Repost from KQED News [Editor: Southwest winds bring the Richmond refinery’s pollution right over Benicia. – R.S.]
Chevron’s Richmond Refinery Flaring Incidents at Highest Level in More Than a Decade
By Ted Goldberg, Mar 18, 2019
The number of flaring incidents in 2018 at Chevron’s Richmond refinery was at its highest level in 12 years, according to data the Bay Area Air Quality Management District released Monday at a board of directors committee meeting.
The refinery experienced nine flaring events last year, more than any other refinery in the Bay Area. That’s the highest number of such incidents since 2006, when the Chevron refinery experienced 21 flaring events.
The Tesoro refinery in Pacheco experienced five flaring incidents last year, Valero’s Benicia refinery conducted four, Shell in Martinez had three and Phillips 66 in Rodeo had two, according to the air district.
The jump, which started in the last eight months, is connected to the start up of a new hydrogen plant that recently began operating at the facility, according to John Gioia, who represents the area of the refinery on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and sits on the air district’s board of directors.
“All the sudden we saw this spike,” Gioia said in an interview. “There are some issues related to the new hydrogen plant and how it is integrated with the existing refinery.”
Gioia said it will probably take several months for Chevron to make fixes at the plant to reduce future flaring operations.
“For those of us who live in Richmond, we may continue to see some additional flaring while these issues are resolved,” he said.
Air regulators and oil industry officials emphasize that flares are used as safety devices to reduce pressure inside refineries by burning off gases during facility malfunctions as well as start up and shutdown operations.
Braden Reddall, a company spokesman, said late Monday that the refinery was flaring “due to startup activities at a processing unit.”
“The flaring does not pose any environmental or health risk to the community,” Reddall said in an email.
“We want to assure our neighbors that flares are highly regulated safety devices, designed to relieve pressure during the refining processes and help keep our equipment and plants operating safety,” he said, adding that the refinery continues to supply its customers.
But Reddall did not answer questions about the connection between the hydrogen plant and the refinery’s recent uptick in flaring incidents as well as what kind of fixes the company is putting in place.
Gioia said the refinery began using the hydrogen unit last fall.
In the first three months of 2019, there have been five malfunctions at Chevron, the most recent one on Sunday afternoon, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.
That incident sent black smoke into the air and lasted two-and-a-half hours, Sawyer said.
It came 11 days after the refinery suffered an outage that caused several processing units at the facility to shut down, prompting the facility to send gas through its flares.
The refinery also suffered outages on Feb. 2 and Jan. 17 and conducted a separate flaring operation on Feb. 24.
The air district is investigating most of those incidents, according to agency spokeswoman Kristine Roselius.
“We don’t think this is an acceptable situation,” said Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer of the air district, during Monday’s meeting before the district’s Stationary Source Committee.
Gioia said a significant portion of the gas coming from the refinery’s flares during the recent incidents has been pure hydrogen, which does not present the same health risk as other gases like sulfur dioxide and benzene, which tend to get released during other flaring operations.
To Deer Park residents, fire a reminder of ‘like living on a fault line’
Samantha Ketterer and Emily Foxhall March 18, 2019 Updated: March 18, 2019 4:37 p.m.
Jodie Thompson pulled over on Independence Parkway, less than a mile away from a petrochemical plant that was leaking plumes of black smoke into the sky.
In her 34 years living in Deer Park, she’d seen flares before. But this was different.
“I trust that they actually know what they’re doing, but inside, I have this doubt,” Thompson said Monday afternoon, watching the flames from inside the safety of her car.
The fire had raged at Intercontinental Terminals Company for more than 26 hours by the early afternoon and spread to eight holding tanks. Even after a shelter-in-place was lifted Monday morning, the fire was still expected to burn for two more days.
The ordeal, in some ways, was part of life in Deer Park, an east Harris County city of more than 33,000 people. Residents said they were familiar with the risks that come with living by the refineries and chemical plants. At a certain point, you have to stop worrying, they said.
“You can’t fret about it,” said Thompson, who is 60. “What are you going to do? You choose to live here.”
Holly Ball, 47, is a newer resident to Deer Park, having lived in the city for just a year. She’s noticed the puffing smoke stacks at the refineries, of course, but wasn’t aware of a threat like this, she said.
Like Thompson and many other residents on Monday, Ball parked her car to take photos of the smoke spreading miles west into Houston. She planned to send them to her friends in Louisiana.
“It’s scary,” she said. Her dog barked in the seat next to her. “It’s scary.”
On Facebook, people responded to official updates with more questions. They wanted to know more about what exactly was happening and what the risks were to their health.
Would the city of Deer Park be evacuated? Was it possible the plant would explode? The shelter-in-place had been in Deer Park, but what about people in the close-by city of Pasadena? And in La Porte?
Some people wrote of alarm sirens that should have gone off but haven’t worked for some time. Even with the shelter-in-place lifted, looking up at the sky, it was hard for many to believe air quality was fine. Some wrote of symptoms they were experiencing.
One person said she had trouble breathing overnight. Two others wrote of burning sensations in their eyes. Another person decided to leave the area because their child was having trouble breathing. Some said they were simply nervous to sleep.
Bernice Oehrlein, 78, pushed a cart in the morning through the Food Town grocery store in Deer Park, about 5 miles southwest of the plant. She recently had a bad bout with pneumonia, so the fire is concerning for health reasons, she said.
“I have a hard time breathing anyways,” Oehrlein said.
At a Starbucks just down the road, Cindy Richards and her daughter drank coffee instead of going on their normal Monday walk.
Richards, a 67-year-old who lives in Pasadena, recalled the drive to Deer Park, before she realized a fire had clouded up the sky.
“I was like, ‘It’s a little overcast,'” she said. But then, “I come a little closer – ‘That’s smoke.'”
Richards doesn’t pay too much attention to the factories anymore, although she said they used to be more top-of-mind when she lived off of Sims Bayou, closer to some of the refineries.
Her daughter, 35-year-old Robyn French, lives close to the plant in Deer Park with her husband and two children. Flares, smoke and a gassy smell have become a normal occurrence, and she knows what to do in the case of an explosion.
But French knew better than to ignore the smoke on Monday, even though she said she felt fairly safe.
She made sure Sunday and Monday that her son wasn’t outside on his bike, breathing in anything possibly dangerous. And the unknown is still concerning.
“Am I still able to eat the Swiss chard and kale I’m growing in my garden?” she asked. “That’s a valid question to me. Will my oranges be full of chemicals when they’re full grown?”
Heather Trevino, 42, grew up in Deer Park and lives there now with her 9-year-old daughter. She said she had taken shelter before, but didn’t recall an incident as long and intense as this one.
Trevino saw the smoke rising above her neighbor’s roof Sunday. Her eyes and throat itched. When she got the alert to shelter-in-place, she knew to bring in her two dogs and shut off the A/C.
Trevino faintly heard the sound of the alarms that she said are tested every Saturday at noon. She put on some movies for her daughter, who also learned in school what to do when a shelter-in-place was ordered.
“We kind of get it ingrained in us,” Trevino said. “Living here, it’s just kind of part of what you accept, that there’s something that could possibly happen.”
Thompson likened it to an earthquake-prone area.
“It’s probably like living on a fault line,” she said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but the possibility is always there. In the back of your mind, you push it back. It’s out of your control.”
Anthony, a 36-year-old who works at a nearby plant, said he had to take the day off because of his workplace’s proximity to ITC. He declined to give his last name because of his employer.
While Anthony said he didn’t believe the air quality in the area is particularly bad because of the incident, he’s still concerned of the possibility of an explosion.
“It’s not anything that can really be taken lightly,” he said. “There is a flash point.”