Category Archives: Air Quality

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.

    Marilyn Bardet on AB617, California’s Community Air Protection Program

    February 19, 2018

    Benicia air monitoring advocate Marilyn Bardet spoke powerfully at a recent workshop held by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the California Air Resources Board.  Her comments nicely summarize the longstanding neglect of air monitoring in Benicia and the need for state and regional agencies to include Benicia in upcoming community outreach regarding AB617, the Community Air Protection Program.

    Here is the 2-minute video clip of Marilyn and the encouraging  1-minute response from the BAAQMD’s Greg Nudd.  Below is more info and the video of the full workshop.

    Highly recommended: highly informative video of the entire 2:39 minute workshop:

    Full length video of the January 31, 2018 workshop, 2 hours 39 minutes.  (Note that audio doesn’t start until minute 13:20, and the meeting begins at 15:55.  You can move the slider forward to skip the first part.)

    MORE about AB617, the Community Air Protection Program:

      CA State Senator seeks higher fines for illegal refinery emissions

      Press Release from CA Senate District 3, Rep. Bill Dodd

      Sen. Dodd seeks higher fines for illegal refinery emissions

      Friday, February 16, 2018

      SACRAMENTO – Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa) introduced a new bill to help deter harmful emissions from oil refineries. The bill would increase fines for serious violations of emissions standards that sicken people or force shelter-in-place orders.

      “There are already fines on the books for illegal refinery emissions, but the most common fine hasn’t been increased since Richard Nixon was in the White House,” said Senator Dodd. “When people are sickened by refinery emissions or forced to shelter-in-place, there should be stiffer penalties. My bill reinforces that oil companies should take proactive steps to avoid violations in the first place.”

      Dodd’s bill, SB 1144, would triple existing fines for violations of emissions standards if the violations cause a health problem or impact over 25 people. Existing law doesn’t allow increased penalties for violations that injure nearby residents or for refineries with multiple violations. Currently, the maximum amount for the most common level of fines is $10,000 and hasn’t been adjusted since 1974.

      Dodd’s bill would set the new fine at $30,000, and if refineries are found negligent, the amount would go up to $75,000 per day. In instances where a refinery fails to correct a known violation or intentionally violates standards, the violations would be even greater. For serial offenders with multiple serious violations within 36 months, the fines could be as much as $500,000 per day.

      “Representing communities that house several refineries, I want to encourage the industry to be proactive in meeting their duty to neighboring residents,” said Senator Dodd. “This measure isn’t a silver bullet for addressing safety, but it certainly provides greater incentive to act responsibly.”

      Senator Dodd’s district includes the majority of the Bay Area’s refineries. In September 2016, numerous Vallejo residents were sickened by a refinery incident that triggered over 1,500 complaints. The state’s Office of Emergency Services reported that area hospitals and medical facilities treated 120 patients for headaches, nausea, dizziness, and burning of the eyes, nose and throat. The Bay Area Air Quality Management issued a notice of violation to the refinery in Rodeo for that incident.

      The funds from the fines in Dodd’s bill would be available to support more robust monitoring and enforcement. The bill is expected to come up for a committee vote next month.

      ###
      Related imageSenator Bill Dodd represents California’s 3rd Senate District, which includes all or portions of Solano, Napa, Sonoma, Yolo, Sacramento, and Contra Costa Counties. You can learn more about Senator Dodd at www.sen.ca.gov/dodd.