product from its offsite warehouse, to the processing plant, in and out of tanks, and into container trucks.  Most of the handling, loading and transporting of the material takes place in the wee hours of the night, while we’re all sleeping.

At Valero’s other asphalt processing plants, the refinery footprint has a natural buffer of miles of land between the plant and the local residents, allowing for wind to more safely disperse the escaped gas.  But in Benicia, the Valero refinery and asphalt plant are less than 100 yards away from neighboring businesses and residents!  There is no “buffer” to protect us from these escaped gasses.  A coincidental succession of leaks, combined with a lack of wind and/or a slow-moving waft of poisoned air blowing into the windows of unsuspecting neighbors, can result in catastrophic physical harm to anyone breathing this stuff!  The damage is compounded when you take into account the cumulative impact of long term exposure.   And Benicians are not informed when these highly toxic “incidents” occur!  Our only evidence, is the physical symptoms we experience and our declining respiratory and cardiac health.

So would Benicia benefit from an ISO?  Absolutely!  Valero has been able to operate under a cloak of invisibility for 17 years.  Since 2001, Valero has chosen to make a hazardous asphalt product even more hazardous because it elects to operate its plant as economically as it can get away with.  Valero knowingly makes a hazardous situation significantly worse for its neighbors and increases the dangers to the community & environment. And Benicia is none the wiser.

I totally get why Valero opposes an ISO!  Valero doesn’t want any additional oversight of its operations and especially to be held accountable for its ongoing abusive practices.  Why should Valero be pressed to cut into corporate profits and spend the extra money to keep the community safe, when the community at large doesn’t even know all of the dangers they are being exposed to? That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is why, after being fully informed of these and multiple other abusive practices, including Valero’s lack of transparency, failure to disclose incident reports and failure to provide air monitors to the residential areas of Benicia,  three of our City Councilmembers voted to shut down even a look at a draft of an ISO.  Yes, they actually refused to ask city staff to even review an ISO.  It’s obvious why Valero feels threatened by an ISO, but why are these three City Councilmembers refusing to even consider reviewing an ISO?  It’s a safety ordinance!  Whose interests are they serving? One has to wonder about the motive of any responsible leader, knowingly allowing such reckless harm to fall upon its citizens, and then to turn a blind eye when viable options such as an ISO is being offered.

We have a local election this November.  I urge all Benicia citizens to remember who on the City Council voted to protect Valero, rather than protecting the health and safety of the people they are elected to serve.

Cathy Bennett is a Benicia resident.
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