Category Archives: Flaring

Bay Area quake caused refineries to flare; ‘What happens if there’s a big one?’

Bay Area quake caused refineries to flare; ‘What happens if there’s a big one?’

10/15/19, 5:39 p.m.
The Marathon refinery in Martinez, shown here on Tuesday, experienced a problem due to Monday’s quake and had to flare. Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chronicle

A 4.5-magnitude earthquake centered in Pleasant Hill on Monday night caused flaring at the two refineries in Martinez, local officials said.

Flaring is a safety procedure to burn off excess gas. At the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Martinez, flaring stopped at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to a company spokesman.

Portions of the Marathon refinery shut down after the quake and things restarted early Tuesday, Contra Costa County health department spokesman Will Harper said.

Flaring also occurred at the Shell refinery in Martinez, Harper said.

Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said by email that “some equipment was temporarily affected by the quake,” but operations were back to normal Tuesday morning.

The Chevron refinery in Richmond sustained “no known damage,” according to a spokeswoman. Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said in an email Tuesday that there were no major disruptions at the company’s Benicia refinery, and operations are continuing.

But the problems in Martinez prompted some people to wonder what will happen when a bigger quake strikes.

“Thank God for a small one last night, but what happens if there’s a big one?” said Torm Nomprasseurt, a senior community organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network who has lived on the fence line of the Chevron Richmond refinery since 1975.

When there is a siren warning the community because of a flare at the Chevron plant, he shelters in place with his family.

“But if an earthquake happened … and we can’t stay in our house, what are we going to do?” he said.

“This is one of the challenges of living in an earthquake area with the industrial belt,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said Tuesday. He said officials have “gotten progressively better in the 25 years” with notifying communities about instances like flaring at refineries.

Amy Myers Jaffe, who served on the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee and is now based at a think tank in New York, said refineries carry significant safety and environmental risks. In an earthquake, underground pipes can rupture and storage tanks of gasoline or other chemicals burn.

Robert Young, associate professor of chemical engineering practice at USC School of Engineering, who used to work for Exxon, said “flaring is a very important safety measure” because it combusts highly hazardous or acutely toxic materials instead of releasing them into the ground or inside the facility.

The plants are equipped with safety devices that tell operations to shut down automatically when a vibration is detected, said Ralph Borrmann, spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“It’s a normal process that occurs when the safety devices get triggered,” Borrmann said.

The air quality district is conducting an investigation following the quake, part of standard protocol.

At 11:10 p.m. Monday, due to the Marathon refinery problems, Level 1 of the community warning system was issued, the company said. On a scale of 0 to 3 that meant there were no expected off-site health impacts and only the health department and other county agencies were notified, according to Harper, the Contra Costa County spokesman. In the case of more significant incidents, the county would issue an advisory to the community.

Separately on Tuesday afternoon, at least two tanks caught fire after an explosion at a tank farm at a NuStar facility in Rodeo in Contra Costa County. A 4.7-magnitude earthquake struck near Hollister (San Benito County) on Tuesday shortly after noon, but it was unclear whether the explosion was quake-related. Hollister and Rodeo are 100 miles apart.

The tank farm stores fuels and hydrocarbons, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County health officer, who said officials were trying to determine the explosion’s cause.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office released a shelter-in-place alert: “There is a hazardous materials emergency in Crockett and Rodeo at the NuStar facility. The danger will be much less indoors. Go inside, and close all windows and doors. Turn off all heaters, air conditioners, and fans,” the alert read.

“Unless you are using your fireplace, close your fireplace dampers and vents. Cover any cracks around doors or windows with tape or damp towels. Stay off the phone unless you need to report a life-threatening emergency at your location. Remain sheltered indoors until you receive further official instructions. Stay off the phones and do not call 911 unless you have a life threatening emergency.”

According to the company website, the facility has 24 tanks and holds a capacity of 3.04 million barrels.


Chronicle staff writer Anna Bauman contributed to this report.  Mallory Moench and Megan Cassidy are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. 

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    Valero Restarts Benicia Refinery 40+ days after major malfunction and pollution release

    By Ted Goldberg, KQED
    The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

    Valero is restarting its Benicia refinery more than 40 days after a major malfunction and pollution release forced the energy giant to shut down the facility, contributing to the state’s recent spike in fuel costs.

    “The Valero Benicia refinery has commenced the startup process, which is a multi-day sequenced event,” the company said in a notification sent to Benicia city officials over the weekend. The message warned of potential “visible, intermittent flaring” as a necessary safety precaution.

    That flaring began Tuesday morning, according to a state hazardous materials database, and included a release of sulfur dioxide. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent staff to the refinery to observe the flaring, said agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

    Valero has also been in touch with the Benicia Fire Department about the startup and flaring, according to Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.

    Valero shut down the refinery on March 24 after ongoing equipment problems.

    The air district, along with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and Solano County inspectors, has been investigating the refinery’s problems since then.

    The focus of the county investigation centers on two key refinery components that malfunctioned, allowing petroleum coke (petcoke), an oil processing residue, to escape.

    For several hours on March 24, county officials issued a health advisory, warning residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

    The petcoke releases later prompted Benicia’s mayor and air quality advocates to call for local air regulators and the city to create a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of the refinery. Two years earlier, the same facility experienced a full outage and a much more extreme pollution release.

    The air district, which issued 12 notices of violation against Valero for the most recent releases, does not have a stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas and had to drive a van to the area to monitor the situation.

    The shutdown took place several weeks after California’s gas prices began to increase.

    Energy experts correctly predicted that the refinery’s problems, coupled with maintenance issues at several other California refineries, would prompt an increase in crude oil prices.

    The average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California on the day Valero shut down its Benicia refinery was $3.49, according to the American Automobile Association. It has increased by more than 60 cents since then, and on Tuesday stood at $4.10.

    Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the California Energy Commission to investigate the hikes.

    But the average price increases have slowed in recent days, and an AAA representative said Tuesday that costs may be beginning to stabilize.

    “The news about Valero was actually a pretty big reason for the prices evening out,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Mike Blasky.

    He said just the talk of the Benicia refinery restarting contributed to a recent 8-cent drop in the average wholesale cost of a gallon of gas.

    “When those units do restart, that’s going to really contribute to a higher utilization rate, which will lower prices as we see our stocks resupplied,” Blasky said. “Any major refinery shutdown in California tends to really throw things out of whack.”

    KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler contributed reporting to this story.

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      KQED: Valero Benicia one of three Cal oil refineries shut down – gas prices up, Chevron flaring

      Repost from KQED California Report

      Valero Could Restart Troubled Benicia Refinery by Mid-May

      By Ted Goldberg, Apr 15, 2019
      The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

      Valero’s Benicia refinery, shut down since last month because of equipment malfunctions, could be back online by mid-May, Benicia city officials and state regulators say.

      Although the company won’t provide a date that it plans to restart the Solano County facility, Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick said Monday he estimates the refinery will be back online in the next three to four weeks.

      Chadwick said a Solano County hazardous materials specialist assigned to Valero provided him with the estimated timetable. County officials did make the specialist available for comment.

      The California Energy Commission said Monday that the Benicia refinery is one of three California crude oil processing facilities that the agency expects to be restarted over the next several weeks. Shutdowns at the refineries — including two in the Los Angeles area — have helped drive up the cost of gasoline statewide.

      Valero powered down its Benicia facility on March 24 after failing to resolve malfunctions that led to the release of soot-laden smoke.

      The incident prompted Solano County to issue a health advisory for people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

      A Valero representative said the company will not disclose its restart date.

      “I know we shared information about the status of the refinery on March 24, but beyond that, it is Valero’s policy to not comment on operations or possible outages/restarts at its facilities beyond what is publicly reported,” said Lillian Riojas, a company spokeswoman.

      The California Energy Commission has been in touch with Valero but does not release certain data about its operations due to regulatory restrictions, according to agency spokeswoman Sandy Louey.

      But Louey said refinery issues that have played a part in recent gas price increases — including the Valero shutdown — would be coming to an end in the coming weeks.

      “The Energy Commission can say that the three large refinery maintenance issues are scheduled to be resolved over a period beginning late April through the middle of May,” she said in an email.

      Besides Valero, the facilities involve two in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson: a Phillips 66 refinery that suffered a fire and a Marathon Oil refinery that’s been down for planned maintenance.

      The statewide average cost of a gallon of regular has increased 62 cents since Valero’s March 24 shutdown, according to AAA. It now stands at $4.006.

      “We’ve had major refinery issues all spring,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Michael Blasky.  “I’ve heard it referred to as a perfect storm in the industry, with a lot of refinery incidents of flaring or shutting down for days or weeks at time.”

      In fact, Chevron’s Richmond refinery experienced its seventh flaring incident of the year on Saturday, according to Contra Costa County’s chief environmental and hazardous materials officer, Randy Sawyer.  The incident caught the attention of the Oil Price Information Service.

      Monday’s price marks the first time the statewide average cost for a gallon of regular has topped $4 in close to five years, Blasky said.

      He said that while other factors have played a part in the rise — for instance, an increase in the price of crude oil worldwide — the refinery issues have been a major contributing factor.

      “I would hope, as refineries come back to their normal levels of production, that we start to see prices level out and hopefully start to come down by mid-May,” Blasky said.

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