Category Archives: Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE)

KQED: In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

Repost from KQED News (NPR / PBS)
[Editor: Also tune in to an incredibly important 8-minute KQED audio report for interviews about asthma and Valero refinery pollution: When Oil refineries flare, what happens to the air.  – RS]

In Wake of Valero Refinery Incident, Benicia Weighs Whether to Pursue Safety Ordinance

By Ted Goldberg, Jun 18, 2018
A power outage on May 5, 2017, at Benicia’s Valero refinery led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released into the air. (California Environmental Protection Agency)

Thirteen months after a major air-pollution incident at Valero Energy Corp.’s Benicia refinery, city leaders will decide whether to assume more oversight of the facility.

On Tuesday, the City Council plans to decide whether to direct staff to begin developing an industrial safety ordinance that would require Valero to pay for a set of air monitors, submit a safety plan to the city and provide Benicia with reports on serious refinery malfunctions.

The issue is the latest to pit Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, other city officials, environmentalists and some residents against the San Antonio-based energy company, which is the city’s largest employer and taxpayer.

Patterson began pushing for the reforms in the weeks following the May 5, 2017, refinery power outage that triggered the release of more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

“The space for the city is to be at the table and not be kept in the dark,” said Patterson.

The outage sent flames and black smoke into the sky, leading to shelter-in-place and evacuation orders. At least a dozen people sought medical attention for breathing difficulties. It took weeks for the refinery to return to full operations, and analysts said the incident prompted a rise in the state’s gasoline prices.

Patterson says that since the outage, neither Valero nor regulators have given the city detailed information about the incident.

For instance, city officials learned from KQED, not from Solano County, that county environmental health investigators concluded late last year Valero did not violate state regulations in connection with the accident.

“We don’t get those reports,” said Patterson in an interview last week. “We never did get a presentation by any state or regional agency, let alone Valero, about what had happened.”

“The public has a right to know,” she said.

Valero has consistently opposed a city safety ordinance, which would be modeled after those used in Richmond for the Chevron refinery and in the rest of Contra Costa County for the Shell, Phillips 66 and Andeavor (formerly Tesoro) facilities.

“We believe you will see there will be no need to pursue a duplicative and divisive Benicia Industrial Safety Ordinance,” Donald Cuffel, the refinery’s director of health, safety, environmental and regulator affairs, wrote in a letter to the City Council late last month.

Cuffel argued state and county agencies, as well as the local air district, already have similar regulations in place.

Last October, California officials approved rules similar to Contra Costa County’s ordinance for refineries statewide.

That prompted Solano County’s Department of Resource Management to spend close to 500 hours inspecting, reviewing and documenting the Valero refinery, according to Benicia city staff.

Currently, neither the Bay Area Air Quality Management District nor Benicia have air monitors in place to measure air quality after refinery accidents. Air district officials say they rely on monitors in nearby cities to gauge Benicia’s air quality.

Patterson’s proposal calls for Valero to pay for monitors to be placed throughout Benicia’s residential and industrial areas as well as on the refinery’s fence line. Data from those devices would be placed on a website.

Last week the regional air district approved a fence-line air monitoring plan by Valero, according to agency spokesman Tom Flannigan. The refinery has one year to install the devices.

The district is in the initial phases of looking for a location for a community air monitor, said Flannigan.

Iron Workers Local 378, which represents some of the refinery’s workers, is also opposed to the safety ordinance, calling it a “duplicative, outdated, go-it-alone strategy.”

“A local ISO won’t make sure our workers, trainees or this community any safer,” Jeff McEuen, the union’s business manager, financial secretary and treasurer, wrote in a letter to the City Council last week.

But a group brought together after last year’s refinery outage to develop safety reforms says the law is needed.

“This is a signature moment for Benicia, as it will signal whether the City Council puts the health and safety of Benicia, its citizens and community members over the Valero refinery’s ‘just trust us’ stance to its industrial safety record,” said Constance Beutel, a member of Benicia’s ISO Working Group.

At least one other member of the council sees the proposed ordinance as a way for the city to get information more quickly when the next refinery accident takes place.

“There is a problem with getting sufficient information out in a timely manner,” said Vice Mayor Steve Young. “There is a need for greater transparency.”

Young noted that the conflict over an industrial safety ordinance is the biggest between city leaders and Valero since the council rejected the company’s oil-by-rail proposal in 2016.

Councilmembers could either direct city staff to draft an ordinance that the council would vote on in the coming months, or the city could continue to rely on Solano County’s work in employing the new state regulations.

Meantime, the California Public Utilities Commission expects to complete its investigation of the refinery outage this summer, according to Garrett Toy, a CPUC lawyer.

Valero sued Pacific Gas and Electric after the incident, seeking $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue. The company blames PG&E for the episode and claims it “shut off all electricity” to the refinery the day of the outage.

PG&E hired a third party engineering firm, Exponent, to review the outage. The company submitted that report to the CPUC. Both PG&E and the commission have declined to release that report.

Valero’s lawsuit is expected to go to trial next year.

    Solano County report on Valero near-catastrophic incident on May 5, 2017

    Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald and the East Bay Times
    [Editor: Note that the Solano County analysis and report was not sent to City of Benicia elected officials nor released to the public.  The existence of the report came by way of a contact for information by KQED News.  See also: KQED: Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage.   For details, download the Solano County Incident Report.  – RS]

    Second regulator finds Valero committed no violations in May 5 flaring

    By Katy St. Clair, 10/24/17, 5:19 PM PDT 
    (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680.
    The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680. | (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

    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.

      KQED: Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage

      Repost from KQED News, San Francisco
      [Editor: For details, download the Solano County Incident Report.  – RS]

      Solano County Probe Finds No Violations in Valero Refinery Outage

      By Ted Goldberg, October 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.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.

      Recently it has prompted extra scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the power issues at the Benicia facility.

      The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide on the day of the outage and in the weeks afterward.

      Schmidtbauer says Valero is still working on its root-cause analysis of the incident. Once that’s completed, the county may end up issuing recommendations to Valero to avoid another similar shutdown.