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.”
After Weeks of Issues, Valero’s Benicia Refinery to Temporarily Shut Down
By Ted Goldberg, Michelle Wiley, Mar 24, 2019 11:30 a.m.
The Valero refinery is performing a controlled shutdown to “improve conditions and minimize risk,” according to a statement from Benicia city officials. The shutdown could last multiple days and result in visible flaring.
Earlier Sunday, city officials issued an advisory notice for residents with respiratory issues to stay inside after a two-week-old problem at the Valero refinery worsened.
But now that the refinery is shutting down, city officials and Solano County health officer Bela Matyas says the air quality is safe for residents.
Valero Advisory Update – 10:30 a.m.
Benicia Fire Department continues to monitor air quality. Readings show that levels have significantly improved and are currently in the safe range. #ValeroScrubberIncident
“The concentration of particulate matter has become significantly higher over the past day. The emissions contain coke, a by-product of the refining process that is made up primarily of carbon particles,” the city’s statement says.
Benicia officials said testing of the coke dust released so far did not show heavy metals at harmful levels but warned that breathing in air from the releases could worsen underlying respiratory conditions like asthma.
“Inspectors are on scene working with the facility and with Solano County and making a determination if additional violations will be coming,” said Lisa Fasano, a spokeswoman with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
The Air District also deployed a monitoring van to drive throughout Benicia to “gather ground level emissions data.”