Category Archives: Environmental pollution

KQED: EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News

EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, August 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.

The Valero Energy Corporation is facing a deadline in the coming days to respond to questions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about power issues at its Benicia oil refinery several months after an outage shut down the entire facility for weeks, leading to a major release of pollution.

The EPA wants detailed information about the outages that have led to flaring events at the refinery over the last three years, and it wants inspection records for all of the facility’s process units.

“EPA believes that much of the requested information is, or should be, readily available at the facility,” wrote Enrique Manzanilla, director of the agency’s Pacific Southwest Superfund Division, in a letter obtained by KQED.

The agency has asked Valero to explain its policies on handling outages, its risk management program and its flare system.

“The company may not withhold any information from EPA on the grounds that it is confidential business information,” the July 27 letter states. The EPA says Valero is required to respond to the agency within 30 days of receiving the letter.

The outage initially sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. It would later lead to several local and state investigations, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, a decrease in profits for Valero and a push for more refinery oversight by the city of Benicia.

A Valero official says the company is working on providing answers to federal officials.

“We did receive the EPA request, and we intend to respond accordingly,” Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokesman, said in an email.

The EPA’s demands seem to go against the image the Trump administration has established as less interested in strong regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

“This letter is a bit surprising given that Trump’s EPA seems to be ignoring many public health issues to the delight of just about every polluter in the country,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “The EPA must think Valero’s practices are especially concerning if it’s asking for this information.”

Still, he says the agency is not being aggressive enough. “This might be little more than a public relations exercise in the face of increasingly high-profile pollution problems at Bay Area refineries,” Kretzmann said. “There’s no assurance that any of this information gathering will lead to meaningful action.”

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley who has long advocated for strong solutions to climate change, says the EPA’s demand for information from one of the nation’s largest oil companies in connection with a local emergency should be the kind of on-the-ground work the agency does, no matter who’s in the White House.

“Actual workers at the EPA have to continue their jobs irrespective of political interference,” Kammen said.

If the EPA did not act on its federal mandate to react to Valero’s pollution release, it could be sued by environmental groups, according to Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.

“Despite (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt’s stance on climate and environment in general, in numerous decisions he has shied away from taking actions that will certainly lose in court,” Wexler said.

The agency’s demands are part of a review of the refinery prompted by the May 5 outage, according to EPA officials who declined to comment further on the agency’s letter to Valero.

They came a month after Valero filed a lawsuit against PG&E, blaming the utility for the power failure. The oil giant is seeking in excess of $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue it says was the result of the shutdown that took place after PG&E “shut off all electricity” to the Benicia facility.

PG&E has said the power failure was triggered by an “inadvertent operation” to protect electrical circuits. It has hired an engineering firm to review the cause. That company, Exponent, has yet to turn over a report to PG&E, according to utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide from flaring in the days and weeks after the outage.

In June, KQED revealed that the refinery released more than 74,000 pounds of the toxic gas during 14 days of flaring after the outage, described as a “huge amount” by experts. That information came from a report the company filed with state officials and was obtained through a California Public Records Act Request.

Valero filed a separate report with the California Office of Emergency Services last month that showed the refinery released more than 8,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide on June 18 and 19.

The outage prompted several investigations, including one that revealed damage to part of the facility.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected the refinery after the power failure, closed its investigation the same month and decided not to issue any violations afterward.

But the outage did damage one of the refinery’s flares, according to Cal/OSHA. “Attention was given to the South Flare, due to damage on flare tips and the dump stack,” wrote Cal/OSHA safety engineer Sean Sasser in a notice after the inspection.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued several notices of violation against the company due to the flaring in the days after the shutdown. Its investigation is ongoing, according to district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management also launched a probe. That review is ongoing and is expected to be completed in October, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the department’s director.

Experts say the outage led to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices.

And the shutdown hurt Valero’s bottom line. Its lawsuit claimed that the company lost a “substantial amount of profits.” The company’s second-quarter earnings, released last month, fell by more than 30 percent, apparently because it took several weeks to get the refinery back online.

The outage has also prompted Benicia city leaders to consider increasing their oversight of the refinery and improve how they communicate with residents about emergencies.

On the day of the shutdown, authorities imposed shelter-in-place evacuation orders for parts of the city, and at least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

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EAST BAY TIMES: Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

Repost from the East Bay Times

Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

By Denis Cuff, October 5, 2016, 5:53 pm
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

BENICIA – The Valero oil refinery has agreed to pay $157,800 in federal penalties for improper management and storage of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.

The violations included illegal disposal of benzene, a carcinogen, into an unlined storm water retention pond and not alerting the public about all of its toxic chemical releases, EPA officials reported.

In addition to paying the penalties, Valero will modify its piping operations by June 2017 to prevent an estimated 5,000 pounds of benzene from being released into the atmosphere over the next 10 years, officials said.

Evidence of the violations were detected during an EPA inspection of the Benicia refinery in May 2014 to assess compliance with the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Additional violations included the company’s failure to determine if solid waste generated at the refinery was hazardous; the failure to maintain and operate to minimize risks of a toxic release; and failure to maintain complete and accurate records, the EPA said.

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GRANT COOKE: Time to Shed the Company Town Label

With permission by the author. (Published in the Benicia Herald, 5/3/16, no online presence, thus no link…)

Time to Shed the Company Town Label

By Grant Cooke, April 29, 2016
Grant Cooke
Grant Cooke

I have a great deal of respect and gratitude toward municipal politicians, particularly those who toil on the city council and commission level. The hours are long, the decisions tough, and the pay bad to non-existent. Heaven knows that without good folks looking after the stuff that keeps a social contract intact, Thomas Hobbes’s “natural state” of chaos, violence, and potholes would be the norm.

This goes for the folks who lead our fair city. Benicia’s mayor and members of the council seem like fine people. They attend the meetings, do the horrific amount of homework required to be conversant with the issues, and overall appear to be decent folks with a sincere believe that they are doing the collective good by serving their fellow citizens. I’m grateful for their service; but I just wish that three of them—Alan Schwartzman, Christina Strawbridge and Mark Hughes—would resign.

Their collective efforts to secure Valero’s delay of the crude-by-rail decision against overwhelming community disapproval, the unanimous rejection of the project by the Planning Commission, the concerns of every major city along the proposed rail path, and the thousands of letters and statements against the project by informed and credible experts raises the bar of small town political shamefulness.

That it was clear from the start that the three council members were going to side with Valero verges on chicanery. Why put the town’s citizens through the hope of believing that their concerns of health and wellbeing are being heard and matter, if you support a volatile project that has a blast zone that includes an elementary school?

Since none of the three has stepped forward with a clear and convincing argument about why they sided with Valero—after all Valero would still bring the oil in by existing means and really doesn’t need the continuous line of daily rail tankers to stay in business and pay its taxes—we are left with the impression that once again, a small American town is at the mercy of a major oil company.

The history of the US oil industry is a trail of tears going back to the early days of ruthless land grabs, the mendacity and murder of Standard Oil’s oligarchy, the tragic violence of the Middle East, and the rise of climate change and environmental pollution. And to think, all this could, and still can, be avoided by shifting from carbon-based to renewable energy.

(As an aside, look at Denton Texas. This small Texas oil town, home to many of Dallas’s oil executives, banned fracking and drilling in the city limits. Evidently, they didn’t want to run the risk of an accident close to parks and schools. There’s a lesson here for Benicia. As a state, New York stood tall against the oil industry, but Denton is the only US small town I know of to have the self-respect required to say enough.)

So, the question before the citizens of Benicia is now what? What good is Benicia’s formal planning process if corporate power can bludgeon a thorough and lengthy review and rejection of the crude-by-rail proposal? Why put the residents through all the work and hope of participating in the democratic process if there is no intention by the council to understand their concerns or follow their wishes?

I grew up in rural America and know what a “company town” is. In some ways, it was simple and easy, letting the company bosses tell you where to work, what and who to like, what to believe in and who to vote for.

But it lacked fulfillment and self-determination, and I moved to the Bay Area to be part of the epicenter of the world’s intellectual and scientific renaissance where freedom of thought, action, and the ideals of local democracy are so highly acclaimed. Yet, ironically, I end up in a “company town”, where a huge carbon polluter can seemly send three decent council members scurrying to service its greed.

The problems of 21st century cities, big and small, are complex and can no longer be inclusive of one economic driver or administered by one major corporate power. For Benicia to move forward and join the extraordinary Bay Area knowledge-based economy we need to say goodbye to those three council members who lack the wherewithal to help the city past its company-town era.

Other once-rural Bay Area cities have thrown of the oppressive yoke of being run by a single company, exchanging “easy” for self-determination. Cities like Sunnyvale and Mountain View long ago threw off the yoke of the defense industry and learned to reinvent themselves and flourish. Walnut Creek, Livermore, and now Richmond are joining the prosperity of a sophisticated diverse economy. Vallejo and the other cities along I-80 are showing signs of change as the robust modern Bay Area economy moves outward from Silicon Valley.

If Benicia hopes to continue as a fully functioning city with a compliment of services and a healthy and vigorous citizenry, it has to look forward, shed its dependence on Valero, and embrace a 21st century reality.

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Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident, author and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. His newest book, Smart Green Cities: Toward a Carbon Neutral World was published in April. The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics was published last year.
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