By Steve Young, Benicia Vice Mayor, November 21, 2018
It’s not often that the Council receives the kind of letter copied below. It is from Brien Farrell, the former City Attorney of Santa Rosa, who has retired here in town. I thank Mr. Farrell on behalf of my colleagues. After 4 hours of testimony and deliberation on Tuesday, the Council unanimously adopted a motion advancing what I hope is the mutual interest of the City and Valero in providing enhanced air monitoring for the public, as well as better communication between the two parties. We also appreciate the donation to the City Fire Department by Valero of three mobile air monitors.
Brien Farrell 4:34 PM (7 hours ago)
To Mayor, Steve, Mark, Alan, Tom
Mayor Patterson and Councilmembers:
I watched portions of last night’s council meeting on line and I watched the entire discussion surrounding the motion that was adopted.
I have attended hundreds of city council meetings. Your preparation, civility and thoughtful crafting of a compromise was a model of good government.
Our family thanks you. Air quality and economic stability are important to all of us. Our middle son is the special education coordinator at Robert Semple Elementary School. He had to be rushed to the hospital the day of the flare-up in May 2017. He did not know whether he was having a cardiac or pulmonary emergency. He had never experienced anything similar.
Evacuation planning and air quality monitoring are both critical. We strongly support local, state and federal oversight. In my past career as a city attorney, I routinely observed that local government is the most responsive and accountable.
Our son has been cleared to donate his kidney to another Benicia teacher on December 17, 2018, at the UC Davis Hospital. Upon his return to work, we worry that he might be exposed to another major air quality event or cumulative harm. Everyone assures us that his health will be normal after the kidney transplant. We would like all foreseeable risks to be minimized.
Your ongoing efforts to promote maximum transparency and protections that are fair and reasonable are much appreciated. We urge the city to impose local regulations, if it is not possible to reach compromises in six months.
Second regulator finds Valero committed no violations in May 5 flaring
By Katy St. Clair, 10/24/17, 5:19 PM PDT
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.
Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage
By Ted Goldberg, October 23, 2017
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.