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

Whistleblowers Claim Bay Area Air District Improperly Disposed Of Records

KPIX5 / CBS SF Bay Area, May 12, 2019 at 7:50 pm

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — The agency in charge of protecting the air in the Bay Area has long been criticized by local activists for protecting polluters instead. Now, two former employees say they believe they have new evidence to support that accusation.

When the Bay Area Air Quality Management District moved from Ellis Street to its new location on Beale Street in 2015, Michael Bachmann and Sarah Steele were assigned a huge task. They were asked to digitize 60 years of agency documents into a searchable database.

”Those records contained the historic data that showed the amount of pollution that came through, whether it was via train or via ship,” said Steele.

But as they started moving everything to a storage facility in Richmond for sorting, workers helping reorganize the records noticed something peculiar.

“My staff reported to me that giant garbage bags full of flare reports were found in a garbage bin down in the garage,” said Bachmann.

According to Bachmann and Steele, BAAQMD enforcement records — mainly related to refineries — were getting tossed, even though they say the district was required to keep them under its records retention policy.

“Those were files that we identified as notices of violation, executive communications to industry, complaints,” explained Bachmann.

After they complained, the district’s board adopted a new records retention policy that allowed for the documents to be destroyed. Then, they say another red flag came.

Shortly after collecting files out of Deputy Air Pollution Control Officer Wayne Kino’s office that they thought should not be destroyed, they got a specific order about the paperwork.

“He [Kino] told me that he wanted those returned immediately; that those had to come back,” said Bachmann.

The boxes of documents that Kino wanted returned

The two say they returned the files, packed into 18 boxes. The documents included settlements with refineries over violations and thousands of citizen complaints. “I did not want to follow the instructions that Wayne Kino was giving us. It made no sense to me, why?” said Steele.

According to court documents, Kino told Steele he wanted the files returned to an unsecured storage area inside this garage at the back of the old air district building. And this is where the mystery thickens, because the district says two of those 18 boxes have now disappeared.

“They now know they’ve got a problem,” said Gary Gwilliam, an attorney representing Bachmann and Steele in a lawsuit against the district that claims the two were fired in retaliation for refusing to destroy documents. He says as far as the boxes, his clients did as they were told and returned all 18.

“However, Kino and the district contended that they didn’t deliver 18 boxes. They only delivered 16,” said Gwilliam.

In an email, Kino claims “some of my records were not returned.” But Bachmann and Steele have photos that they say they took when they returned the boxes, something that seemed to come as a surprise to Kino in his deposition.

After looking at the photo, he admitted that he had never seen box 17 and 18. When Gwilliam asked him if someone at the district took them, he replied that he didn’t know.

“They didn’t want these records properly recorded and digitized. They didn’t want the public to know that the district in the past has been way too soft on these polluters,” said Gwilliam.

The air district won’t comment on a case in litigation. But activist Andres Soto told KPIX 5 he was not surprised.

“It actually confirms much of what we suspected,” said Soto, a radio talk show host. Soto is an organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, an industry watchdog group that sued the air district in 2001 over destruction of documents.

A judge ordered the district “not to destroy any public records without first making an electronic reproduction.”

“The failure to maintain records and destroy records means there is no historical record by which we can assess pollution trends, regulatory activity,” said Soto.

Like other Bay Area environmentalists, he believes the district’s top management has too many close ties to the refineries they are mandated to monitor.

“I grew up in Richmond, so I have seen where the money from these corporations has polluted our politics for generations,” said Soto.

Gwilliam says he is still in the process of gathering discovery for the case. He says the air district has been dragging its feet turning over evidence. A judge recently agreed that was the case and ordered the air district to pay a $13,000 fine.


    KQED: Details on probe of Valero pollution releases – violations now up to 12

    Repost from KQED News

    Two Parts of Valero’s Benicia Refinery Under Scrutiny in Probe of Pollution Releases

    By Ted Goldberg, Mar 29, 2019
    A plume containing petroleum coke dusts wafts from a smokestack at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery on March 23. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

    Two key components at the Valero refinery in Benicia experienced problems earlier this month, leading to weeks of releases of petroleum coke dust that intensified on Sunday, culminating in the shutdown of a large portion of the facility.

    The new details on the refinery’s malfunctions are laid out by Valero in a preliminary report filed with Benicia city officials this week.

    The malfunctions are the focus of at least one part of an investigation by Solano County inspectors into an incident that led to health concerns for people living near the refinery and to a statewide spike in gasoline prices.

    Valero’s report says that the recent problems at the refinery began March 11 when a crude oil processing unit called a fluid coker experienced “operating difficulty.”

    Normally, a fluid coker heats up and “cracks” the thickest, heaviest components of crude oil processed at a refinery, breaking them down into material that can be used in diesel or other petroleum products. One of the byproducts of the process is solid carbon residue called petroleum coke.

    The problems with Valero’s fluid coker unit allowed petroleum coke dust, called coke fines, to flow to a second unit called a flue gas scrubber. The scrubber cleans out fine particles before they’re released from the refinery’s smokestacks into the air. That process is supposed to ensure that the refinery’s emissions don’t violate air quality standards.

    But the coke fines moving through the scrubber unit set the stage for a release of particulate pollution from the refinery — a release that was clearly visible from outside the facility.

    “The presence of coke fines in the FGS resulted in a darker than normal plume appearance,” Valero’s 72-hour report said.

    Solano County investigators want to know if the scrubber was somehow overwhelmed or damaged, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s director of resource management.

    “We know something’s not operating properly,” Schmidtbauer said.

    California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Cal/OSHA and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are also investigating the refinery.

    After the problem surfaced, the air district issued eight notices of violation against Valero for public nuisance and visible emissions.

    Refinery crews worked to reduce the releases and Valero said the situation showed “significant improvement” by last Friday, when the plume coming from the refinery’s stacks “returned to normal appearance,” Valero’s report said.

    But that changed the next day. The scrubber “experienced an operational upset resulting in a dark, opaque plume and emissions of particulate matter,” the report said.

    A new surge of petroleum coke dust billowing from the refinery’s stacks prompted Benicia officials to issue a health advisory, urging people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

    The refinery began to shut down several units, and the air district wound up issuing four more violation notices.

    The powering down of the the facility is contributing to an increase in gasoline prices.

    On Friday the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gas in California jumped to $3.59, up 16 cents from a week ago, according to AAA.

    Energy analysts and state regulators say the price will continue to rise until operations at Valero return to normal.


      KQED – Report on Valero shut down

      Repost from KQED California Report

      After Weeks of Issues, Valero’s Benicia Refinery to Temporarily Shut Down

      By Ted Goldberg, Michelle Wiley,  Mar 24, 2019 11:30 a.m.
      Problems began at the refinery on March 11 when a malfunction involving one of the refinery’s units led to the release of petroleum coke dust. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

      The Valero refinery is performing a controlled shutdown to “improve conditions and minimize risk,” according to a statement from Benicia city officials. The shutdown could last multiple days and result in visible flaring.

      Earlier Sunday, city officials issued an advisory notice for residents with respiratory issues to stay inside after a two-week-old problem at the Valero refinery worsened.

      But now that the refinery is shutting down, city officials and Solano County health officer Bela Matyas says the air quality is safe for residents.

      The problem the Valero refinery began on March 11 when a malfunction involving one of the refinery’s units led to the release of petroleum coke dust.

      A Valero representative said then that refinery’s flue gas scrubber was “experiencing operational issues.”

      The releases prompted local air regulators to issue seven notices of violation against the refinery. 

      Those problems eased after a few days but continued intermittently, air district officials said.

      On Saturday several Benicia residents posted comments on the social media site, Nextdoor, expressing concerns about what appeared to be more black smoke coming from Valero’s stacks.

      On Sunday, the particulate matter in the air increased.

      “The concentration of particulate matter has become significantly higher over the past day. The emissions contain coke, a by-product of the refining process that is made up primarily of carbon particles,” the city’s statement says.

      Benicia officials said testing of the coke dust released so far did not show heavy metals at harmful levels but warned that breathing in air from the releases could worsen underlying respiratory conditions like asthma.

      “Inspectors are on scene working with the facility and with Solano County and making a determination if additional violations will be coming,” said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

      The Air District also deployed a monitoring van to drive throughout Benicia to “gather ground level emissions data.”