Category Archives: Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

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.

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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.

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KQED: Valero Flaring Sends 10 to 20 to Kaiser Medical Center

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
PHOTO: The power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero Refinery in Benicia lasted several hours and led to flaring at the refinery. Flaring is a process that allows the refinery to relieve pressure – but it can send out smoke and toxic gas. (Craig Miller/KQED)
The power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero Refinery in Benicia lasted several hours and led to flaring at the refinery. Flaring is a process that allows the refinery to relieve pressure – but it can send out smoke and toxic gas. (Craig Miller/KQED)

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.

On Monday air regulators announced that Valero is being penalized for the incident.

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.

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