Air monitoring in the City of Benicia has greatly improved over the last year. During this study session, Fire Department staff will provide the City Council with an overview of current and future air monitoring programs in the City. Additionally, Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) staff will be available to present the City Council with an update on the district’s efforts to improve air monitoring programs in the region, Valero Refinery staff will be available to address concerns with their air monitoring programs, and Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program (BCAMP) members will be available to provide an update on efforts to increase air monitoring in the community. The objective of the study session is to provide a comprehensive overview of air monitoring programs and provide a clear picture of efforts to continue to improve the quality of air monitoring in the community.
There will be opportunity to ask questions. You may be interested to learn the status of the fence line monitors required by the Air District as well as part of an agreement between the City of Benicia and Valero for measuring many constituents of air pollution including toxic air contaminants such as benzene and H2S.
In the staff report are letters from the Air District extending the compliance date for the monitors for H2S. The Air District is providing more time to establish these air monitors for H2S because of problems with existing market monitors for open path monitors. Fixed measurements may be considered.
Here is the power point presentation for June 25, 2019. The actual agreement does seem to be posted on the city’s website. Click here for the agreement from my files.
Regional park supporters urge Solano supervisors to move forward
FAIRFIELD — The Solano County Board of Supervisors this week was pressed about when it will move forward on a proposed regional park and open space district.
Amy Hartman, Solano County representative for Greenbelt Alliance, wanted to know when the county expected to put the proposed countywide district on a ballot for voter consideration.
“We have a couple of asks. First, we want to know when the (administrative) and financial plan is going to be released to the public.” Hartman told the board on Tuesday. Supervisor Jim Spering was absent.
“We know the county has been working on it for quite a while and we would just love to see that document and be able to talk to folks around the county about what is going to be in the admin and finance plan,” Hartman said.
The concept is to integrate the county’s existing park system with other properties, such as those owned by the Solano Land Trust, to be able to increase public access to those areas.
In a letter to the board, Greenbelt Alliance and a number of other groups and individuals, including Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Michael Alvarez, a member of the Solano County Parks Commission, suggested the measures go before the voters next year.
“We ask that two separate ballot measures are placed on countywide ballots – one for the creation of the district and another for a funding measure of the district,” the letter states.
The letter was signed by two members of the Solano Open Space Citizens Advisory Group, the Progressive Democrats of Benicia, Solano Sierra Club, Solano County Orderly Growth Committee and the Solano County Policy Action Team of the Bay Area Chapter of the Climate Reality Project.
“Our ask is that these ballot measures are put to the ballot in separate elections – ideally, the formation of the district would be on the March 2020 ballot, and the district’s funding measure would be on the November 2020 ballot or a subsequent election,” the letter states. “. . . As groups with large membership and extensive outreach capabilities, we are ready and willing to support the campaign effort that will be required to successfully pass measures to create and fund the district.”
There were not a lot of specifics in board Chairwoman Erin Hannigan’s reply, but she noted that the board’s subcommittee working on the issue, which also includes Supervisor John Vasquez, is scheduled to meet Sept. 30.
Bill Emlen, director of the Department of Resource Management, said his staff could have the plans in front of the board in October.
“Even if we can get the park established, even without a finance plan, there is a lot of money (out there),” Hartman told the board, referring specifically to Proposition 68 bond funds.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, carried the special legislation that allows the county to introduce the park district by resolution for voter approval. It won Senate and Assembly support in May 2017.
There has been little discussion at the board level since, and even less about how the district would be funded.
Two funding ideas have been floated publicly. The first is to ask voters to support an ongoing funding mechanism for the park district. The other is to use existing county park funds to support the district in the early stages.
The supervisors, in January 2016, appropriated $75,000 for a consultant to assist county staff with various initiatives related to forming the district, including public outreach.
A 2015 consultant’s report stated that while the public supports the idea of a regional parks system, it does not support additional funding measures to pay for it.
State workplace regulators, the region’s local air quality district and Solano County health officials are trying to find out why a problem at Valero’s Benicia refinery suddenly worsened over the weekend, leading to a release of petroleum coke dust that prompted fire officials to urge those with respiratory problems to stay indoors.
The incident led to a partial shutdown at the facility and represents the worst malfunction at the plant since a power outage caused a major pollution incident in 2017.
The releases of elevated levels of particulate matter led several residents to complain of breathing problems and prompted Benicia’s mayor to call on Valero to pay the city back for its work dealing with the emergency. The partial refinery shutdown is also expected to lead to a spike in higher gasoline prices throughout the state.
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said she’s gotten a flood of phone calls and emails from residents wanting to know why it took so long for Valero to suspend refinery operations.
“There’s a lack of understanding about how coke particulates could be continuously emitted throughout a couple of weeks,” Patterson said. “There’s not a lot of information that’s readily available to the public.”
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health began a probe into Valero on Monday, the day after the company began the gradual shutdown of a significant portion of the refinery, according to agency spokesman Frank Polizzi.
Cal/OSHA becomes the latest government agency to look into the breakdown of a key piece of equipment inside the refinery that went down two weeks ago. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Solano County officials have launched probes as well.
Refinery Problems Started Two Weeks Ago
On March 11, the facility’s flue gas scrubber began malfunctioning. That meant the facility’s smokestacks began belching a sooty plume of petroleum coke dust — minute carbon particles that are a byproduct of the oil refining process.
The initial problem prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to issue eight notices of violation against Valero.
The air district and Solano County health officials said during the following days that the flue gas scrubber had been fixed and the coke dust releases were intermittent and gradually coming to an end.
But the black smoke returned on Saturday. On Sunday, fire officials detected high levels of fine particulate matter, known as PM10, around the refinery and issued a health advisory urging people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.
“What we were seeing was dark gray, almost black smoke coming from the flue gas scrubber unit,” Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick said Monday.
PM10 is particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter — larger than PM2.5 many became familiar with during last November’s Camp Fire, when smoke from the huge Butte County blaze prompted health advisories throughout much of Northern California.
Like PM2.5, the larger particulate matter is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA spokeswoman Soledad Calvino said the agency would not comment on ongoing or potential investigations.
The agency has said that once inhaled, petroleum coke dust can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.
“The additional concern is that this is more toxic than the standard stuff you’d find in the atmosphere,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. “It’s probably similar in toxicity to diesel exhaust, which is a known carcinogen because it’s sooty in nature.”
On Sunday morning the wind in the Benicia area was blowing east to west at about 6 to 12 mph, according to meteorologist Jan Null.
That meant the coke dust was being blown toward residential neighborhoods, said Chadwick.
“That was one of the big concerns I had,” Chadwick said. “We had a wind shift … that really turned it back toward the city.”
Several Residents Complain of Breathing Problems
Chadwick said the Benicia Fire Department received two 911 calls for respiratory complaints. One of the calls was for one person who was transported to John Muir Medical Center in Concord. The other was for two people who told paramedics who showed up they didn’t need to be hospitalized.
The wind on Sunday also sent the coke dust toward parts of Contra Costa County, according to air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann. The agency received several complaints from people in Benicia and a few in Rodeo, Borrmann said.
Fire crews have been conducting air readings since Sunday morning and the levels of particulate are back to normal, Chadwick said.
Air district officials are expected to release the results of their testing later this week.
It’s unclear why the flue gas scrubber began malfunctioning again.
Terry Schmidtbauer, Solano County’s assistant director of resource management, said his department’s investigation is focused on the scrubber unit, other refinery components that interact with the device and if refinery workers made a mistake in operating the unit.
It’s also uncertain how long it will take to shut down the affected parts of the refinery and how long that closure will last.
“I am not sure how long Valero intends to have the affected portion shut down,” Schmidtbauer said in an email.
Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, did not answer questions about how long the shutdown should last.
On Sunday the company issued a statement about the refinery problem.
“There may be a visible plume and flaring as part of the shutdown,” Valero’s statement said.
Mayor Renews Call for More Refinery Regulations
Mayor Patterson has been calling for more regulation of Valero’s facility ever since the May 5, 2017, refinery incident — a push that so far has failed to result in action.
The City Council rejected her proposal to develop an industrial safety ordinance, similar to one in Contra Costa County, that provides more information to town officials about refinery problems.
The latest incident has prompted her to renew her call for action.
“We definitely need an industrial safety ordinance with the fees to cover the costs that it’s costing the city,” Patterson said. “When we are responding to these things, that means we’re not doing something else.”
Patterson said she planned to bring up the issue of compensation at a City Council session this Saturday.
A Bay Area environmental group critical of the oil industry and the agencies regulating it said the episode should raise concern about operations at other facilities.
“This is the latest sign that Bay Area refineries and our air quality officials can’t safely cope with current workloads, let alone the increased volume of oil processing planned by the industry,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Chronicle Editorial Board, March 25, 2019 6:37 p.m.
Benicia residents with respiratory ailments were warned to stay indoors for five hours Sunday because the Valero Refinery was filling the air with heavy smoke. The warning was lifted when Valero announced it was temporarily shutting down the refinery process.
Now the mayor has renewed her call to pass a Benicia industrial safety ordinance similar to the one that has guided refinery operations in Contra Costa County for decades. For the sake of clean air for all, the Benicia City Council should do so.
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson first sought a city safety ordinance after a May 5, 2017, power outage sent flames roaring from the refinery’s stacks and spread pollution into the air, prompting shelter-in-place and evacuation orders for the community of 28,000. Within weeks of that event, Valero was fined by regional regulators, and two state agencies and Solano County adopted regulations modeled on the Contra Costa County ordinance.
The Benicia City Council, however, voted 3-2 to monitor implementation of the county’s new ordinance rather than adopt its own. Now Patterson is trying again.
She has suggested the council seek third-party review of the draft ordinance, which would require refinery reports be shared with Benicia, not just the state and county, and include a way to collect fees to cover the city’s costs of review.
While air quality is an ongoing community concern, the refinery’s latest problem began two weeks ago and so far has netted Valero seven violations from regulators. A third of Benicians have respiratory ailments — three times higher than the state average. For them, emissions are a health concern.
“There’s a saying,” Patterson said. “You either have a seat at the table or you’re on the menu.”