Here is filmmaker Constance Beutel’s video of the City of Benicia’s Air Monitoring Workshop with representatives from Benicia Fire Department, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Valero and the newly forming non profit, Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program.
Solano County inspectors documented a long list of shortcomings and inadequate procedures at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery that contributed to a major pollution release from the facility earlier this year, newly released county documents show.
The county’s Department of Resource Management documented violations of eight separate state regulations. The infractions included failure to fix important sensors in a refinery furnace unit, infrequent inspections of key equipment, and failure to have an operating plan in place to deal with unexpected refinery conditions.
Solano’s probe relied in part on Valero’s root cause analysis of the shutdown, which found that one of the worst refinery incidents in the Bay Area in years was caused by a mistake made months earlier.
Both reports focused on tubes in the refinery’s furnace that heat up crude oil before it’s routed to other parts of the facility for processing. County and refinery officials say those furnace tubes were damaged during maintenance work last November, which caused the devices to fail and contributed to the plant’s malfunctions in March.
The Valero complex ended up belching out a massive amount of black sooty smoke, which led to health concerns for people living nearby.
The refinery’s subsequent closure contributed to a statewide spike in gasoline prices and prompted investigations by several government agencies, renewing attention on the refinery two years after a power outage caused a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide in the area.
Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas declined to comment directly on the company’s violations. Instead, she pointed to the company’s May filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which it reported it’s facing more than $342,000 in fines in connection with the incident. The company told the SEC it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from Solano County and $100,000 from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Valero’s root cause analysis, completed in July, examines a series of problems that led to the refinery malfunctions.
Company inspections during the refinery shutdown found that furnace tubes were bulging and leaking. Valero says when the facility was restarting a unit last November, a safety valve improperly “lifted,” allowing crude oil to bypass one of the refinery’s furnaces.
Valero says “it was not appreciated at the time” that allowing the bypass “exposed the furnace tubes to elevated temperatures.” Extreme heat gradually deformed the tubes and allowed a solid substance called petroleum coke to form inside. Valero’s analysis concedes that the deteriorating conditions were “not timely identified and mitigated, leading to the tubes’ subsequent failure” and the March refinery malfunctions.
Solano County’s investigation reported that carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors in the refinery furnace were not operational for at least three years.
“Proper functioning sensors would have provided an indication that the furnace was malfunctioning to Valero staff, allowing them to act sooner to correct the condition and prevent additional release,” said Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, in an email.
“The issue with the furnace upset the system,” Schmidtbauer said.
Those system issues became more evident in early March as two other refinery components experienced problems. One was a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest components of crude oil processed at the refinery. Another, a flue gas scrubber, removes fine particles before gases are released from the facility’s smokestacks.
Malfunctions with those devices led to an increase in carbon monoxide levels, according to Valero, To reduce those levels, refinery crews ended up increasing the temperature on the furnace tubes, thus accelerating their deterioration.
There was little liquid in the tubes, which puts them at risk of damage, according to Professor Eric Smith of Tulane University’s Energy Institute, who specializes in refinery operations.
“One result is thermal degradation of the metal tube,” said Smith, who reviewed company and county findings. “Another effect is that the liquid that does make it through the tube is converted into petroleum coke.”
That dynamic led to the release of sooty smoke and resulted in elevated levels of particulate matter and a health advisory.
County inspectors discovered several problems with lines that carry petroleum coke. On the day the refinery was shut down, one was leaking. Valero staff told Solano officials in April another line had failed five times in the last three years.
The county’s Department of Resource Management has ordered Valero to make a series of changes, some of which it has already completed. They include orders to reduce petroleum coke releases, new procedures for preventing the overheating of furnace tubes and increased training.
Solano County’s Schmidtbauer said the department was still assessing what penalties it will levy against the refinery.
Local air regulators issued 12 notices of violation against Valero. Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the air district, said the agency’s probe is not yet complete.
An investigation by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, is expected to wrap up in the coming weeks, according to agency spokesman Frank Polizzi.
A veteran employee of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has filed a lawsuit charging that the district destroyed important public records about air pollution, then fired him because he objected.
Through interviews and court documents, Michael Bachmann and coworker Sarah Steele describe an agency culture that accommodated large polluters, shredded records of emission violations, withheld such documents from the public, and violated a legal agreement to preserve its data. A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the case.
Bachmann had worked for the air district for more than a dozen years when he was asked, in 2014, to take charge of a massive overhaul of the agency’s records. The district was planning to move its headquarters and wanted to inventory, streamline, and digitize its files in preparation for the move.
To help with this task, Bachmann hired his longtime friend Steele, who had experience creating and managing records systems. While she organized paper and microfilm documents, he worked with photographic images stored on computers, creating a digital system to organize and digitize them so they would be searchable.
“My goal was to make sure everybody could see the history,” Steele said. Air District planners need records of past experience to guide future decisions about controlling air pollution. In addition, the district is required by law to retain many types of documents as public records. Steele said part of her motivation for this work came from growing up in El Sobrante, unaware of how pollution from nearby refineries was harming the health of her community. “So few people are aware of the horrific pollution going on in our backyards.” She said it’s important for people to know the history of pollution on a particular piece of land — such as the site of the notorious Berkeley polluter, Pacific Steel Casting, which recently closed.
Bachmann is now restricted from discussing his suit by a recent court-imposed confidentiality rule, but he told his story in interviews before the rule was put into effect. His attorneys, Gary Gwilliam and Jayme Walker, provided additional details in the brief they filed in August 2017 in Contra Costa Superior Court against the district and six senior staff members. Steele, who also was fired in February 2016, was originally part of the lawsuit, but in June of this year she accepted a cash payment to settle her case. Steele and Bachmann, now a couple, were struggling financially after both losing their jobs, and Steele wanted to be free to talk about the case.
As Bachmann and Steele worked on organizing the records, they began noticing things that disturbed them. In the summer of 2015, she said, “giant dumpsters began to appear” in the office. When Steele looked in the dumpsters, she found, among other things, reports of refinery “flaring” incidents, notices of violations of air-pollution standards, and documents pertaining to current litigation — all records that she thought should be kept. In August, according to the lawyers’ brief, an employee in the enforcement division also told Bachmann that documents related to litigation against Pacific Steel Casting were being improperly destroyed.
At around the same time, Steele was working on sending paper and microfilm records to a contractor to digitize. According to the lawyers’ brief, one day air district Director of Enforcement Wayne Kino and attorneys Brian Bunger and Bill Guy “approached [Steele] in an aggressive manner and told her they wanted to destroy microfiche documents containing many records of violations of air quality.” Steele thought that request was illegal and reported it to Bachmann.
In November, Bachmann told senior executives that records were being illegally destroyed and asked that they send documents to him first, rather than putting them straight into dumpsters. In an interview before the confidentiality order was imposed, Bachmann said Bunger overruled this request. He quoted the lawyer as saying, “If staff accidentally destroys these records, that’s OK, because they can only hurt us in the long run.”
Meanwhile, Steele said, boxes of paper and microfilm documents were being shipped to a storage facility in Richmond. But some records were withheld from these shipments, sometimes with explanations, sometimes not. She said the process seemed “haphazard.” She continued to send records to be digitized, but senior officials told her not to digitize certain documents, including records in one huge, locked cabinet that Steele nicknamed the “magic cabinet.”
Steele said Rochelle Reed, public records coordinator, stated in a deposition to the court that the cabinet had not been opened in more than ten years. After the cabinet was moved to Richmond, a staff member sawed off the lock. Inside, Steele found records of asbestos pollution, refinery flares, inspection reports, and settlements between the air district and companies that had been charged with violations. She expressed concern that these documents had not been made available for public records requests. Asked if she felt the district was withholding information from the public, Steele said, “Hell, yeah.”
Another former air district employee, who asked not to be named, agreed that the district had mishandled public documents and destroyed many that should have been kept, but disagreed with Bachmann’s and Steele’s suspicions that this was being done intentionally to keep information from the public. The employee, who was familiar with the document-handling process, expressed the view that rather than “a conspiracy,” the records mishandling was due to “laziness and ineptitude.”
That person, however, also reported having the impression that senior air district officials were reluctant to clash with industrial polluters. If the district were to impose large fines for air-pollution violations, for example, “the refineries would fight tooth and nail — and they have the best lawyers.” The former employee said district officials “want to work with industry, to be on their good side, [to have] a symbiotic relationship.”
Steele believes this cozy relationship interferes with the public’s right to know about air pollution issues.
In December 2015, Bachmann made another disturbing discovery. Over the summer he had downloaded all the photographic images of documents from agency computers. Since then, he had developed a software system for digitizing them to be searchable. But at the end of the year, when he went back to the computers to double check, he found that thousands of these images had disappeared. They included records of violations of air quality standards, complaints and actions taken, asbestos records, and communications between executives and industry. Gaps in numbering showed that documents were missing.
In January 2016, Bachmann reported this to air district senior staff. His supervisor, Eric Stevenson, said later in a court deposition that Bachmann had been “ruffling feathers” of executive management: “He wanted … to be more in control of the documents system as opposed to … allowing the divisions to maintain control of that,” Stevenson said. Under further questioning he added that Bachmann wanted that control because “there was the potential that documents of records could be destroyed.”
Air district employees soon received a flyer with their paychecks reminding them that the office move was imminent and encouraging them to “clear out unwanted/unneeded items.” The flyer specified that “confidential documents” should go into shredder bins and other materials into recycling containers, with no direction about which records to retain. The flyer promised a pizza party to the division with the best-cleaned-out office.
The following month, Bachmann was summoned to a disciplinary meeting where he was told he was being suspended for a week without pay for violating the agency’s vehicle-use policy. Officials said he used an air district car in his commute, a widespread practice specifically allowed in the vehicle-use policy, Bachmann said.
His absence gave agency officials an opportunity to second-guess his work. “When a government employee is suspended without pay,” he noted, “the agency gets access to your computer.” When Bachmann returned after a week, he found that his whole software system for digitizing records had been wiped from his computer — along with all the digitized documents. Fortunately, he said, he had stored all the information on a hard drive and backed it up in the cloud.
On the same day Bachmann was suspended, Steele was told she was being let go because the project was finished. Yet after Steele and Bachmann were gone, she said, the district hired a contractor to continue the work they had been doing.
Even before he returned from his suspension, Bachmann was suspended a second time, this time with pay. However, he maintained access to a security camera at the Richmond storage facility. He showed the Express pictures he said were stills taken by that camera in May 2016. The pictures showed records chief Reed directing a crew that was dumping boxes of stored records into bins, then wheeling them out to a truck labeled “Shred-It.” This despite a 2001 agreement in San Francisco Superior Court in which the air district committed not to destroy any public documents without keeping a record of them.
Bachmann was finally fired in August 2017. At stake for him, as a career employee, was not only his salary but also his access to health care and other retirement benefits — although his retirement income is secure in the state employee pension fund. Reasons given for his firing were “misconduct,” “insubordination,” and “dishonesty.” The air district claimed he had misrepresented his military service and education on his employment application, but Bachmann said he has documents verifying these records.
As a career employee, Bachmann was entitled to due process in a “Skelly hearing,” named after a court case that established this right. According to law, the officer conducting the hearing is supposed to be impartial. But Steele pointed out that Bachmann’s hearing was conducted by Jeff McKay, one of the district officials charged in the lawsuit with destroying records.
The lawsuit is moving slowly, but scheduled to go to trial in December. So far the court has taken depositions from eleven air district staff members. Last April, Walker said, it imposed a fine on the district for “abusing the discovery process and not producing documents that they should have produced.”
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 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.