Yesterday, Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson circulated an E-Alert titled “Asthma Rates in Solano County.” She supported claims being made that Benicia asthma rates are high, showing a detailed chart published by the California Department of Public Health.
The Mayor was challenged, evidently, on the accuracy of claims that Benicia asthma rates are at 30%. Patterson wrote, “Questions are being raised about the asthma rates in Solano. A quick search to confirm the stated 30% corrects that information below. However, in other studies the rate was listed higher. Here is the link.”
Today, Mayor Patterson sent another email clarifying her original source for the 30% figure: a Solano County report, “Asthma Rate by Zip Code.” That March 2016 report showed “Prevalence of ASTHMA among Solano County adult residents is 2.2X the prevalence among all Californians. Solano County: 30.1%, California: 14.2%. Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional data analysis by CARES. 2011-2012.”
Patterson wrote, “You will see where I got my original 30% rate. Now  the county shows approximately 24% for Benicia and so we are talking about a 6% difference. The data from the County is based on data from medical facilities. We have done presentations at the City Council and posted the information with various caveats. County Health is doing a good job and the information is getting updated. But at the end of the day, we have unhealthy air that contributes to asthma, cardio-vascular problems and diabetes.“
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.
Most of the time, you cannot see dirty air – for example you can’t see particulates. We know that particulates increase the age-specific mortality risk, particularly from cardiovascular causes. In fact, epidemiological studies suggest public health officials are underestimating the effect of acute pollution exposure on mortality and health outcomes. Other health Issues include those created by oxides of nitrogen, which affect respiratory conditions causing inflammation of the airways – this is often seen as asthma in children and adults.
Every once in a while, we can actually see dirty air such as the May 5, 2017 near catastrophic power loss at Valero and several days and weeks of black smoke. Each type of air pollution has major public health effects.
According to a California State University study in 2008 and subsequent studies by researchers on the cost of air pollution, dirty air in 2008 dollars cost California $28 billion. Some have noted that It may be tempting to think California can’t afford to clean up, but, in fact, dirty air is like a $28 billion lead balloon on our economy. Imagine what could be done if that $28 billion was being spent productively.
The Cal State study applies to Benicia in many ways because it studied two regions with very similar traffic, heavy-duty diesel truck and marine exhaust combined with refineries like those along the Strait including Valero that dominate our region, adding tons of pollutants to the air we breathe every day.
The cost of air pollution in dollars is directly related to premature death, hospitalizations and respiratory symptoms, limiting a person’s normal daily activity and increasing school absences and loss of workday. The $28 billion cost in 2008 reflects the impact these health problems have on the economy. Inflation and little progress on reducing air pollution suggests the costs are much higher now.
Making sense of air monitoring goes hand in hand with public health data. We don’t have this information. Each year, the life- and health-threatening levels of pollution cause the following adverse health effects for the two air basins studied by CSU:
* Premature deaths among those age 30 and older: 3,812
* Premature deaths in infants: 13
* New cases of adult onset chronic bronchitis: 1,950
* Days of reduced activity in adults: 3,517,720
* Hospital admissions: 2,760
* Asthma attacks: 141,370
* Days of school absence: 1,259,840
* Cases of acute bronchitis in children: 16,110
* Lost days of work: 466,880
* Days of respiratory symptoms in children: 2,078,300
* Emergency room visits: 2,800
The same report showed statistics on hospital admissions due to asthma: Benicia 81.08 per 10,000 compared to California at 70.55. Rates for emergency room visits for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and mortality from chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD) were similarly higher in Benicia than statewide. Air pollution and asthma are contributing factors to these lung diseases. We need to know what exactly is in our air. Air monitoring for Benicia makes sense.
In Parts 2 and 3, we will take a look at air monitoring in Benicia and the good reasons for Benicia to adopt an Industrial Safety Ordinance.
OPINION | Jessie Mehrhoff, November 12, 2015 11:21 a.m. EST
It’s the fundamental connection between environmental degradation and human health that has me concerned about the prospect of Congress lifting the U.S. oil export ban, which will worsen climate change and threaten our communities with toxic spills.
The list of risks climate change poses to human health is long. Increased temperatures will spread tropical diseases to new latitudes. Heat waves will cause more deaths across the world. Warmer temperatures will lead to more health-threatening smog and decrease crop yields. Detailing these impacts and more in 2009, “The Lancet,” one of the world’s most respected medical journals, labeled climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
These aren’t just future consequences, to be experienced on the other side of the globe. In New Jersey, we still face the impacts of superstorm Sandy three years later. Climate scientists at Rutgers University predict even more extreme weather if climate change goes unchecked.
In addition to these consequences, the American Lung Association’s 2015 State of the Air report card has given Monmouth County an “F” for the number of high-ozone level days, and finds more than 56,000 people in the county suffer from asthma. Climate change is only going to make numbers such as this climb as our air quality worsens.
To avoid global warming’s most devastating health impacts, we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to pollution-free, renewable energy. Lifting our decades-old ban on the export of U.S.-produced oil represents the opposite course.
If the oil companies have a larger distribution market for oil produced in the U.S., they will drill more — upward of another 3.3 million barrels per day for the next 20 years, by some General Accounting Office estimates. Even if only a fraction of all this extra oil is burned, global warming pollution could still increase 22 million metric tons per year — the equivalent of five average-sized coal power plants.
In addition to worsening climate change, there’s the public health threat of transporting additional oil across the country. While most crude oil is shipped around the U.S. by pipeline, shipments by rail have been increasing. To keep up with increased demand, oil trains have grown larger and tow more tanker cars than ever before.
Currently, trains carrying highly flammable crude oil travel through 11 of the 21 counties in New Jersey —Mercer, Middlesex, Gloucester, Somerset, Hunterdon, Bergen, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Union and Warren — en route to refineries. These oil trains are an accident waiting to happen, and have spurred trainings across the state where firefighters, police and other emergency responders have prepared courses of action in an oil derailment emergency.
The fear of oil train accidents — where toxic crude oil is spilled into our communities — is not hyperbole. Accidents have been on the rise, with more oil accidentally dumped into our environment in 2013 alone than during the previous three decades combined.
In 2015, we’ve already seen three major oil train accidents. In Mount Carbon, West Virginia, a rail oil spill led to evacuations and a governor-declared state of emergency. In Galena, Illinois, a spill threatened to pollute the Mississippi River. A spill in Heimdal, North Dakota, forced the evacuation of a town.
If we are to prevent these accidents from taking place in the 11 New Jersey counties through which these trains travel, we must work to reduce the amount of oil these trains carry. Transporting the increased oil we would produce domestically if the oil export ban were lifted could require enough trains to span the country from Los Angeles to Boston seven times over.
Increasing our nation’s crude oil drilling and transportation by lifting our decades’ old ban on exports leads to more risk, not less. And the inconvenient truth of lifting the oil export ban means more drilling, more global warming pollution, and more threats to public health.
There is a way around lifting the oil export ban in the first place. President Obama is against lifting the ban, and the measure only narrowly cleared a Senate committee earlier in the month. That’s why we need Sen. Cory Booker to join Sen. Bob Menendez in standing strong against the oil industry and to vote to keep the ban in place — for the sake of the environment and public health.
Jessie Mehrhoff is lead organizer with Environment New Jersey, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.