KQED: In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

Repost from KQED News (NPR / PBS)
[Editor: Also tune in to an incredibly important 8-minute KQED audio report for interviews about asthma and Valero refinery pollution: When Oil refineries flare, what happens to the air.  – RS]

In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

By Ted Goldberg, Jun 18, 2018
A power outage on May 5, 2017, at Benicia’s Valero refinery led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released into the air. (California Environmental Protection Agency)

Thirteen months after a major air-pollution incident at Valero Energy Corp.’s Benicia refinery, city leaders will decide whether to assume more oversight of the facility.

On Tuesday, the City Council plans to decide whether to direct staff to begin developing an industrial safety ordinance that would require Valero to pay for a set of air monitors, submit a safety plan to the city and provide Benicia with reports on serious refinery malfunctions.

The issue is the latest to pit Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, other city officials, environmentalists and some residents against the San Antonio-based energy company, which is the city’s largest employer and taxpayer.

Patterson began pushing for the reforms in the weeks following the May 5, 2017, refinery power outage that triggered the release of more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

“The space for the city is to be at the table and not be kept in the dark,” said Patterson.

The outage sent flames and black smoke into the sky, leading to shelter-in-place and evacuation orders. At least a dozen people sought medical attention for breathing difficulties. It took weeks for the refinery to return to full operations, and analysts said the incident prompted a rise in the state’s gasoline prices.

Patterson says that since the outage, neither Valero nor regulators have given the city detailed information about the incident.

For instance, city officials learned from KQED, not from Solano County, that county environmental health investigators concluded late last year Valero did not violate state regulations in connection with the accident.

“We don’t get those reports,” said Patterson in an interview last week. “We never did get a presentation by any state or regional agency, let alone Valero, about what had happened.”

“The public has a right to know,” she said.

Valero has consistently opposed a city safety ordinance, which would be modeled after those used in Richmond for the Chevron refinery and in the rest of Contra Costa County for the Shell, Phillips 66 and Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) facilities.

“We believe you will see there will be no need to pursue a duplicative and divisive Benicia Industrial Safety Ordinance,” Donald Cuffel, the refinery’s director of health, safety, environmental and regulator affairs, wrote in a letter to the City Council late last month.

Cuffel argued state and county agencies, as well as the local air district, already have similar regulations in place.

Last October, California officials approved rules similar to Contra Costa County’s ordinance for refineries statewide.

That prompted Solano County’s Department of Resource Management to spend close to 500 hours inspecting, reviewing and documenting the Valero refinery, according to Benicia city staff.

Currently, neither the Bay Area Air Quality Management District nor Benicia have air monitors in place to measure air quality after refinery accidents. Air district officials say they rely on monitors in nearby cities to gauge Benicia’s air quality.

Patterson’s proposal calls for Valero to pay for monitors to be placed throughout Benicia’s residential and industrial areas as well as on the refinery’s fence line. Data from those devices would be placed on a website.

Last week the regional air district approved a fence-line air monitoring plan by Valero, according to agency spokesman Tom Flannigan. The refinery has one year to install the devices.

The district is in the initial phases of looking for a location for a community air monitor, said Flannigan.

Iron Workers Local 378, which represents some of the refinery’s workers, is also opposed to the safety ordinance, calling it a “duplicative, outdated, go-it-alone strategy.”

“A local ISO won’t make sure our workers, trainees or this community any safer,” Jeff McEuen, the union’s business manager, financial secretary and treasurer, wrote in a letter to the City Council last week.

But a group brought together after last year’s refinery outage to develop safety reforms says the law is needed.

“This is a signature moment for Benicia, as it will signal whether the City Council puts the health and safety of Benicia, its citizens and community members over the Valero refinery’s ‘just trust us’ stance to its industrial safety record,” said Constance Beutel, a member of Benicia’s ISO Working Group.

At least one other member of the council sees the proposed ordinance as a way for the city to get information more quickly when the next refinery accident takes place.

“There is a problem with getting sufficient information out in a timely manner,” said Vice Mayor Steve Young. “There is a need for greater transparency.”

Young noted that the conflict over an industrial safety ordinance is the biggest between city leaders and Valero since the council rejected the company’s oil-by-rail proposal in 2016.

Councilmembers could either direct city staff to draft an ordinance that the council would vote on in the coming months, or the city could continue to rely on Solano County’s work in employing the new state regulations.

Meantime, the California Public Utilities Commission expects to complete its investigation of the refinery outage this summer, according to Garrett Toy, a CPUC lawyer.

Valero sued Pacific Gas and Electric after the incident, seeking $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue. The company blames PG&E for the episode and claims it “shut off all electricity” to the refinery the day of the outage.

PG&E hired a third party engineering firm, Exponent, to review the outage. The company submitted that report to the CPUC. Both PG&E and the commission have declined to release that report.

Valero’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial next year.

Please share!

ISO Working Group: The rest of the story on air monitoring in Benicia (Part 2)

Repost from the Benicia Herald

June 17, 2018

In Part 1 of this series, we explored the many health risks and costs of air pollution in Benicia, including premature deaths, hospitalizations and respiratory symptoms including asthma in adults and children.  Today we will take a look at air monitoring – and the lack of it – in Benicia.

The City of Benicia and its residents need more information about our air.  For too long, voices have called for significant air monitoring, with little to no effect.  Valero Refinery contributes heavily to the pollution in the air we breathe, yet it is dragging its feet in addressing the monitoring problem.

Currently, Valero has submitted a proposed plan for fence line air monitoring to the Bay Area Air Management District (BAAQMD, or the Air District). But Valero’s plan would not include monitoring large areas of Benicia, including Southampton residential neighborhoods, schools, and parts of the industrial park. These areas are directly west and southwest of the refinery. Valero’s plan also does not monitor the numerous hilltops and hills and valleys throughout Benicia.

Valero’s air monitoring proposal is woefully inadequate and has drawn numerous other criticisms in formal submissions to the Air District.  The proposal lacks transparency and community input and leaves too many issues unaddressed, awaiting decisions after Air District review. Valero’s plan must not be approved in its present form.

Valero’s fence line monitoring proposal does not adequately address “rare conditions.” In Benicia, these conditions include windless days or nights that occur during summer months, and prevailing wind patterns that often blow east-to-west in fall and winter, bringing pollution directly into Benicia’s air space.

A prime example of a recent “rare circumstance” demonstrates why a Monitoring Plan must address circumstances considered “unusual.” On May 5th, 2017 a sudden total loss of power from PG&E triggered an immediate, unexpected shutdown of the entire refinery, which caused instantaneous, unmitigated flaring and burn-off of fuels within all of Valero’s processing units.  Evacuations and shelter-in-place orders were given to persons living and working around the refinery boundaries, including school children at two Benicia elementary schools, Robert Semple Elementary and Matthew Turner.  Little was known about air quality in nearby businesses, schools and neighborhoods in real time on that day – or since.

Also, Valero’s plan only addresses in part the community’s right and desire to know what is in Benicia’s air on a real-time basis.  The Air District’s Rule 12-15 only calls for fence line perimeter monitoring with a minimum requirement to sample a few of the notable refinery gases.  Valero’s proposed plan allows for a minimum of 75% reliability rate for the monitoring system – it should be 90%, which is the reliability rate required of other Bay Area refineries.

Valero says fence line monitoring results will be available in near real-time to the public on a website hosted by a third party. But Valero’s Plan is vague about procedures for displaying data on the public website and states that all will be “refined” at a future date. What restrictions to the public will there be, and will there be community involvement? Answers should all be clear PRIOR to the Plan’s approval, not after – with decisions made by whom, and when?

Let’s remember where we are at this point in time discussing air monitoring in Benicia. Do we really need to be reminded of all the dedicated efforts over the past 18+ years of voluntary service by Good Neighbor Steering Committee (GNSC) members? Despite the clear requirement expressed in two separate agreements (in 2003 and in 2008), Valero has neither installed the purchased fence line monitoring equipment nor voluntarily and actively supported establishment of a permanent monitoring station in the community.  The assembled state-of-the-art array of monitors required by the agreements now remain “off limits” and mothballed on Valero property.

Valero’s proposed air monitoring “plan” is only a continuation of the successful corporate delay and deflection of the community’s right to know what is in our air – what we can see and can’t see.

We don’t know what is in the air, and Benicia has asthma rates much higher than the state average. Benicia needs air monitors NOW, and state/regional regulations will be slow in coming.

In Part 3, we will take a closer look at the good reasons for Benicia to adopt an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO).

Benicia ISO Working Group
The Benicia ISO Working Group is an ad hoc citizen’s group of about a dozen Benicia residents.  Since October 2017, the Working Group has been studying, writing, meeting with officials and advocating that Benicia join all other Bay Area refinery towns in passing a local community industrial safety ordinance.  More information: beniciaindependent.com/iso.

Please share!

Mayor Patterson’s request for Council action on ISO

Excerpt from Mayor Patterson’s E-Alert

Mayor’s request for Benicia Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO)

June 15, 2018
Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 - present
Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – present

I believe we need to have a seat at the table, the public’s right to know and air monitors to restore the public trust that we are putting health, safety and welfare at the top. I am asking the council to challenge the status quo by submitting a draft Industrial Safety Ordinance.  I am asking the council to direct staff to review the draft ordinance with outside third party knowledgeable about industrial safety ordinances and report back to the city within a reasonable time such as 3 months or sooner.

The Industrial Safety Ordinance provides Benicia the where-with-all through proposed fees to review refinery safety, air pollution and public safety reports, update Benicia Emergency Response Plan, improve public alerts system and provide for air monitoring.  This is a budget neutral proposal by setting up a fee structure to pay for the cost of the city having a seat at the table and expertise to review the reports.  The expertise can be outsourced and does not require additional staff.

This Industrial Safety Ordinance is challenging the status quo.  I believe the public has a right to know they can trust us to put them first in safety, air quality and public health.

Please share!

For safe and healthy communities…