Category Archives: Air pollution

ISO Working Group – reflections on Council’s NO vote… and WHERE from here?

Benicia City Council: 3 to 2 against Industrial Safety Ordinance

By Benicia’s ISO Working Group, submitted by Ralph Dennis
[See also Video: Benicia Council votes NO.]

Another 3-2 vote. Very disappointing, again. The Council majority voted again, 3-2, not to consider an industrial safety ordinance for Benicia. Now, we wait for a yet-to-be determined date in November or December for Council to reconvene and review the progress Valero has made toward its commitments.

It appears the Council majority on these votes thinks another one or two monitors will address Benicia’s “monitoring issue” and that the “communication issue” is already taken care of. What monitoring is out there, or soon to be, is in no way comprehensive or sufficient for our community. Better communication? Thank you, Valero, for sharing all that information at the July 17 Council meeting – after 14 months of Council’s two-step process, and more than 10 years of community requests for Valero to address air monitoring.

Disappointing Council vote, yes. But, now we at least know how many monitors Valero has, and where they are located. And, three are community monitors, not just for fence line. Valero even says it has mobile monitors available. Probably more information than any of us had 14 months ago, certainly 10 years ago.

But this is of little value unless Council takes the next step, uses the data from these monitors (and other monitors perhaps to come), as well as all the other information Valero committed to share on a real-time, easy to access and use, public web site with the City as a “partner”, to address community health and safety concerns. With or without an ISO, Council has already started this process, and Council cannot go back. Council now knows the resources are out there.  We’ll see what Council does with them.  Passage of a Benicia ISO is the most effective tool for ensuring the community’s health and safety.

So, what now?  Over the next 6 months, let’s keep in mind what’s been left on the table or yet to be considered by virtue of Council’s 3-2 vote. What are the deficiencies an industrial safety ordinance would correct?

  1. Progress report. The minutes from June 19th Council state that there will be a progress report in November and then in December there will be (or should be) a meeting with choices of moving forward with an ISO or not depending on the progress report. What are the performance measures for that report? What choices will be presented to Council?  More questions than answers, which is why Terry Mollica said, “we are kicking the can down the road” if we don’t have the rehearing to set the parameters and future steps and outcomes.
  2.  Funding:  For the City to meaningfully “communicate”, i.e., have knowledge, skills set, and be copied and comment on reports, the City will need to increase staff which requires funding. An ISO would provide the funding through fees assessed on businesses subject to the ISO. How will staff follow up without funding?
  3. Promises:  The record is clear that Valero does not fulfill its promises and conditions of approval for permits.  Watch and see….
  4. Confusion and misdirection:  Valero distracts the staff, Council and public with their pat on their own back for their community contributions and their expressions of concern for public health protection.  The City and community recognizes these actions on the part of Valero and its contribution to the City’s tax base. It is nice to have non-governmental groups receive Valero money, but the issue we are talking about is air quality.
  5. Monitors:  There is great confusion about monitors – what they monitor, how they monitor, and when they do it. Council members in the 3-2 majority did not receive the benefit of Eric Stevenson’s recent meeting in Benicia discussing air monitors, nor do these Council members seem familiar with or understand the work of Air Watch Bay Area which is a data resource much more nuanced than understood.  Will the City and public be kept in the loop as Valero acquires and installs air monitoring equipment?  Will the City and public be asked for input?
  6. Regulations:  It is true that we have good state regulations, but the recent KQED story where the California Public Utilities Commission found PG&E at fault because it did not follow those regulations, makes the point of why Benicia needs an ISO.  When will state regulations be implemented?  Will public utilities and private enterprises like Valero follow the regulations?  Who will report to us, how and when?  We should have reports of the required training, the fulfillment of the training, and periodic protocol reviews to be assured that new regulations are adequate, and that they are being followed.
  7. Missing in Benicia. Finally, as an important point of reference and comparison, the Mayor of Martinez says his city has a great relationship with Shell, who invites city people to training exercises, shares reports, and offers meetings and a myriad of other “communicating” actions.  Without Contra Costa County’s ISO, his city would not be included in these ways.  Absence of news is rarely news.  That is, we won’t be seeing newspaper headlines like “Benicia did not get a quarterly report yesterday.”  Or, “On Saturday, Valero did not train City Staff on emergency response.”  Stay alert for what we DON’T hear over these next months.

So, the fight continues for a Benicia ISO. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open for the next piece of information that supports the need for an industrial safety ordinance in Benicia.

    Video: Benicia Council votes NO – ISO does not move forward

    With thanks, from YouTube by Constance Beutel

    Below are four videos documenting the Benicia City Council’s July 17 vote to REJECT Mayor Patterson’s request for reconsideration of Council’s June 19 vote on Industrial Safety Ordinance.

    • Rationale for rehearing (40 minutes)

    • Valero Opposition (39.5 minutes)

    • Support for rehearing (32 minutes)

    • Council debate and vote to deny (34.5 minutes)

      California Public Utilities Commission: PG&E at fault for Valero shutdown & toxic release

      Repost from KQED California Report

      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.

      Read the CPUC report here and below.