Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

Baykeeper features Benicia activists Andrés Soto and Kathy Kerridge: The struggle for clean air and water in Benicia

Environmental watchdog group Baykeeper filed a lawsuit in federal court against Amports, which owns the Port of Benicia, and Valero for allegedly mishandling petroleum coke, a refinery product that can damage the heart and lungs.

Peninsula|Press, a project of Stanford Journalism, by Elissa Miolene, May 16, 2022

From a cliff overlooking the Port of Benicia, Cole Burchiel pumped his fists in the air. It was a silent, solitary celebration – born not of happiness, but of vindication.

As a field investigator at the San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, Burchiel had been conducting one of his regular patrols of the bay. As he maneuvered his drone around the port, black plumes towered from the ship beneath it. And as he hit record, the drone – affectionately named Osprey – captured what for months had been impossible to prove.

Petroleum coke, a refinery byproduct that can damage the heart and lungs, was being mishandled at the Port of Benicia.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this happening to the environment,” Burchiel said. “But it was exciting because finally – after all this time – we have enough to do something about it.”

Five months later, in March of 2020, Baykeeper officially filed a lawsuit in federal court against Amports, which owns the Port of Benicia, and Valero, which produces the petroleum coke itself. According to Baykeeper, the incident Burchiel caught on camera was just one of many documented by the organization between November 2020 and March 2021.

Valero declined to comment on the suit, while Amports did not return requests to do so.

“We have a solid case lined up and some of the best lawyers I’ve ever met, so I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to deliver justice to this community,” said Burchiel. “The wheels are now in motion and the train can no longer be stopped.”

Baykeeper hopes the lawsuit will lead to increased regulation not just in Benicia, but across the East Bay, where many think decades of contamination – and the presence of five oil refineries – have led to increased asthma, respiratory disease, and other illnesses.

Elusive East Bay pollutants

The first call to Baykeeper’s hotline came from a longshoreman at the Port of Benicia in 2016. Black dust was billowing everywhere, the caller said, along with a thick, black substance that was seeping into the Carquinez Strait.

On land, many Benicia residents were noticing something similar. Pat Toth Smith, for example, said that those living near the Valero Benicia Refinery would wake up with a layer of powder on their cars. Constance Beutel, another Benicia resident, described seeing black dust, suspended and shimmering, in sun-lit air.

Baykeeper speculated that the black dust was petroleum coke, a bottom-of-the-barrel byproduct packed with heavy metals. Petroleum coke resembles coal, but is much dirtier – and when burned, it emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide.

At first, the Baykeeper team tried to locate the source of the petroleum coke on its small, blue-and-white speedboat. They knew that most of the petroleum coke produced in the area came from the Valero Benicia Refinery, which shipped the material to Asia via the Port of Benicia. In their boat, Baykeeper skippers and field investigators circled the strait, but were ultimately unable to detect evidence of contamination from the water.

Years later, Baykeeper was able to see the port – and spot the evasive pollution – from a new angle: the sky.

“The most significant pollution was an aerial plume of black smoke nearly 500 feet tall,” Burchiel said.

Cole Burchiel peers into a telephoto lens to survey ships at the Port of Benicia. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press

Over the last decade alone, 277 toxic spills in Benicia were reported to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), with 75 spills reported by the Valero Benicia Refinery itself. As part of their investigation into Amports and Valero, Baykeeper also found significantly high levels of zinc, nickel, mercury, copper, and arsenic in dredging material taken from the bay in 2010, 2013, and 2016, materials that point to consistent petroleum coke contamination, the organization said.

Tap image to enlarge.

These findings occurred amid a regular barrage of pollution, smoke, and contaminants already drifting across the East Bay, which – even if reported – were usually invisible to those breathing them in.

Can’t see it, can’t prove it

While Baykeeper was looking into Valero, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District) was doing the same – albeit, from a different lens.

After an investigation into the refinery in late 2018, the Air District found that Valero was producing toxic emissions, including cancer-causing agents like benzene, that were hundreds of times higher than permitted. The Air District mandates that refineries produce less than 15 pounds of “precursor organic compounds,” or hazardous air pollutants, per day. But over the three years of their investigation, the Air District found that Valero was producing 5,200.

According to the Air District, Valero had been aware of these elevated levels since 2003.

“This wasn’t just a little bit over the legal limit,” said Kathy Kerridge, director of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, an organization focused on environmental issues in Benicia. “This was like somebody driving 400 miles per hour in a five mile per hour speed zone.”

Though the Air District made these findings – and issued a notice of violation to Valero – in 2019, the agency did not notify the public until earlier this year, when it announced the imposition of an abatement order against the refinery.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young said he met with the general manager of the Valero Refinery nearly every month since he took office. Nothing about the investigation or the violation was ever revealed to him, either by Valero or the Air District, Young said.

“The fact that none of this was mentioned to me during any of these meetings is dispiriting,” said Mayor Young. “This was first discovered in 2003, but the Air District didn’t find out about it until 2018. Once they started to address it, they still didn’t let the city know. We are frustrated that something like this could go on – undetected and unreported – for this long.”

At a community meeting in February, Benicia residents repeatedly asked representatives how such pollution could have been concealed at Valero, and why the public was not notified until three years after the Air District began their investigation. According to the Air District, this information was kept from the public to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. Before releasing its findings, the Air District was working with Valero to develop a solution to the exceedance – one that ultimately reduced emissions, but not enough to comply with existing regulations.

“We could have done better, and we should have done better sooner,” said Damian Breen, the Senior Deputy Executive Officer at the Air District, at the community meeting.

In mid-March, the Air District approved an abatement order for Valero that requires the refinery to halt unreported emissions.

Even before these emissions were publicized, Valero was already the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the Bay Area, producing an estimated total of 2,186,096 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Tap image to enlarge.

Valero was surpassed only by other oil producers, including the Shell Martinez, Chevron Richmond, and Tesoro refineries – the latter of which is now idled.

­Life in a refinery corridor

According to Andres Soto, Benicia resident and environmental activist, the battle for transparency and accountability is nothing new to his community – one that is at the tail end of the Bay Area’s refinery corridor.

After living in Richmond and Benicia, Soto has seen similar things in both refinery towns, including a lack of trust with the Air District, a lack of trust with the refineries, and the impact those factors have on community members. Soto’s grandson, for example, plays on the local baseball team sponsored by Valero. He also has severe asthma, a condition which can be linked to the inhalation of refinery-produced materials.

Kerridge has also seen such illness firsthand. Two of her neighbors have died of lung cancer, and in the past two years, two of her friends’ husbands. She has had breast cancer. None of them were smokers.

“It’s very difficult to say this is caused by excess pollution, you can’t really pin it on that,” Kerridge said. “But I don’t know how typical it is to have that many people die of lung cancer in your neighborhood.”

Though it can be difficult to link pollution with health effects, Benicia’s toxic release score – used to enumerate exposure to chemical emissions from large facilities – is higher than 83 percent of the state, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. A 2016 report also showed that Solano County has rates of asthma and some cancers that are higher than the state average.

Tap to enlarge.

With three other refineries operating across the East Bay, communities like Richmond, Martinez, and Vallejo share Benicia’s health risks – and in some cases, face additional challenges. Richmond, for example, is home to Chevron, the largest refinery in the East Bay. In the neighborhood surrounding Richmond’s Levin Terminal, which handles coal and petroleum coke, asthma rates are higher than 99% of all neighborhoods in California, according to CalEnviroScreen.

Tap to enlarge.

Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond city councilmember and retired elementary school teacher, is intimately aware of such health effects. When he first moved to Richmond, he couldn’t understand why so many of his students were refusing to participate in their physical education classes.

“When I kept trying to push them, I got complaints from parents saying, I don’t know whether my son’s told you, but he has asthma,” said Martinez. “I started doing an inventory of my students, and I found out that over half my students had asthma.”

Realizing the extent of the issue, Martinez created an alternate physical education curriculum for those suffering from asthma, thereby creating an “asthma club” for children who couldn’t previously participate in gym classes.

It’s something that is not lost on the refineries, including Chevron in Richmond. In response to a request for comment, Chevron pointed to its efforts to reduce emissions, increase refinery safety, and monitor air quality. It also highlighted its own community air monitoring program, which has been in operation since 2014. The full comment can be accessed here.

“Chevron has a long-standing commitment to reduce emissions at our Richmond facility,” said the refinery in an email. “Our recent major investment in a Modernization Project is a great example of efforts taken to improve energy efficiency, reduce air emissions overall, cap greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the safety and reliability of the refinery. This project enabled the refinery to achieve more than 25 percent reduction of particulate matter emissions refinery-wide.”

Still, many activists say such efforts are not enough.

“This is a huge issue: that you can have oil extraction and facilities around sensitive receptors – kids, older people, even you and me,” said Janet Scoll Johnson, Coordinator of the Sunflower Alliance, a Bay Area environmental group. “This is the fight in the East Bay. It’s an environmental justice issue of the highest order.”

Cole Burchiel surveys Richmond’s Levin Terminal from his drone. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press
Pushing forward, on land and at sea

Despite these challenges, organizations across the East Bay are continuing to push forward on land and at sea. From 1989 to today, Baykeeper has won over 300 lawsuits against polluters – and both the organization and Benicia residents are hopeful that their latest suit against Valero will lead to decreased pollution.

“We hope to work with the defendants to resolve this case quickly and in a way that protects the health of the bay and the local community,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the executive director of Baykeeper, in an email.

The San Francisco skyline from the Baykeeper’s boat, shot during a regular patrol in February 2022. Photo by Elissa Miolene for the Peninsula Press.

In the meantime, community members are remaining hopeful. Kerridge and a team of activists recently unveiled the Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program, a system that scans for benzene, black carbon, and other pollutants right outside Valero’s gates. Martinez is running for mayor, with a foundational pillar of his campaign centered around a transition from fossil fuels. And Soto, though recently retired, is continuing to work with those in the ecosystem to hold institutions – both private and public – accountable.

“My hope comes from the fact that we have been able to organize, pull people together, and create networks all around the Bay Area addressing this,” said Soto. “The industry is going kicking and screaming, resisting these changes – but that’s nothing new. We expect that.”

Five years after power went out at Benicia’s refinery, CA lawmakers considering higher penalties

CA Assembly bill would increase penalties for air quality violations by refineries

KQED  Morning Edition – Ted Goldberg Reports, April 18, 2022


[Later: the bill was “Re-referred to Com. on NAT. RES.”]

Bill Analysis, by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources:

THIS BILL increases the maximum civil penalty applicable to a refinery for discharging air pollutants in violation of Section 41700, without regard to intent or injury, from $10,000 per day to $30,000 for the initial date of the violation, or $100,000 for the initial date of a second violation within 12 months, subject to conditions… [MORE]

The Bill’s text, history, status: AB-1897, Nonvehicular air pollution control: refineries: penalties
leginfo.legislature.ca.gov

https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220AB1897

Putin’s war shows autocracies and fossil fuels go hand in hand. Here’s how to tackle both

Democracies are making more progress than autocracies when it comes to climate action. But divestment campaigns can put pressure on the most recalcitrant of political leaders
Autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images

The Guardian, by Bill McKibben, Mon 11 Apr 2022

At first glance, last autumn’s Glasgow climate summit looked a lot like its 25 predecessors. It had:

  • A conference hall the size of an aircraft carrier stuffed with displays from problematic parties (the Saudis, for example, with a giant pavilion saluting their efforts at promoting a “circular carbon economy agenda”).
  • Squadrons of delegates rushing constantly to mysterious sessions (“Showcasing achievements of TBTTP and Protected Areas Initiative of GoP”) while actual negotiations took place in a few back rooms.
  • Earnest protesters with excellent signs (“The wrong Amazon is burning”).

But as I wandered the halls and the streets outside, it struck me again and again that a good deal had changed since the last big climate confab in Paris in 2015 – and not just because carbon levels and the temperature had risen ever higher.

The biggest shift was in the political climate. Over those few years the world seemed to have swerved sharply away from democracy and toward autocracy – and in the process dramatically limited our ability to fight the climate crisis. Oligarchs of many kinds had grabbed power and were using it to uphold the status quo; there was a Potemkin quality to the whole gathering, as if everyone was reciting a script that no longer reflected the actual politics of the planet.

Now that we’ve watched Russia launch an oil-fired invasion of Ukraine, it’s a little easier to see this trend in high relief – but Putin is far from the only case. Consider the examples.

Brazil, in 2015 at Paris, had been led by Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ party, which had for the most part worked to limit deforestation in the Amazon. In some ways the country could claim to have done more than any other on climate damage, simply by slowing the cutting. But in 2021 Jair Bolsonaro was in charge, at the head of a government that empowered every big-time cattle rancher and mahogany poacher in the country. If people cared about the climate, he said, they could eat less and “poop every other day”. And if they cared about democracy, they could … go to jail. “Only God can take me from the presidency,” he explained ahead of this year’s elections.

A climate activist holds a sign depicting Jair Bolsonaro with the slogan ‘Exterminator of the Future’. Photograph: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Or India, which may turn out to be the most pivotal nation given the projected increases in its energy use – and which had refused its equivalent of Greta Thunberg even a visa to attend the meeting. (At least Disha Ravi was no longer in jail).

Or Russia (about which more in a minute) or China – a decade ago we could still, albeit with some hazard and some care, hold climate protests and demonstrations in Beijing. Don’t try that now.

Or, of course, the US, whose deep democratic deficits have long haunted climate negotiations. The reason we have a system of voluntary pledges, not a binding global agreement, is that the world finally figured out there would never be 66 votes in the US Senate for a real treaty.

Joe Biden had expected to arrive at the talks with the Build Back Better bill in his back pocket, slap it down on the table, and start a bidding war with the Chinese – but the other Joe, Manchin of West Virginia, the biggest single recipient of fossil fuel cash in DC, made sure that didn’t happen. Instead Biden showed up empty-handed and the talks fizzled.

And so we were left contemplating a world whose people badly want action on climate change, but whose systems aren’t delivering it. In 2021 the UN Development Programme conducted a remarkable poll, across the planet – they questioned people through video-game networks to reach humans less likely to answer traditional surveys. Even amid the Covid pandemic, 64% of them described climate change as a “global emergency”, and that by decisive margins they wanted “broad climate policies beyond the current state of play”. As the UNDP director, Achim Steiner, summarized, “the results of the survey clearly illustrate that urgent climate action has broad support amongst people around the globe, across nationalities, age, gender and education level”.

The irony is that some environmentalists have occasionally yearned for less democracy, not more. Surely if we just had strongmen in power everywhere they could just make the hard decisions and put us on the right path – we wouldn’t have to mess with the constant vagaries of elections and lobbying and influence.

But this is wrong for at least one moral reason – strongmen capable of acting instantly on the climate crisis are also capable of acting instantly on any number of other things, as the people of Xinjiang and Tibet would testify were they allowed to talk. It’s also wrong for a number of practical ones.

Those practical problems begin with the fact that autocrats have their own vested interests to please – Modi campaigned for his role atop the world’s largest democracy on the corporate jet of Adani, the largest coal company in the subcontinent. Don’t assume for a minute that there’s not a fossil fuel lobby in China; right now it’s busy telling Xi that economic growth depends on more coal.

And beyond that, autocrats are often directly the result of fossil fuel. The crucial thing about oil and gas is that it is concentrated in a few spots around the world, and hence the people who live on top of or otherwise control those spots end up with huge amounts of unwarranted and unaccountable power.

Boris Johnson was just off in Saudi Arabia trying to round up some hydrocarbons – the day after the king beheaded 81 folks he didn’t like. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to the Saudi royal family if they did not possess oil? No. Nor would the Koch brothers have been able to dominate American politics on the basis of their ideas –when David Koch ran for the White House on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 he got almost no votes. So he and his brother Charles decided to use their winnings as America’s largest oil and gas barons to buy the GOP, and the rest is (dysfunctional) political history.

The most striking example of this phenomenon, it hardly need be said, is Vladimir Putin, a man whose power rests almost entirely on the production of stuff that you can burn. If I wandered through my house, it would be no problem to find electronics from China, textiles from India, all manner of goods from the EU – but there’s nothing anywhere that would say “made in Russia”. Sixty per cent of the export earnings that equipped his army came from oil and gas, and all the political clout that has cowed western Europe for decades came from his fingers on the gas spigot. He and his hideous war are the product of fossil fuel, and his fossil fuel interests have done much to corrupt the rest of the world.

Vladimir Putin and Alexei Miller, CEO of Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, attend a ceremony to mark the launch of the Sakhalin-Khabarovsk-Vladivostok natural gas pipeline in 2011. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

It’s worth remembering that Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, wears the Order of Friendship, personally pinned on his lapel by Putin in thanks for the vast investments Tillerson’s firm (that would be Exxon) had made in the Arctic – a region opened to their exploitation by the fact that it had, um, melted. And these guys stick together: it’s entirely unsurprising that when Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks and Amazon quit Russia last month, Koch Industries announced that it was staying put. The family business began, after all, by building refineries for Stalin.

Another way of saying this is that hydrocarbons by their nature tend towards the support of despotism – they’re highly dense in energy and hence very valuable; geography and geology means they can be controlled with relative ease. There’s one pipeline, one oil terminal.

Whereas sun and wind are, in these terms, much closer to democratic: they’re available everywhere, diffuse instead of concentrated. I can’t have an oilwell in my backyard because, as with almost all backyards, there is no oil there. Even if there was an oilwell, I would have to sell what I pumped to some refiner, and since I’m American, that would likely be a Koch enterprise. But I can (and do) have a solar panel on my roof; my wife and I rule our own tiny oligarchy, insulated from the market forces the Putins and the Kochs can unleash and exploit. The cost of energy delivered by the sun has not risen this year, and it will not rise next year.

As a general rule of thumb, those territories with the healthiest, least-captive-to-vested-interest democracies are making the most progress on climate change. Look around the world at Iceland or Costa Rica, around Europe at Finland or Spain, around the US at California or New York. So part of the job for climate campaigners is to work for functioning democratic states, where people’s demands for a working future will be prioritized over vested interest, ideology and personal fiefdoms.

But given the time constraints that physics impose – the need for rapid action everywhere – that can’t be the whole strategy. In fact, activists have arguably been a little too focused on politics as a source of change, and paid not quite enough attention to the other power center in our civilization: money.

If we could somehow persuade or force the world’s financial giants to change, that would yield quick progress as well. Maybe quicker, since speed is more a hallmark of stock exchanges than parliaments.

And here the news is a little better. Take my country as an example. Political power has come to rest in the reddest, most corrupt parts of America. The senators representing a relative handful of people in sparsely populated western states are able to tie up our political life, and those senators are almost all on the payroll of big oil. But money has collected in the blue parts of the country – Biden-voting counties account for 70% of the country’s economy.

That’s one reason some of us have worked so hard on campaigns like fossil fuel divestment – we won big victories with New York’s pension funds and with California’s vast university system, and so were able to put real pressure on big oil. Now we’re doing the same with the huge banks that are the industry’s financial lifeline. We’re well aware that we may never win over Montana or Mississippi, so we better have some solutions that don’t depend on doing so.

The same thing’s true globally. We may not be able to advocate in Beijing or Moscow or, increasingly, in Delhi. So, at least for these purposes, it’s useful that the biggest pots of money remain in Manhattan, in London, in Frankfurt, in Tokyo. These are places we still can make some noise.

And they are places where there’s some real chance of that noise being heard. Governments tend to favor people who’ve already made their fortune, industries that are already ascendant: that’s who comes with blocs of employees who vote, and that’s who can afford the bribes. But investors are all about who’s going to make money next. That’s why Tesla is worth far more than General Motors in the stock market, if not in the halls of Congress.

Moreover, if we can persuade the world of money to act, it’s capable of doing so quickly. Should, say, Chase Bank, currently the biggest lender on earth to fossil fuel, announce this year that it was quickly phasing out that support, the news would ripple out across stock markets in the matter of hours. That’s why some of us have felt it worthwhile to mount increasingly larger campaigns against these financial institutions, and to head off to jail from their lobbies.

The world of money is at least as unbalanced and unfair as the world of political power – but in ways that may make it a little easier for climate advocates to make progress.

Putin’s grotesque war might be where some of these strands come together. It highlights the ways that fossil fuel builds autocracy, and the power that control of scarce supplies gives to autocrats. It’s also shown us the power of financial systems to put pressure on the most recalcitrant political leaders: Russia is being systematically and effectively punished by bankers and corporations, though as my Ukrainian colleague Svitlana Romanko and I pointed out recently, they could be doing far more. The shock of the war may also be strengthening the resolve and unity of the world’s remaining democracies and perhaps – one can hope – diminishing the attraction of would-be despots like Donald Trump.

But we’ve got years, not decades, to get the climate crisis under some kind of control. We won’t get more moments like this. The brave people of Ukraine may be fighting for more than they can know.

  • This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story

KQED on Benicia Port fire – Fire Chief reports refinery byproducts are burning, so far residents spared by west winds

Who and what is East of the Benicia Port?  Where is toxic ash falling to ground?