Repost from KQED, The California Report [Editor: Significant quote: “On Friday, officials said that only two residents called with respiratory complaints, and there was no indication that anyone was hospitalized. But… Between 10 and 20 people went to the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, according to Kaiser spokeswoman Deniene Erickson.”]
Benicia Mayor Calls For Key Emergency Improvements After Valero Refinery Outage and Flaring
By Ted Goldberg, MAY 9, 2017
Benicia has to do a better job of telling its residents about major emergencies, the city’s mayor said Monday, after a series of communication problems surfaced in connection with a power outage at the Valero refinery that has caused intermittent flaring since Friday morning.
The city’s government access television station broadcast inaccurate and inadequate information in the hours after the outage and not enough residents could hear the city’s emergency sirens, said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson in an interview.
“It’s really troubling that we don’t have these things in place,” Patterson said.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is investigating the flaring, issued four notices of violation to the energy company on Friday, three for excessive smoke and one for causing a public nuisance, according to agency spokeswoman Kristine Roselius.
On Monday afternoon the district issued a fifth notice of violation for excessive visible emissions.
“Valero was preparing for start-up when smoke started coming out of one of the stacks,” Roselius said.
A Valero spokeswoman has not returned a request for comment on the district’s penalty.
The refinery’s first full power loss in 30 years started around 6:30 a.m. Friday. The outage began shortly after crews took one of two transmission lines offline to complete upgrades, said Matt Nauman, a Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman.
Circuit breakers opened after a component of a “protective relay system failed,” according to Nauman.
But the San Francisco-based energy company did not directly contact Benicia officials quickly enough about the outage, Mayor Patterson said.
“Why didn’t PG&E call the city of Benicia so that we could begin to think about the consequences of power loss to the refinery 15 minutes earlier than we were alerted by Valero?” Patterson asked.
PG&E says it did tell the city, just not as fast as the mayor would have liked.
A company representative contacted the Benicia fire chief and the Solano County of Emergency Services at 8 a.m., according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras, adding that utility crews worked quickly and safely to restore power in 18 minutes.
The outage caused gases used in the refining process to build up inside the refinery. To relieve pressure, Valero sent toxic gas to its flares.
Valero, like other refining companies, emphasizes that the flaring process is a safety device.
At first that process sent flames and a huge plume of smoke into the sky, which resulted in the evacuation of an industrial area near Valero and a shelter-in-place order for two elementary schools.
Even that order wasn’t clear. Initially, some authorities called for the rest of the city, except for the adjacent industrial area, to stay indoors.
“All other areas of town shelter in place. Keep doors and windows closed. Bring pets inside,” said a tweet from the Benicia Police Department.
Minutes later the agency published a corrected tweet, focusing the order on the two schools, but that was not entirely clear.
“No shelter in place for the rest of the (city) except for Matthew Turner and Robert Semple. Everyone’s encouraged to close doors and windows,” the follow-up tweet read.
On Friday, officials said that only two residents called with respiratory complaints, and there was no indication that anyone was hospitalized.
But, it turns out, the toxic air did send people to the hospital.
Between 10 and 20 people went to the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, according to Kaiser spokeswoman Deniene Erickson.
The flaring continued over the weekend and on Monday as Valero restored operations.
“We may have some intermittent flaring as we continue through safe startup process,” said Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas in an email Monday.
Meanwhile, the city has begun a top-to-bottom review of its emergency response, according to Benicia Fire Chief Jim Lydon.
“There are some systems that we need to go back and look at and assess their functionality and make sure they’re working properly,” Lydon said in an interview Monday, adding that he saw complaints from residents about the emergency communication on social media.
After that review is completed, Mayor Patterson is calling for a City Council hearing to explore ways to improve emergency communication.
That hearing would also investigate why Valero does not have a backup power source, something Patterson said she was unaware of until Friday’s emergency.
The afternoon of the outage a company official blamed California’s greenhouse gas regulations for preventing the creation of an alternative power source.
Valero expanded its refinery in recent years to reduce emissions, according to Don Cuffel, the company’s health, safety, environmental director. That expansion increased the facility’s electrical load but the company never got a permit to create a “co-generation unit”.
“Adding another co-generation unit to the refinery only increases our carbon footprint,” Cuffel said at a Friday news conference.
Grant Cooke: Benicia’s future is with Patterson, Young and the new economy
By Grant Cooke, August 17, 2016
If Valero’s crude-by-rail, or CBR, project goes through, it will do irreparable damage to Benicia. If the three councilmembers—Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Alan Schwartzman— continue their support for the project, they will do an extraordinary disservice to the city.
I respect those who work on behalf of local government; however, in this case, the legacies of three pro-Valero councilmembers will be that when Benicia needed them, they stood down. They just didn’t have the vision or the ability to do what is right and best for the city.
While the same can be said for numerous elected officials in other American small towns, particularly those dominated by a fossil fuel company, it’s a painful thing to witness. What makes Benicia’s situation more painful, is that the city is gifted with a bright and forward thinking mayor and is nestled on the edge of the most innovative and financially robust center in the world.
Yet, the pro-Valero majority on the council mirrors the city’s self-inflicted company town identity. This fossil fuel dependence holds the city back from partaking in the Bay Area’s knowledge-based economy and its prosperity.
The company town malignancy is intensified by a remarkable and insulating geography that creates the city’s beauty. The town has an idyllic and picturesque quality that is enhanced by a touch of eccentricity and bohemian romanticism left over from the halcyon days of the Gold Rush.
This combination allows for a complacency in the social milieu that is on the one hand charming, but on the other, remarkably short-sighted. In fact, it’s just plain dumb, since it allows for the tacit acceptance of the status quo and masks the reality that problems are coming and action needs to be taken.
For a half-century, Benicia has allowed the refinery to prosper, hardly inhibiting its use of the atmosphere as a garbage can. For most of this time, the refinery has been the largest source of tax revenue, exercising dominant economic and political influence. Which is a pity, since the rest of the Bay Area embarked on a scientific, technological and economic renaissance that is unparalleled in human history.
Now, the era of carbon generated wealth and dominance is in decline, particularly in densely populated areas where growing number of residents are pushing back, protective of their health and well-being. Carbon-generated wealth, usually from extraction industries, is being overtaken by knowledge-based wealth. High-tech workers are transforming the communities throughout the Bay Area. Cities like Richmond that were mired in the death grip of the fossil fuel industry, are now undergoing gentrification and renewal.
So where does that leave Benicia? If the pro-Valero councilmembers have their way and Valero’s CBR project is approved, then the city will continue to be dependent on the refinery and the fossil fuel industry.It’s clear from the evidence that crude-by-rail transportation is unsafe, unhealthy, and disruptive, but it won’t matter if the project is approved and the 50-car trains take over the Industrial Park, cutting off access and exit for most of the existing businesses. Once the trains loaded with toxic and volatile Bakken crude start to roll, there will be no “do overs,” and the city’s future will languish.
There is no doubt that the fossil fuel and oil industries are in decline. Oil prices are dropping as too much supply hits the market. Renewable energy is cheaper, more plentiful and when connected to smart grids far more flexible and cleaner. Vehicles are getting more efficient and transitioning to hybrid, electric, and hydrogen power. The fossil fuel era with its environmental destruction, social and political upheavals, and corrupt power politics is winding down.
So by approving CBR, Benicia will be locked into a decline—all the while the rest of the Bay Area flourishes as the new knowledge-based economy expands.
As an interesting aside, in the last three months, Valero, Inc. made $19.6 billion in gross revenue and $87.8 billion for all of 2015. As part of the company’s second-quarter earnings announcement, Joe Gorder, Valero’s CEO, said “We are also encouraged by ample supplies of medium and heavy sour crude oils in the market…”
So, if there is plenty of supply, and the refinery’s current crude delivery process is creating substantial profits, why does the refinery still want to ship explosive Bakkan crude by trains through towns that oppose it? And why do they claim it’s necessary to bring it to a loading area with a potential blast zone that includes an elementary school?
Admittedly, Valero’s CBR project is not simple. There are key issues at stake, including the tax revenues versus the city’s right and responsibility to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Many people are involved to various degrees in the decision. Unfortunately, the town’s residents can’t vote on the project, since the decision is solely in the hands of the city council.
The pro-Valero CBR faction has tried to diminish the importance of the decision by claiming the opposition is simply a ruckus stirred up by passionate environmentalists opposed to Big Oil. The intent is to frame the local election, and opposition to the project, as simply a one issue ballot. But the reality is far different. It’s not merely a CBR issue, or whether the refinery is good or not for the city, but a clear and simple question of what is to be Benicia’s future? Will the city – pushed by the three pro-Valero councilmembers – be locked into fossil fuel’s decline, or will it have the wherewithal to step into the 21st century and join the Bay Area’s booming knowledge-based economy?
If Benicia is going to survive as a chartered city, it has to go where the future beckons, which is to the new economy. If it dithers, the city will be passed over, as the new economy leapfrogs to Vallejo and other cities along the Interstate 80 corridor.
Three decades in, the scientific and technological Renaissance is just getting started, powered by a steamroller of venture capital. Silicon Valley is awash with cash and opportunity, and the Bay Area’s great universities and national laboratories are brimming with patents just waiting for implementation. High-tech and green tech startups and businesses are growing exponentially each year. Chinese and other foreign buyers are trolling Northern California for the newest inventions and technology.
The Green Industrial Revolution will continue to grow, pushing out along the region’s main transportation corridors. Eventually it will extent from Palo Alto to Sacramento. Just as Apple overcame Exxon, the new economy will push out the fossil fuel industry in the Bay Area. Within a couple of decades, the Bay Area refineries will lock their gates, unable to withstand the shifts in the energy markets and the expenses of offsetting carbon emissions.
What the fossil fuel industries in the Bay Area—and by extension those cities that have cast their lot with them—are not realizing is that there is a generational and workforce shift taking place. The older work force who had a high tolerance for the fossil fuel and heavy industrial manufacturing industries are being overtaken by a tsunami of high tech workers. These young folks are sophisticated, intelligent and extremely sensitive to health and recreation. (Just visit San Francisco’s marina green on the weekend). Their lifestyles are far different than the established group. High-tech workers live in denser neighborhoods, drive efficient autos and take public transportation. (Visit Emeryville, or the area around Pleasant Hill’s BART station.)
Above all, tech workers have enormous amounts of money that is rapidly changing the real estate market and the Bay Area’s lifestyle. As these workers mature, they will pressure politicians for the things they value, which is certainly not carbon emissions or refineries.
Rarely in life does time and circumstance allow us to decide our fate. The future is often veiled and clouded, and usually clarity only comes with necessity, too often calamity. This is true for individuals as well as cities. Cities, especially small company towns, rarely have the visionary leadership and the ability to break loose from the status quo, until like Stockton or Vallejo they implode.
Benicia’s fate is remarkably unambiguous; stick with the old fossil fuel industry and go down with its decline, or join the Bay Area’s Renaissance and prosper. Throughout the world, other cities have faced much harsher realities and have been successful in transitioning to a new economy. Melbourne, Copenhagen, Berlin and Bristol leap to mind. In each, change was driven by strong visionaries who understood that change was the best option and who had the leadership skills to pull the cities and their residents forward.
Does Benicia have similar visionary leadership? That is clearly central to November’s local election. There are two councilmembers up for re-election—Tom Campbell and Christina Strawbridge. Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is being challenged by Vice Mayor Mark Hughes. Three councilmembers – Strawbridge, Hughes and Alan Schwartzman who is not up for re-election – favor Valero and its CBR project.
Mayor Patterson has shown time and again that she understands the dilemma the city faces and why its future lies with the new economy. She clearly has the vision, talent and leadership required to move the city forward, and should be re-elected. Councilmember Campbell also understands that Benicia’s future prosperity can’t be dependent on Valero’s CRB project and he should continue.
Steve Young, a new challenger for a council position possess exceptional talent and leadership skills, and clearly understands that the city’s best interests are to reject Valero’s CBR. As a member of Benicia’s Planning Commission, he spent countless hours on the issue, painstakingly doing the research and leading the commission through the pros and cons as each member came to agree that the CBR project was not the town’s best option.
Patterson and Campbell were outvoted by the three other councilmembers, and the council failed to accept the Planning Commission’s recommendation, instead giving Valero the opportunity to reopen the issue with the Surface Transportation Board. Cluttering the decision was some questionable recommendations from the city staff, goofy advice from a consulting attorney, and bullying from Valero’s high-powered lawyer. In short, the whole process reeked of the misinformation and strong-armed tactics so common when an oil company puts pressure on small town politics.
Given his remarkable dedication to Benicia and the work required to bring the whole CBR permitting process into the public light, Steve Young has clearly shown that he has the intelligence, talent and leadership skills needed to help the city transition away from the past and embrace the future.
For Benicia, come the November election, Mayor Patterson and Tom Campbell should be re-elected. Steve Young should be the newly elected councilmember.
Grant Cooke is a longtime Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also an author and has written several books on the Green Industrial Revolution. His newest is “Smart Green Cities” by Routledge.
Valero taking oil-by-rail to feds; Benicia stays its course
By Todd R. Hansen, March 18, 2016
BENICIA — More than four hours of staff and Valero testimony this week ended with the oil company asking the Benicia City Council for a delay and the city moving forward with its public hearing process.
Valero will seek an opinion from the federal Surface Transportation Board to determine if the city has any authority to require environmental impact mitigation for a proposed railway off-loading facility at its refinery.
The company wants to move crude oil on trains to its refinery in the Benicia Industrial Park. It has applied to the city for a use permit to construct the necessary off-loading facility.
Planning commissioners in February denied the use permit, stating in its resolution:
“(T)he proposed location of the conditional use and the proposed conditions under which it would be operated and maintained would not be consistent with the General Plan as it would be detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare of persons residing or working in or adjacent to the neighborhood of the use, or to the general welfare of the city as well as uprail communities.”
Valero appealed that decision to the City Council, which started its public hearing process Tuesday. The hearing was continued to April 4 to receive comments from the public. April 6 and April 19 are also dates set aside as needed.
Valero representatives told the city it would take a month or more to submit material to the federal board, and that the decision-making process could take three to six months more.
Valero officials could not be reached Thursday. A message was left seeking comment.
Essentially, the company does not believe the city has the authority to impose conditions on railway matters, which typically falls under federal authority, according to city documents.
The city, while admitting it does not have any authority about what happens on the railways themselves, believes it does have planning and land-use authority over the refinery facility.
“The issue is where does (the railway pre-emption) start, and where does it stop,” said Amy Million, principal planner for Benicia.
Pre-emption, in this case, is basically a concept in which state and local laws are pre-empted in favor of interstate commerce regulations, which are governed under federal authority.
The Surface Transportation Board was given its authority in the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995, which “pre-empts state and local regulation, i.e., ‘those state laws that may reasonably be said to have the effect of ‘managing’ or ‘governing’ rail transportation.’ ”
The act gives “the Surface Transportation Board exclusive jurisdiction over: (1) transportation by rail carriers and the remedies provided with respect to rates, classifications, rules (including car service, interchange, and other operating rules), practices, routes, services, and facilities of such carriers; and (2) the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of spur, industrial, team, switching, or side tracks, or facilities, even if the tracks are located, or intended to be located, entirely in one state.”
Transportation board spokesman Dennis Watson said he could not comment on a project that had not yet been received by the agency.
The proposal is for oil to be transported on 50-car trains, twice daily, using Pacific Union tracks, which would pass through Fairfield, Suisun City, Dixon and into Benicia.
The shipments would replace about 70,000 barrels of oil currently brought in daily by ship.
The project has generated a great deal of comment. The city reports it tallied 1,800 substantive comments on the Environmental Impact Report, of which 550 discussed hazards, 260 focused on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, 80 on transportation, 60 on biological resources, 50 on hydrology and geology and 40 on noise.