Category Archives: Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD)

Solano County report on Valero near-catastrophic incident on May 5, 2017

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald and the East Bay Times
[Editor: Note that the Solano County analysis and report was not sent to City of Benicia elected officials nor released to the public.  The existence of the report came by way of a contact for information by KQED News.  See also: KQED: Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage.   For details, download the Solano County Incident Report.  – RS]

Second regulator finds Valero committed no violations in May 5 flaring

By Katy St. Clair, 10/24/17, 5:19 PM PDT 
(Chris Riley/Times-Herald)The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680.
The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680. | (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

A second agency has ruled that Valero Oil Co. did not violate any regulations in connection with the May 5 power outage that sent plumes of toxic gas into the air as the result of emergency flaring.

The Solano County Environmental Health Division could not find any safety or regulatory deficiencies on the part of Valero, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, assistant director of resource management.

“We looked at their processes — did they have safety plans in place, were they handling the chemicals properly? Did they report their emissions, did they have the proper plans in place to minimize the releases?” Schmidtbauer said.

Schmidtbauer’s team found that Valero had followed all protocol, though he said that his agency is still getting new information and that new regulations that went into effect on Oct. 1 will need to be taken into consideration when it examines Valero’s process going forward.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) conducted its own probe in May and also didn’t issue any violations.

The event occurred after PG&E shut down two main power feeds to the refinery, which initiated emergency flaring and ended up pumping more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air. Valero is suing PG&E in excess of $75 million for the power outage, which the power company admits to causing.

Critics of Valero say that the oil refinery should have had sufficient, independent backup power to cover such emergencies, though there are no state or federal regulations that require it to do so.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson responded to the county’s ruling by saying that just because Valero didn’t violate any regulations doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t dangerous and preventable.

Valero wasn’t required to have backup power beyond PG&E and therefore could not be found to be violating any laws when all power was cut off.

“Lack of violations does not mean that we are safe,” Patterson said. “The next step is to have an incident review of what could be improved.”

Patterson has been pushing for Benicia to spearhead an Industrial Safety Ordinance patterned after one created in Contra Costa County that has some of the most stringent oversight in the United States, according to the county’s Health Services division. Contra Costa’s I.S.O. offers another set of eyes beyond regulators that requires refineries to be evaluated for safety and other concerns and then make changes if necessary. These changes and recommendations can vary from plant to plant, according to Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes the Chevron refinery in Richmond that was the site of a major fire in 2012.

This year, the Governor’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety adopted the Contra Costa model for its “best practices” dictate for refineries across the state. It went into effect Oct. 1.

Though this new oversight expands the Industrial Safety Ordinance statewide in order to strengthen health and safety issues around refineries, Patterson still wants to explore creating an ordinance in Solano County.

“We need an I.S.O. so that we provide the public’s right to know in an effective and transparent way and that we can have the expertise to assess the status of these programs,” she said in an email.

Although rules, procedures and regulations may be put into place, it is important to have local, expert oversight ensuring that they are all followed, she said. It would also be easier to share information with the community.

“This (would not) give us regulatory authority over the state but could go beyond the state in certain categories mostly dealing with noticing, reporting, investigations, inspections and public right to know,” she said.

Patterson likened it to how water pollution is overseen.

“While the feds and state set standards, and the regional water boards issue permits and violations, the local government has ordinances that apply the standards and collect the fees to ensure those standards are met,” she said.

Patterson is organizing a meeting for mid-November with Gioia, Cal/OSHA and other entities to conduct an incident review of the flaring in May, discuss a possible I.S.O. here, and figure out how closely the new Oct. 1 statewide guidelines mirror those in Contra Costa County.

Please share!

KQED: Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News, San Francisco
[Editor: For details, download the Solano County Incident Report.  – RS]

Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, October 23, 2017

An 18-minute power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero refinery in Benicia led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide was released into the air.This post was updated 10/24/17 at 6 a.m. to include comments from a PG&E representative.

The Valero oil company did not violate state regulations in connection with the massive power outage that led to the release of tens of thousands of pounds of toxic gas from its Benicia refinery this spring, Solano County environmental health investigators have concluded.

The Solano County Environmental Health Division quietly completed its initial probe of the outage in late August. It reviewed the circumstances surrounding the shutdown, the resulting flares that sent flames and black smoke into the sky and two refinery unit malfunctions that took place over the following week.

“We did not find any deficiencies or issue any violations,” said Terry Schmidtbauer, the department’s assistant director, in an interview.

That means that two of the three government probes into the shutdown — tied to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. lines — have led to no penalties.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected the refinery shortly after the incident, closed its investigation the same month and decided not to issue any violations.

The lack of punitive action outraged Benicia’s mayor and environmentalists.

“No violations of existing rules does not mean we are safe,” Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said in an email. “Sleeping on inadequate protection does not make us safer — doing nothing to correct these deficiencies does not extinguish the risk.”

Patterson has been calling for the City Council to develop regulations that would give Benicia more oversight of the refinery, a proposal Valero opposes.

“This report raises disturbing questions about how unprepared Bay Area refineries and PG&E are for electrical outages that can lead to dangerous air pollution,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Regulators seem reluctant to hold anyone truly accountable for this massive release of pollutants, but what else will prevent something like this from happening again?” Golden-Krasner said. “It’s a systemic failure to protect the air we breathe, and it shows why we need to move away from dirty fossil fuels.”

The energy giant expressed optimism about the state of the investigations into the outage and reiterated its blame of the entire episode on PG&E, which it has sued, seeking at least $75 million in damages and lost revenue.

“We are pleased that Cal/OSHA concluded there were no violations by Valero arising from the May 5 PG&E power outage nor has Solano County issued any violations to date,” said Lillian Riojas, a company spokeswoman, in a statement.

“PG&E caused this outage and significant damages. Valero, like others, is waiting on answers from PG&E, which are still not forthcoming,” Riojas said.

PG&E hired Exponent, a third party engineering firm, to conduct a view of the outage. A utility spokeswoman said Tuesday that Exponent’s report on the incident has been completed and sent to the California Public Utilities Commission.

“The safety of our customers, employees and the general public is always our top priority,” said PG&E’s Deanna Contreras in an email. “We continue to partner with Valero and the City of Benicia to prevent similar power disruptions,” Contreras said.

Another agency, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, issued several notices of violation due to the flaring in the days after the outage. Its investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The refinery has two power sources, both operated by PG&E. When the utility put both of those sources offline on May 5, it caused an “immediate and full shutdown of the facility,” the Solano County report states.

Valero also has a cogeneration plant, but it does not provide enough power to fully supply the facility. County investigators point out that the plant must maintain a line to PG&E’s power circuit to remain online.

That’s a problem, according to Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, who read the county’s report and  specializes in oil and gas production.

“The on-site emergency power supply could have been robust enough to allow for an orderly shutdown,” Smith said.

The outage led to pressure inside the refinery that had to be relieved by the use of its flaring system. But, the loss of power shut the facility’s steam boilers and cooling tower down. That meant the flaring did not operate normally, which led to flames and black smoke shooting out of the refinery, according to the report.

“Their system got overwhelmed,” Schmidtbauer said.

Firefighters were brought in. “The dump stack ignited and was extinguished during the first hour of the incident,” the report said.

The city’s fire department imposed shelter-in-place and evacuation orders for parts of the city. At least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

Three days after the initial outage, the refinery underwent another malfunction as it slowly restarted the facility, causing more flaring, this one lasting more than five hours.

Valero initially thought the May 8 problem was tied to the wrong refinery unit, according to county investigators. It turned out the malfunction was connected to its Coker unit, which makes gasoline through the use of high temperatures.

A week later the same unit malfunctioned, leading to yet another round of flaring. This time, it covered cars near MRC Global, a company on Bayshore Road close to the refinery, with an “oil-based” substance.

That second problem was caused by trapped moisture in the piping system as a result of the unit being shut down because of the initial outage.

“The refinery could have done a better job of minimizing subsequent releases that occurred during the restart,” Smith said.

The outage led to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices, hurt the company’s bottom line and damaged one of the refinery’s flares.

Recently it has prompted extra scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the power issues at the Benicia facility.

The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide on the day of the outage and in the weeks afterward.

Schmidtbauer says Valero is still working on its root-cause analysis of the incident. Once that’s completed, the county may end up issuing recommendations to Valero to avoid another similar shutdown.

Please share!

Sorting Out Air Quality Regulations After Cap-And-Trade’s Renewal

Repost from Bay Area Monitor – Bay Area League of Women Voters

Sorting Out Air Quality Regulations After Cap-And-Trade’s Renewal

By Leslie Stewart, October-November edition
Communities for a Better Environment’s Andrés Soto (in red shirt) speaks at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s board of directors meeting on September 20. A large number of stakeholders attended to participate in a lively discussion about emissions regulation. | Photo by Alec MacDonald.

Now that the dust is settling from the legislative tumult surrounding renewal of California’s cap-and-trade program, participants are taking stock of the changed landscape for air quality regulation, both statewide and regionally. Legislation passed this summer sets a more ambitious goal for greenhouse gas reductions through cap-and-trade, while also shifting some duties for regional air districts. Under the new laws, these local agencies will see a reduced role in greenhouse gas regulation, but an added responsibility for implementing a statewide community-focused air quality monitoring and enforcement program.

The cap-and-trade program is a complicated balancing act between protecting the environment — specifically by reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and retaining industries that contribute to the state’s economic base. As the limit on permitted greenhouse gas emissions decreases (the “cap”), businesses which exceed the limit must obtain allowances (the “trade”), either through state auctions or from other businesses which are under the cap and therefore have extra allowances. The state opted to give some allowances away for free, initially to ease adoption by industries and utilities, and now to reduce the financial burden on companies which may otherwise decide to relocate.

Passed in July, Assembly Bill 398 (E. Garcia) extended cap-and-trade to 2030 from the program’s original sunset year of 2020. This created more certainty for industry, which was increasingly reluctant to pay for allowances, fearing these might lose value if the program ended soon. The bill also raised the bar for the state’s Air Resources Board. The agency’s goal for 2020 has been to decrease greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels; AB 398 adds a target for 2030, requiring a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels. Stanley Young, ARB’s director of communications, noted that “the cap has decreased by two to three percent over the previous years of the program, and will drop by four percent by 2020, but then will need to drop exponentially to achieve this goal.”

Additionally, it is now up to ARB, rather than regional air districts, to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from any source covered by cap-and-trade, whether in industry, agriculture, or elsewhere. Many environmental groups and agencies that were generally supportive of cap-and-trade renewal, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, opposed this aspect of AB 398. Following its passage, the Air District announced it expected to shelve a proposed regional cap on refinery emissions, Rule 12-16, which environmental groups had been working toward for five years.

“Victory snatched away at the last minute,” was Andrés Soto’s description of the regional air district restrictions in AB 398. Soto is a community organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, a strong proponent of Rule 12-16. However, his organization is refocusing. Soto noted that “local air districts can’t touch CO₂ reductions, but methane and other gases can still be regulated regionally.” CBE is planning a new campaign to pressure the Air District to cap non-CO₂ refinery emissions at current levels before permitting any new refinery infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, Tom Addison of the Air District’s Legislative Affairs division commented, “Given passage of AB 398 and its restrictions on local air districts, we are considering how best to coordinate with ARB on actions on greenhouse gases moving forward. Our climate problems are so large and pressing that it makes sense for everyone to work together to address them.”

Greenhouse gases are not the only emissions from industry, and often the attempts to curb them get intertwined with grassroots efforts to limit the local impact of other categories of air pollution. However, not everyone agrees with this approach, since greenhouse gases harm the environment on a global level, not a local one. As ARB’s Young asserted, “We have an equally ambitious goal to address toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants, but the system works better when you do that separately [from greenhouse gases].”

That separation was the rationale for AB 398’s companion bill, AB 617 (C. Garcia). The bill requires the state to set up a uniform databank, where data gathered from emission monitoring throughout California will be publicly available. The databank will inform a new ARB strategy to reduce toxic air contaminants and criteria air pollutants, including identifying the most environmentally-burdened communities and locations where additional monitoring is needed.

When the state identifies those sites, local air districts will be required to set up new monitoring there, and also create community-specific pollution reduction plans. Districts may also require individual facilities to set up monitoring at their fencelines. As Young pointed out, “there has been a technical revolution in air monitoring, so that viable, accurate, and consistent monitoring can be done at the community level.”

Under AB 617, ARB will coordinate all these efforts through the newly formed Community Air Protection Program. Its director, Karen Magliano, sees the new program as “fundamentally transforming community-based planning, by bringing in the communities themselves at all levels.” She explained that “we want to look at the problem at a granular level — implementation will be a shared responsibility.”

According to Addison, the Air District is concerned about some aspects of that shared responsibility, especially the financial ones. “We are very supportive of the general philosophy behind AB 617, and some pieces we’re enthusiastic about,” he noted. “For example, AB 617 increases the penalties for strict liability violations. However, there is no additional funding [for districts], and a host of new requirements.” Air District staff subsequently noted that a budget trailer bill signed into law on September 17 contains some AB 617 implementation funding, yet it is unclear whether that funding will be adequate.

Not all of the responsibilities in AB 617 are brand-new to the Air District. Some fenceline and community monitors — measures which will be required by AB 617 in any state-identified communities — are already in place around several Bay Area facilities, because of industry-community agreements or as compliance with the Air District’s Rule 12-15, passed in 2015. Addison observed that better coordination of data reporting on emissions sources is already happening as well. “More data is always helpful, but we want to have that without being forced to divert resources from other programs,” he explained.

Designing community emission reduction plans will be a new task for the Air District, and Addison is concerned that the tool is limited. However, he was quick to add, “We are committed to trying to improve public health and working to implement the bill. Cutting emissions for disproportionately impacted communities is something we have long aimed at.”

Bill Magavern, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, is also focused on making the community plans work. “The community action plans rely a lot on implementation by air districts — it’s important that they yield strong measures to help the communities in the areas most impacted by pollution,” he observed. “The concern is not only identifying the problem, but moving quickly to implement solutions.”

Magavern added another area which may require community watchdogs. AB 617 mandates that regional air districts require facilities to use Best Available Retrofit Technology, starting with those which have gone longest since being permitted. “We need to be sure that districts are actually requiring that equipment be updated, and not just letting them use credits,” Magavern warned. Overall, however, he is “cautiously optimistic that AB 617 will yield significant improvements in air quality — but we need to be actively involved to be sure that actually happens.”

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.

Please share!