Tag Archives: Air quality violations

Listen: Why were toxic releases kept secret at a Bay Area refinery?

Valero in Benicia released chemicals at levels way above the legal limit for years — and regulators knew

San Francisco Chronicle Fifth & Mission Podcast, March 25, 2022 – 12-minute interview with SFChron reporter Julie Johnson.

Residents of communities like Richmond, Martinez and Benicia are angry after finding out that a hydrogen stack at the Valero refinery in Benicia was releasing chemicals at levels hundreds of times higher than the legal limit for years.

Government regulators knew — but had kept it a secret since 2019.

Many residents of communities like Richmond, Martinez and Benicia have long distrusted the region’s oil refineries. They may appreciate the jobs, and they may use the gas, but they feel like basic steps haven’t been taken to filter and monitor chemicals that pollute their air.

On this episode of the Fifth & Mission podcast, Chronicle reporter Julie Johnson joins host Demian Bulwa to break down the story and talk about whether these revelations validate those fears.

Photo above: The Valero refinery in Benicia in 2019.

Bay Area air regulators didn’t tell public about illegal emissions for three years. Can residents trust what comes next?

The Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Benicia emitted excessive levels of hydrocarbons for at least 16 years, a breach not discovered by air regulators until 2019 and not shared with the public until January 2022. | Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle, by Julie Johnson, March 25, 2022

Andrés Soto was upset to learn in January that one of the Valero refinery’s vents had been releasing unlawful amounts of toxic gasses for more than 16 years. | Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle

Benicia resident Andrés Soto can’t see Valero Energy Corp.’s oil refinery from his home in the old part of town near the waterfront. But the company’s fingerprints are all over the city, from its name on Little League baseball outfield signs to its logo on charitable donor lists.

A longtime environmental justice organizer, Soto recalls disasters including the 2012 Chevron refinery fires in Richmond that sent 15,000 people to local hospitals with respiratory problems and a 2017 power failure at Valero that caused 14 days of flaring that released 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

He’s always been suspicious of the steam he sees billowing from the petroleum manufacturer’s stacks. A tightly regulated soup of chemicals is in that vapor, released into the air from the factory below to keep the right balance of volatile substances Valero uses to manufacture gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Strict rules are meant to keep pollution levels low.

So when Soto first learned this year that one of Valero’s vents had been releasing unlawful amounts of toxic gases for 16 years without detection — including cancer-causing benzene — his first reaction was: “Wow, these guys got caught.”

Then he got mad.

“My grandkids’ baseball team uniform has a Valero patch on the left arm, yet they’re polluting the air that these kids breathe,” Soto said. “It’s that type of hypocrisy.”

Emissions ‘surprise’

From 2003 to 2019, one of Valero’s hydrogen stacks released an estimated average of 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons each day — more than 266 times the 15-pound limit, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The revelation stirred outrage, not only for Valero but toward the district for failing to detect the problem. Even more, some city leaders and residents are irked by the district’s failure to alert the public when it discovered the extent of the violations in 2019. Instead, the district waited three years.

Valero has described the excessive emissions as “a surprise” in a statement to the air district. A company spokesperson declined to answer questions from The Chronicle and referred a reporter to recordings of public meetings.

The district initially defended its silence, saying it was necessary to protect the investigation and its ability to work with Valero to address a complex problem. Today, agency officials admit it was a mistake and find themselves facing the same credibility challenges as the company they’re tasked with overseeing.

“There’s a fair amount of egg in the face of the air district,” said Vice Mayor Tom Campbell. “That’s their job: to protect us citizens from what’s in the air. And they just totally blew it.”

Mayor Steve Young said the explanation that air district officials gave the city for the agency’s silence is that public disclosure could have made it more difficult for regulators to get the company to quickly agree to fixes.

“I don’t understand the logic there,” said Young, who is leading an effort to revise city campaign laws because of Valero’s outsize spending on local elections. “They failed in their obligation to keep everybody informed.”

The district said the potential impact to people may have been minimal because of favorable weather conditions. Benzene is a carcinogen, and long-term exposure carries risks. The district calculated the risk from Valero’s excess emissions over those 16 years as 3 chances in 1 million for developing cancer.

But the risks may add up. The region around Benicia is home to four of the state’s 14 working oil refineries. They belong to Chevron Corp. in Richmond, PBF Energy Inc. in Martinez, Phillips 66 Co. in Rodeo and Valero, a $38 billion company based in San Antonio. Those facilities can produce more than 660,000 barrels of crude oil each day, which is nearly 40% of all crude oil refined in the state, according to the California Energy Commission.

Damian Breen, the air district’s senior deputy executive officer of operations, said his agency notified Solano County health officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when it learned of the emissions and was focused on verifying the data and negotiating a response with Valero. He said not alerting the public was a mistake and that going forward the district will immediately bring these types of violations before a public hearing board.

“We should have done better, and we should have done better sooner,” Breen said.

‘How did this happen?’

Some remain skeptical about the explanations officials have provided for how such emissions could go undetected for so long in a state with some of the toughest pollution controls in the country.

“I don’t know how a regulator can see a stack with steam historically over 16 years and not want to know what it’s doing,” said artist Marilyn Bardet, a painter who became an environmental activist after moving to Benicia more than three decades ago. “Valero has been sampling it for impurities, then why didn’t it wonder what the heck might those impurities be?”

Air district staff visit these facilities every day for emissions tests and other analyses. In Benicia, a local residents advisory group and city leaders meet regularly with company officials. The EPA tracks emissions data reported by refineries. The Benicia Fire Department also has air monitoring devices.

Washington, D.C., nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project tracks benzene emissions reports using EPA data taken from pollution monitors affixed to refinery fences. Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said data is imperfect because most stacks soar high above fences.

“If they found out the company knew and was knowingly falsely reporting their emissions, depending on the circumstances, that’s criminal liability,” Schaeffer said.

Valero, which operates 15 petroleum facilities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, has said it discovered the emissions issue at its Benicia refinery after receiving an inquiry from the air district about hydrogen vents.

The district made the inquiry in 2018 after another local refinery, Phillips 66, came forward to report excess impurities in steam emitted from a hydrogen vent, officials said. The district then sent an enforcement letter to the Bay Area’s three other oil refineries requesting information about hydrogen releases.

Valero provided data to the district in 2019 that revealed samples taken since 2003 contained large amounts of toxic substances potentially harmful to people, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The company said it was unaware that type of vent must be monitored under pollution laws, according to its filings with the district. Just one plant can have hundreds of emissions points, including storage tanks and other equipment, that require regular reporting to environmental regulators.

Valero said it embarked on a series of projects to limit releases in 2019. By May 2020, the facility had slashed those emissions by 71%, and today it reports the amount of pollutants have plummeted 98% from the peak.

The amount still exceeds lawful limits, and the air district ratified an agreement this month with Valero to require further reductions over time, a process company officials say could take years to implement because it will require temporarily shutting down the entire facility, which the company does about every five years for maintenance.

Megan Berge, a lawyer for the company, urged members of the district’s hearing board to approve the plan during a virtual March 15 meeting, saying the proposal “achieves compliance, protects the community, holds Valero accountable.” The board approved it.

Both Bardet and Soto spoke up at that meeting to demand the district do more to track air pollution in Benicia. Soto urged the district to impose large fines against Valero “to show them that you can’t get away with excessive pollution of an exponentially dangerous level.”

Just this month, Soto retired after nearly a decade working as an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment in Richmond. The jazz saxophonist is now focusing more on his music, teaching and playing gigs. He compares playing jazz to community organizing. Both require method, strategy and focus.

“People don’t really think it’s a problem until they have a health issue, their kid has asthma or they get cancer or the myriad other diseases,” Soto said. “Then they get focused on dealing with that rather than asking: How did this happen? Where did this start? And who is responsible?”

Breen said the district is not finished investigating Valero’s failures and is still considering what kinds of fines to levy against the company. It has referred the case to the EPA’s enforcement division. The district is planning to install more pollution monitors in Benicia this year.

Valero “had the data, they had the information, they simply didn’t come forward and report it,” Breen said. “And more importantly, they didn’t take care of that emission source.”


Julie Johnson (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @juliejohnson

Video of March 15 Hearing Board meeting vs. Valero Benicia Refinery

BAY AREA AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT DISTRICT
HEARING BOARD, MARCH 15, 2022

DOCKET NO. 3731:
APCO vs. VALERO REFINING COMPANY – CALIFORNIA
Accusation of Violation of Regulation 8, Rule 2; and (Proposed) Stipulated Conditional Order for Abatement (BENICIA)

Summary of Hearing:

Vallejo Sun report, by Scott Morris: Valero Benicia Refinery ordered to stop 20 years of illegal toxic emissions, public gets detailed summary of emissions 2003-2021

Background documents from BAAQMD website:
3/15/2022 Hearing Board Calendar
Accusation – filed 01/24/22
Statement by Complainant – filed 02/17/22
Statement by Respondent – filed 03/10/22

Valero Benicia Refinery ordered to stop 20 years of illegal toxic emissions, public gets detailed summary of emissions 2003-2021

Air District board approves abatement order for longstanding toxic releases at Valero Benicia refinery

The Valero Benicia refinery. Photo: Downtowngal/Wikimedia Commons.

Vallejo Sun, By Scott Morris, Mar 15, 2022

BENICIA – A hearing board for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District approved an abatement order for the Valero Benicia Refinery on Tuesday to correct an issue where a hydrogen vent has been allowed to spew thousands of tons of pollution into the air for decades.

The approval of the abatement order was expected as both the air district and Valero recommended its approval. But the ordeal has exposed some of the limits of the air district’s ability to detect and address harmful emissions from the refinery and raised questions about whether it withheld vital information from the Benicia community regarding Valero’s operations.

The excess emissions from a hydrogen vent were first detected by Valero in 2003 when it started measuring output from the vent, but the air district believes it likely had been going on even earlier and has no measurements from that time.

Since 2003, the air district estimates that the vent was releasing about 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons per day, far more than state regulations allow. Overall, Valero released more than 10,000 tons of excess hydrocarbons over 16 years, including 138 tons of toxic air contaminants benzene, ethylbenzene, tolyrene and zolerine.

Following the discovery, Valero made a change to its process where it recycled the hydrogen, which resulted in a 70% reduction in emissions in 2020 and a 98% reduction in 2021 from 2019 levels, nearly bringing the refinery into compliance, according to new data released by the air district on Tuesday.

However, air district counsel Joel Freid said that the 2021 data had only been submitted last week and had not yet been vetted by the air district.

Summary of Valero hydrogen venting carbon emissions 2003-2021

Year Total carbon emissions (lbs.) Emissions limit (lbs.)
2003 2,183,855 5,475
2004 1,146,268 5,475
2005 245,225 5,475
2006 197,280 5,475
2007 288,269 5,475
2008 1,198,433 5,475
2009 224,440 5,475
2010 1,459,327 5,475
2011 287,821 5,475
2012 663,168 5,475
2013 788,064 5,475
2014 679,170 5,475
2015 1,159,426 5,475
2016 2,044,739 5,475
2017 3,023,303 5,475
2018 523,640 5,475
2019 566,485 5,475
2020 169,941 5,475
2021 8,732 5,475
Total 2003-2021 16,857,586 104,025

Air district officials have said that the refinery should have reported the emissions, which were not detected by any existing monitoring or inspection mechanisms, but Valero officials said during Tuesday’s hearing that the company was not aware the vent was subject to regulation and only used the data it collected for its internal operations.

When the air district discovered the excess emissions in 2019, it didn’t report its findings publicly either, working with Valero to fix the problem for nearly two years before disclosing it to city leaders and the community. That has led to criticism of a lack of transparency by the air district.

Tuesday’s hearing involved witnesses describing the air district’s findings and Valero’s response to the hearing board, a quasi-judicial body that adjudicates compliance issues and hears appeals. Since both sides had agreed with the abatement order prior to the hearing, there was little argument.

The air district issued the proposed abatement order in January and a statement describing its investigation in February. Valero submitted a written response to the air district hearing board last week.

Nearly 20 years of excess emissions detected

The refinery is one of five oil refineries in the Bay Area and processes 170,000 barrels – approximately 7 million gallons – of crude oil per day. Valero purchased the refinery from ExxonMobile in 2000 and has operated it since.

The air district found a hydrogen vent releasing excess emissions at another Bay Area refinery in July 2017 and the following year launched an investigation into whether any of the other four Bay Area refineries had similar vents. It discovered the excess emissions by Valero in 2019.

The equipment that led to the emissions is a vent for excess hydrogen. Hydrogen is used by the refinery in various parts of its production process and while the refinery approximately produces what it needs, it creates some excess that is released into the atmosphere. This isn’t an issue with pure hydrogen, but air district officials would later discover that the hydrogen released by Valero was hardly pure.

Gasses vented by a refinery are not allowed to exceed 15 pounds per day and 300 parts per million of carbon, according to Linda Duca, a supervising air quality specialist at the air district. The emissions from Valero were about 10,000 parts per million.

According to the air district, after an exhaustive search of the air district’s permitting records, it discovered there was no acknowledgement of the vent’s existence.

“We have one inspector assigned to Valero, that inspector is responsible for inspecting 239 sources,” Duca said during Tuesday’s hearing. “The stack does have steam coming out of it but it doesn’t have smoke or any unusual color coming out of it that would draw the inspector’s attention. It really did take this across the board hydrogen venting audit to discover this.”

As for why Valero didn’t report it, Valero Benicia director of health, safety, environmental and regulatory affairs Kimberly Ronan said Tuesday that Valero didn’t realize that state regulations applied. The regulations had been last amended in the early 1980s and the stack predated Valero’s acquisition of the refinery, so only a change in regulation or a change in Valero’s process would trigger a review of the regulatory applicability, she said.

“It’s fair to say we obviously knew that there were some impurities in the hydrogen stream,” Ronan said.

After discovering the violations, Valero instituted a partial fix in 2019 that resulted in a reduction in emissions but still more than state law allows. Valero has designed an engineering fix that it says will be implemented during the facility’s next “turnaround,” a periodic full plant shutdown for maintenance.

Exactly when that will be, however, is unclear as the turnaround schedule is proprietary information the company keeps secret as it can affect fuel supply and gas prices.

Valero had a two-month turnaround late last year, refinery manager Josh Tulino said during a December meeting of the Benicia Refinery Community Advisory Panel. During that event, a contractor working on a piece of equipment had an accident and died.

Air district faces accusations of lack of transparency

Since announcing the proposed abatement order, the air district has taken steps to conduct community outreach, including holding a virtual town hall meeting last month, where many members of the community were concerned both with how long it had taken the air district to detect the emissions and how long it had taken to inform the community.

During that meeting, Solano County public health officer Bela Matyas discussed the potential health effects of the emissions. While he said it was difficult to quantify, he said people with respiratory conditions could have that exacerbated. And while some of the chemicals released could be carcinogenic, the probability of a cancer case occurring was less than one case over 20 years of exposure.

“But that’s not the same thing as no risk,” Matyas said. “However low that risk number may seem, I don’t think it’s right to say it was a non-risk scenario.”

A week later, air district officials appeared at Benicia City Council meeting and faced many of the same concerns from the city council.

Air district Senior Deputy Executive Officer of Operations Damian Breen said at the March 1 meeting that the air district did a health risk analysis of the emissions in 2019, and determined that the facility would be required to install controls based on the toxic emissions that it was detecting.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young said he was concerned about that response as not even city officials were informed of the emissions before January of this year.

“You still did not release that information to the city or the county or the community,” Young said. “If you’re identifying toxic releases and then not telling people about it, that’s problematic for the community.”

Breen said that the air district did inform a county inspector of the emissions in June 2019 and followed up with emails in 2020.

“We take our duty to protecting this community very seriously,” Breen said. “We should have done better in this regard and we understand that and that’s why you see us changing our processes here.”

Breen said that had the air district been operating in 2019 as it is today, the case would have come before the hearing board sooner. “We’ve used our hearing board process very few times over the last 20 years, and we think it’s time that that changed,” he said.

Regarding Valero collecting data on the vent for its operations but never reporting it to the air district, Breen said, “they knew or should have known that those emissions should have been reported.”

The air district is still evaluating what monetary penalties will be imposed on Valero for the violations, but Breen said air district staff will recommend to the agency’s Board of Directors that as much of penalty as possible will go to the Benicia community, but did not say how.

The air district has also said it reported the violations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has not ruled out criminal prosecution, though in last month’s meeting officials said they have not yet communicated with the state Attorney General’s Office nor the Solano County District Attorney’s Office.