Category Archives: Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

Valero’s Benicia Refinery Now Target of Several Probes Into Pollution Releases

Repost from KQED The California Report

By Ted Goldberg, Mar 26, 2019
A plume containing petroleum coke dusts wafts from a smokestack at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery on March 23. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

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.

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    SF Chronicle editorial: On Benicia Refinery Safety

    Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

    Clear the air

    Chronicle Editorial Board, March 25, 2019 6:37 p.m.
    FILE — In this July 12, 2017 file photo Valero Benicia Refinery in Benicia, Calif. Hundreds of bills await action by California lawmakers as the Legislature begins the last week of business this year. Among the issues include how to divvy up money from the cap-and-trade law, which puts a price on carbon emitted by polluters, including oil refineries like the Valero Benicia Refinery. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

    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.”

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      Mayor Patterson: Benicia needs to plan for the declining role of oil and gas

      An E-Alert from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
      [Editor: Mayor Patterson has been falsely accused of wanting to run Valero Refinery out of town.  A careful reading of her position shows that she wants the City to plan jointly with Valero and economic advisers for a stable future as we face into the predicted and inevitable decline in carbon-intensive industries.  Other California cities are planning ahead.  Patterson urges Benicia to do the same.  See below.  – R.S.]

      New state laws’ and policies’ impacts on Benicia’s future

      By Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia, California, October 2, 2018
      Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 - present
      Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia Mayor 2007 – present

      Does the city monitor economic trends to forecast the future revenue necessary to operate city services of public safety, road maintenance, safe drinking water, parks and recreation, library and community services?  To some extent, yes.  To the extent that there is an understanding of shifting economic activity such as declining role of oil and gas, no.  We have not done an in depth analysis of the impact of state policies and the law to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

      Brown is calling for the entire California economy to become carbon-neutral by 2045. That would mean deploying a combination of new technologies to vastly reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, plus the widespread implementation of methods to capture the rest, so that the state’s net release of emissions already altering the climate in devastating ways would be zero.  [from KQED, Sept. 24, 2018]

      What are the opportunities for the city to benefit from this carbon-neutral goal?  Should there be a working group with the city, Valero Refinery, economists and planners to think about 20 years from now?

      What are other cities and counties doing to achieve carbon-neutrality?  Will we be on the leading edge or play catch up?  I will continue to advocate for thinking beyond tomorrow and seizing opportunities for Benicia’s economy to evolve for the future so that we continue to have what I think is the best small town in California.

      Below is an article about what San Luis Obispo is doing to meet the challenge of carbon-neutrality by 2045.

      Elizabeth Patterson, Mayor, City of Benicia


      SLO wants to be carbon neutral by 2035, ahead of California

      The Tribune, sanluisobispo.com, by Nick Wilson, September 25, 2018 03:06 PM

      The City Council wants San Luis Obispo to be carbon-neutral by 2035, an ambitious target that’s 10 years earlier than Gov. Jerry Brown’s statewide goal of 2045.

      The council last week directed staff to move forward with a climate action plan that could mean new building codes and ramping up citywide electrical vehicle charging stations, among several other initiatives.

      Carbon neutrality, or net-zero energy, is the concept of reducing as much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as possible, with the overall goal to achieve a zero carbon footprint. It is achieved largely by replacing fossil fuel energy sources that emit greenhouse gases with renewables like solar and wind.

      Greenhouse gases are emitted from cars, homes and businesses, as well as from livestock, among other sources.

      An example of an electric vehicle charging station designed by Recargo, a Los Angeles-area company that’s planning to build four new DC fast-chargers in San Luis Obispo.

      “This is aggressive,” said Councilwoman Andy Pease. “It’s a really big goal. I think we can do it. But I think it should be a goal within our Climate Action Plan development.”

      The specifics of the city’s Net Zero 2035 commitment haven’t been formulated yet, pending the Climate Action Plan update next year.

      But efforts undertaken by the city already have reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 10 percent since 2005, with a goal of reaching a 15 percent reduction by 2020.

      Ideas to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, based on California Energy Commission recommendations, include:

      ▪ Reducing solid waste (including making sure people recycle and reuse items they consume, and compost food scraps), eliminating the need for landfills;

      ▪ Using carbon-free electricity, while transitioning from fossil-fuel based appliances and technologies (such as phasing out internal combustion-based vehicles in place of electric ones, and ratcheting down natural gas-fired furnaces or water heaters in favor of high-efficiency heat pump models that run on clean electricity, for example);

      ▪ Creating new laws around building codes to ensure efficient, clean energy uses rather than natural gas ones (pending legal and practical study of that possibility to be reconsidered by the council in 2019);

      ▪ Finding ways to attain carbon sequestration, meaning strategies to manage city forests that convert carbon dioxide into nutritional benefits for tree growth, and other means;

      ▪ Encouraging efficient use of water and cars (walking and biking whenever possible, versus driving, for example).

      Despite its commitment, the council will wait until its Climate Action Plan Update next year to formally decide on the 2035 goal, but it’s united in trying to implement policy to set that timeline in motion, which council members acknowledge is ambitious.

      The council was divided on whether to adopt a formal resolution to set the 2035 Net Zero target – immediately creating a formal policy directive to work from, rather than waiting to formalize that goal after more research on how it would affect city residents, builders, existing policy, land use and other considerations.

      Mayor Heidi Harmon argued in favor of adopting a resolution, saying that a formal, “bold” statement targeting a 2035 Net Zero goal could make it harder for a potentially new council, after this November’s election, to roll back that policy.

      “I think this is so important, and I know how tough culture shift is,” Harmon said. “But this is one of the main reasons I got elected was to be a champion on climate and have real, actionable things that we’re doing.”

      But Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said that an “action plan” will better inform the council before it signs off on a 2035 policy.

      “There are large numbers of people who emotionally react one way or another on these issues,” Christianson said. “We need to know exactly what we’re talking about, and we kind of don’t (without further staff research).”

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        SF Chronicle opinion: Mayors urge governor to end fossil fuel production in California

        Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

        Mayors urge governor to end fossil fuel production in California

        By Elizabeth Patterson and Melvin Willis, Aug. 24, 2018 3:31 p.m.
        FILE – This March 9, 2010, file photo shows a tanker truck passing the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif. A U.S. judge who held a hearing about climate change that received widespread attention has thrown …

        As San Francisco prepares to host Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic Global Climate Action Summit in September, we, the San Francisco Bay Area mayors of cities impacted by the toxic consequences of fossil fuel production, are standing with elected representatives from frontline communities and throughout California in calling on the governor to phase out fossil fuel production.

        Benicia and Richmond both face the toxic consequences of California’s complicity in one of the most toxic, polluting, dangerous industries on Earth and the primary driver of climate change: the oil and gas industry.

        Benicia is home to the Valero oil refinery, and our residents are regularly exposed to emissions during standard operations. In May 2017, a power outage sent flames, heavy black smoke and toxic gases spewing into the air for two straight weeks. Among the pollutants were nearly 80,000 pounds of toxic sulfur dioxide — five years’ worth of “normal” emissions — and carbonyl sulfide, a highly toxic and extremely flammable gas. Accidents are only the most visible of the toxic pollution that impacts our public health, day after day. Our asthma rates are three times the state average.

        The Valero refinery in Bencia,Ca., as seen on Tuesday June 20, 2017. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District on Wednesday is expected to approve the nation’s first limits on greenhouse gas emissions from …

        The Texas-based petroleum giant’s Benicia refinery employs 480 people and supplies nearly a quarter of our city’s tax revenue, but at what cost?

        When Valero proposed a crude-by-rail project to bring 70,000 barrels of tar sands and Bakken crude oil per day by rail through the Sierra, Sacramento and Davis to Benicia, our residents resisted, and our small, historic town stood up to our biggest employer and taxpayer. After three years of environmental review, national attention and a failed effort by Valero to get the federal government involved, the City Council voted unanimously against it.

        Farther south on San Francisco Bay is Richmond, one of the poorest communities in the Bay Area. Our city of largely Hispanic, African American and Asian residents fought against toxic industrial pollution from Chevron’s Richmond refinery that processes 250,000 barrels of crude oil daily. Chevron is our largest employer and taxpayer. Nonetheless, our community has risen up, defeating Chevron-backed candidates in 2014 that outspent us 5 to 1 in our local election, and elected true champions for our community. Richmond forced major environmental conditions on Chevron as it expands the refinery and strengthened our Industrial Safety Ordinance in response to the refinery’s toxic explosion and fire in 2012 that sent 15,000 residents to seek medical treatment.

        Toxic pollution isn’t the only threat we face. With 32 miles of shoreline, more than any other city on San Francisco Bay, Richmond is at extreme risk from sea level rise that will soon cost our community far more than we can afford. So, Richmond, home to an oil giant, became the ninth city in less than a year to bring major fossil fuel companies to court over climate change. We filed a lawsuit against 29 oil, gas and coal companies — including Chevron, along with BP and Exxon — to hold them accountable for their role in climate change and its impacts on the community.

        The fossil fuel industry’s business plan is destroying not only our health and communities, but also the survival of our species.

        Yet, under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state of California has not only tolerated the fossil fuel industry, but expanded it — granting permits for drilling 20,000 new oil wells.

        The Bay Area has had enough of this climate hypocrisy. It is wrong to make communities sick. As one of the top oil-producing states, it is time to bring the fossil fuel era to an end.

        While our small towns have the courage to stand up to a billion-dollar fossil fuel industry to protect our public health and climate, why hasn’t Brown?

        On the toxic front lines of climate change, we stand with 150 local elected officials from a majority of counties in California that are taking bold steps to stop fossil fuels. We all are urging Brown to make a plan to phase out oil and gas production in California, to clean up our cities, towns and agricultural lands, and protect our people.

        If our cities can say “no” to expanding fossil fuels, Gov. Brown, you can, too — and we’ll have your back.

        Elizabeth Patterson is mayor of Benicia. Melvin Willis is vice mayor of Richmond.
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