Category Archives: Benicia Herald

Loss of local news coverage by Benicia Herald & Vallejo Times-Herald

Newspapers cut back on Benicia reporting

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Hard times for print journalism

These are hard times for print journalists, reporters and home delivery newspapers.  Especially so in Benicia.

On July 6, the Benicia Herald announced a cutback in print publication to 3 days per week.  And this week I asked the editor of our larger neighbor newspaper, the Vallejo Times-Herald who on their staff is currently covering Benicia and the editor replied, “Nobody is covering Benicia.”  The East Bay Times, formerly the Contra Costa Times, quit covering Benicia long ago.

These days, knowing what goes on in Benicia is pretty much a do-it-yourself operation, with amateurs doing the reporting.  For the most part, we need to log in to a social network on a computer or subscribe to alerts on a smart phone.  It’s hit or miss at best.

The editor of the Vallejo Times-Herald is open to publishing stories about Benicia.  In editor Jack Bungart’s words, “We’ll try and pick up what we can.”  I take this to mean that we will see official press releases from the Benicia Police or City Hall.  Hopefully, they will print stories and press releases authored by citizens, too?

Nick Sestanovich, editor at the Benicia Herald, has been responsive in publishing news generated by citizens, but he has no staff reporters other than himself.  He has done a good job covering City Council meetings lately, but he can’t possibly attend the large number of other commissions, organizations and events, not to mention reporting on human interest stories, sorting out the facts regarding local controversies, doing interviews, and following up on investigative leads.

Now that the Herald will only go out on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, the number of Benicia stories will clearly decrease.  We haven’t been told whether Nick’s hours will be cut – hopefully not.  Will he continue to cover some – if fewer – important events, or, like the Vallejo paper, will he need to rely increasingly on official press releases?

This is important: city press releases don’t begin to approximate the important role of a free press.  Nothing against our City staff, but news should be ABOUT the city, not BY the city.  Same could be said of citizen initiatives and watchdog activities.  Independent reporting is a foundation of American democracy.

The Benicia Independent can’t do it.  I’m a one-person operation, and my work here has been and continues to be advocacy on select issues that are important to me, mostly local and mostly on the environment.  I report on gun violence and a few other important issues of our times, but I don’t pretend to cover Benicia in the way that a local news periodical can and should.

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Benicia, California

It’s a sad day when there is next to no one actually reporting on the affairs of our beautiful and interesting, newsworthy town.

Roger Straw
Benicia

    Benicia Herald: Second step of Industrial Safety Ordinance process on council agenda

    Repost from the Benicia Herald

    Second step of Industrial Safety Ordinance process on council agenda

    June 15, 2018 by Nick Sestanovich

    More than a year after the Benicia City Council approved the first step in a two-step process to consider bringing an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) to Benicia, the council will resume its discussion Tuesday when the matter is brought back for the second step of the process.

    Following the flaring incident at the Valero Benicia Refinery on May 5, 2017 where a power outage resulted in black smoke being released, causing the Industrial park to be shut down and shelters in place established at nearby elementary schools, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson brought a two-step process to discuss consideration of an ISO at the May 23, 2017 council meeting. Patterson requested an ordinance similar Contra Costa ISO, which was adopted in 1998 and went into effect in 1999. Under Contra Costa’s ordinance, refineries are required to submit safety plans, experience safety audits and develop risk management plans while utilizing community input. In the event of an accident, regulated industries can provide a preliminary report.

    The Contra Costa ISO covers six facilities: the Phillips 66 Rodeo Refinery, Shell Oil Martinez Refienry, Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Pacheco, Air Products at Shell Refinery, Air Products at Tesoro Refinery and the Air Liquide-Rodeo Hydrogen Plant. In 2002, the city of Richmond adopted its own ISO that mirrored the Contra Costa ordinance. It covers the Chevron Refinery and Chemtrade West.

    Fire Chief Josh Chadwick noted in a staff report that since adoption of the Contra Costa ISO, the severity of major chemical accidents or releases had seen a declining trend with the exceptions of 2004, 2010 and 2012.

    “Implementing the ISO in Contra Costa County is generally considered to have contributed to the decline in incidents at refineries in the County although other regulatory changes and improvements in worker safety are also credited,” Chadwick wrote.

    The council voted 4-1 at the May 23 meeting to approve the first step of the process, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Mark Hughes, who felt it was too early to have such a discussion but indicated he may support it later on.

    Two developments have happened since the council’s vote. Beginning Oct. 1, the state of California updated its regulations to be more in line with Contra Costa’s ISO. Prior to this, Solano County’s Certified Unified Program Agency (CUPA) was operating under Program 3 of the California Accidental Release Prevention (CalARP) program. A task force, including members of the Solano County Department of Resource Management, was formed to upgrade regulations at the Valero Benicia Refinery and bring it to Program 4.

    “In the first five months since implementing Program 4, the Solano County Department of Resource Management spent 485 hours inspecting, preparing, reviewing, and documenting the Valero Benicia refinery,” Chadwick wrote.

    Among the task categories included in the Contra Costa ISO and CalARP Program 4 are reviewing risk management and safety plans, auditing subject facilities at least once every three years and documenting the results, reviewing major chemical accidents or releases root cause analyses and incident investigation reports that are submitted and performing incident investigations, and performing hazard scoring for development projects associated with land use applications.

    Both also require public access to reports and incorporating community engagement requirements.

    In a letter to the council, Don Cuffel– Valero’s director of health, safety, environmental and regulatory affairs– wrote that an ISO would be “duplicative and divisive” and suggested the refinery meet with city staff to discuss such topics as statewide regulations, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s fence line monitoring program, Benicia’s emergency response and communication systems, and the refinery’s qualifications as a top safety site by CAL/OSHA.

    Staff has provided two options for the council: direct staff to draft an ISO to bring to the council for consideration or direct staff to monitor the county’s implementation of Program 4, enabling the activities of an ISO to continue to be carried out by Solano’s CUPA.

    In other matters, the council will vote on whether or not to place a measure establishing a tax on cannabis-related activities on the ballot for the November election.

    The council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 19 in the Council Chambers at City Hall, located at 250 East L St. A live stream of the council meeting can also be found online at ci.benicia.ca.us/agendas.

      ROGER STRAW: STOP Valero’s dirty and dangerous Crude By Rail proposal

      By Roger Straw, April 13, 2016
      [Editor: The following article was submitted to the editor of the Benicia Herald, referencing recent pro-Valero letters published there.  – RS]

      STOP Valero’s dirty and dangerous Crude By Rail proposal

      The latest flurry of pro-crude-by-oil letters published in the Benicia Herald contained unwarranted attacks on local opponents of Valero’s Crude By Rail project. The claims were false, self-serving and blind to the factual realities of pollution and safety hazards that should result in denial of Valero’s proposal.

      On Sunday, Valero employee John Lazorik attacked opponents repeatedly, discounting the public’s legitimate fear of increasing pollution and catastrophic explosions, referring to the overwhelming opposition as “irrelevant,” and claiming to know that our motivations are impure. In four different sections of his full page letter, he dismissed and belittled the tireless work of Planning Commissioner Steve Young, writing off his probing questions and detailed inquiry as “soundbites” and calling him a “ringleader for promoting disrespect.” Mr. Young respectfully disagreed with staff, pointed out the fatal flaws of the environmental report and disagreed with arguments that would weaken the City’s ability to provide for the public’s health and safety. All five of the other Planning Commissioners studied the documents, heard testimony, and offered their own similar critiques, resulting in a unanimous vote against the project. Benicia Herald readers – and our City Council – should read Mr. Lazorik with a pretty big dose of skepticism.

      On Wednesday, Valero employee Duayne Weiler wrote that “90 percent of the negative pushback by mostly those outside of Benicia has been on rail traffic outside the refinery.” This is simply not true – on two counts. Just look at the 1200 Benicia residents’ signatures on a petition and listen to the testimony of 32 Benicia residents who spoke opposing the project at last weeek’s hearings. LOCAL Benicians began organizing to oppose Valero’s dirty and dangerous project in 2013. I was there – I’m one of the small group of Benicia friends who gathered to discuss it in March of that year, and who have persevered. Secondly, note that we have ALWAYS focused on pollution as well as explosive derailments, and have ALWAYS pointed out local onsite hazards as well as uprail hazards. Our local efforts were joined later on by outside forces who care about their communities and a healthy climate. The presence and testimony of outsiders is something I am personally grateful for and proud of. Our local work has been proven and strengthened by the voices of residents, experts and officials in Sacramento, Davis, the Bay Area, throughout California and beyond.

      In another letter on Wednesday, John Potter wrote of “vitriol and fabrications that have been a part of this…process.” When a permitting process as profoundly significant as this one goes public, there are bound to be raised voices and individuals who transgress the bounds of civility – on both sides. But to characterize the entire opposition to Valero Crude By Rail in this way is to play dirty politics. The work of local organizers has been studious, detailed, fact-based and direct.

      Mr. Potter concludes with a statement supporting the oft-repeated and as yet unsubstantiated claim that City Council may not consider issues beyond Valero’s borders due to federal law. Opponents have indeed raised serious questions about uprail impacts, as has the environmental report. There are, however, enough significant local, onsite hazardous impacts to allow Council to withhold a permit. To deny the project based on these onsite issues would indirectly protect our uprail neighbors from the pollution and catastrophic risks associated with Valero’s proposal. We believe that the City’s supposed inability to consider railroad hazards beyond Valero’s border could itself be considered an important reason to deny the permit.

      Everyone should plan to attend next Monday’s City Council meeting, 7pm at City Hall. Anyone who has not yet spoken may do so at that time. And our silent presence will stand as a strong signal to Council members to do the right thing: STOP Valero’s dirty and dangerous Crude By Rail proposal.

      Roger Straw
      Benicia