Category Archives: Particulate pollution

Cracking Down on Refinery Emissions – all about “cat crackers”

[See also: Baykeeper notice of intent to sue Amports; Video and photos at Port of Benicia show fossil fuel polluter in the act;  Marilyn Bardet – Petcoke pollution in Benicia, photos going back to 1995]

A “cat cracker” may sound like a child’s snack, but…

Shell refinery in Martinez. Wikimedia Commons
Bay Area Monitor, League of Women Voters Bay Area, by Leslie Stewart, June-July 2021

A “cat cracker” may sound like a child’s snack, but call it by its full name — fluidized catalytic cracking unit — and it is obviously something far different. Cat crackers are a central piece of refinery equipment that turns crude oil into gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Regulating this specialized equipment, referred to by the acronym FCCU, recently resulted in unusually high public participation in a significant Bay Area Air Quality Management District decision.

Reducing pollution is challenging for refineries. Crude oil is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, which is why it can be split into other products. In addition, it usually contains varying amounts of sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen and various metals, so refining it generates toxic compounds and particles which must be controlled. Refineries are subject to a multitude of regulations to prevent pollution reaching the environment and affecting the community.

FCCUs are responsible for over 50 percent of the particulate matter from refineries — over 800 tons per year — and 17% of particles 10 microns or less in diameter (PM10) from facilities with Air District permits in the region. The Air District’s Rule 6-5, regulating FCCUs in the Bay Area, was first adopted in 2015, because improved federal testing methods showed “scrubbed” FCCU emissions combining with the atmosphere when released to form more particulates than previously thought.  Particulate matter often doesn’t travel far and therefore has its greatest impact on adjacent, disadvantaged communities. Janet Hashe from Atchison Village near the Chevron refinery told the Air District Board in June, “The effects of air pollution are disproportionate on these communities and have been for decades. . .”

Under a recent state law, the Air District must require the Best Available Retrofit Control Technology for pollution sources at facilities that impact disadvantaged communities.  Rule 6-5 was revised in July in accordance with this law.  It will affect up to three of the region’s five refineries: Chevron, PBF (formerly Shell) and the currently inactive Marathon. Phillips 66 doesn’t use an FCCU at its Bay Area facility, and Valero recently installed a wet gas scrubber which should enable it to comply with the updated regulation.

Rule 6-5 now requires refineries to meet more stringent standards for emissions of sulfur dioxide and ammonia. It also sets a new limit on PM10 to reduce these emissions by over 400 tons/year. An agency staff report advised the Board that to reach that standard, local refineries will probably need to use wet gas scrubbers. This technology is used in other refineries across the country in addition to Valero.

The extensive debate over the draft rule, which started in 2019, also considered a more lenient standard that would allow twice as much PM10. Refineries might be able to meet that lower standard with less expensive electrostatic precipitators. During the multiple workshops and detailed discussion by the agency’s staff and Board subcommittees prior to two lengthy Board hearings, the two alternatives were nicknamed .10 and .20, based on the technical definition of how the PM10 output is measured, with .10 being the most stringent. They were also referred to as the ESP (electrostatic precipitator) and WGS (wet gas scrubber) alternatives.

Refinery in Martinez. Wikimedia Commons.

The more lenient .20 standard was potentially easier to achieve, and would have gone into effect by January 2023, while the adopted .10 standard won’t go into effect until January 2026. Although it will take longer to affect the region’s environmental quality, the long-term impact will be greater. Staff estimates show a yearly health benefit in reduced deaths, respiratory disease and cardiac illness of approximately $26-60 million, while the rejected alternative would have achieved only $17-38 million.

Long-term health benefits were the deciding factor for the district’s Stationary Source and Climate Impacts Committee when it voted to send the .10 alternative to the board as the recommended update to the rule. Health effects were also cited by a majority of the organizations and individuals who supported the more stringent alternative during board hearings. As Sally Tobin from Richmond noted at the six-hour June hearing, “Richmond children are hospitalized for asthma twice as often those in other parts of Contra Costa.” The Sierra Club’s Jacob Klein echoed this, saying, “We are learning more and more about the toxic impacts of particulate matter and the environmental racism associated with these emissions.”

However, the .20 limit also had substantial support. A consultant’s report on socioeconomic impacts, prepared as part of the agency’s staff report, concluded that the costs of the .10 limit might result in either employee cutbacks or an increase in gasoline prices, or both. Closures were seen as unlikely, and some public comments suggested that market factors would be the determinant in any decision to shutter a facility. However, refinery workers and their unions agreed with refinery concerns about impacts. Chad Fugate, a third-generation steamfitter, wrote, “We need these refineries to stay open and not run out of town”, while David Akeson was worried that refinery staffing decisions would affect safety, writing, “The recent Chevron fire is still fresh in my mind which was the result of repeat deferral on maintenance due to cost saving.”

District board members were also quite concerned about additional water that would be used in wet gas scrubbers, although reclaimed water and better technology could reduce that impact. Ultimately, they determined that the refinery costs and water usage were substantial unmitigated impacts that were necessary to achieve the benefits of the revised regulation.

Not surprisingly, considering the objections, the Air District has been sued by the two active refineries which will need to upgrade, PBF and Chevron. PBF is already implementing different particulate reduction measures, and maintains that it can’t afford to comply so will shut down. Chevron contests the Air District’s cost-benefit calculations. Both are asking that the rule be set aside; a decision will take several years. Nevertheless, Valero’s improved technology and the switch to refining renewable fuels at Phillips 66, and potentially at Marathon, may indicate the ultimate direction for Bay Area refineries.

Shell hit with $433,000 penalty for emission violations at Martinez refinery

Company cited for 44 infractions between 2017 and 2019

The Shell refinery is seen from Pacheco Boulevard in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group Archives)

Mercury News, by Shomik Mukherjee, October 15, 2021

MARTINEZ — Shell Oil has agreed to pay air quality regulators a $433,000 penalty for dozens of environmental violations at the oil refinery it once operated.

The refinery amassed 44 violations between 2017 and 2019, largely for emitting excessive amounts of pollutants that studies have shown to cause long-term health problems.

PBF Energy acquired the refinery from Shell in 2019 for $1 billion.

It’s the second settlement reached in a month involving environmental violations at one of Martinez’s two oil refineries. Marathon Petroleum agreed last month to pay $2 million to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over violations at its now idled Martinez oil refinery, previously operated by oil company Tesoro.

Earlier this year, the air quality district voted to require refineries to dramatically reduce air pollution by upgrading their technology.

The latest settlement will pay for future inspections and enforcement of environmental regulations, the air quality district said.

“Ensuring that we all have clean air to breathe is the Air District’s top priority,” Jack Broadbent, the district’s executive officer, said in a written a statement. “This settlement is one way we hold Shell Oil accountable for its violations of air quality regulations and continue to safeguard clean air for all Bay Area residents.”

Joanne Fanucchi of Pittsburg, is photographed holding a Peoples’ Climate March sign with the Shell refinery in the background in Martinez, Calif., on Friday, April 21, 2017. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

The refinery’s former management was found to have improperly monitored the facility’s flare pilots, which burn gas at low amounts to keep the flare system running correctly.

Once the pilots were extinguished, the refinery began emitting excess amounts of harmful pollutants, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, according to the air quality district.

The refinery was also flagged for not correctly sealing its storage tanks, as well as for failing to report violations and keep records up to date.

All the infractions have since been corrected, the air quality district said. An analysis earlier this year by district staff estimated that PBF’s emissions were responsible for six premature deaths each year.

Although East Bay oil refineries historically have employed a lot of people, recent brushes with environmental regulations have thrown their future into question.

PBF Energy, which acquired the Martinez refinery from Shell, warned earlier this year that the costs of cutting emissions by 70% — as required by the air quality district — will force it to shut down the refinery. Chevron, which owns a refinery in Richmond, also pushed back against the mandate.

Meanwhile, the Marathon-owned Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez is no longer in operation. According to Marathon, the refinery is being transitioned into a facility that will produce fuels that emit less carbon than petroleum diesel.

Valero will not be back online until early to mid May

April 14, 2019

Valero Benicia Refinery emissions Mar23 2.21pm

The Benicia Independent learned yesterday that Valero Benicia Refinery will remain in “partial shutdown” until early or mid-May.

This news raises two concerns:

  1. The shutdown came after the refinery experienced a massive release of black smoke on March 11 containing particles of petroleum coke and other toxic chemicals including benzene.  On March 24, a repeat of the black smoke releases took place, a shelter in place was issued by the health department, and the refinery went into a partial shutdown.  One might ask, “What kind of malfunction could result in a two-month shutdown?  How serious of an incident was this?”
  2. The partial shutdown has already raised gas prices in California.  How will another month offline affect consumers’ gas prices?

Roger Straw
The Benicia Independent

KQED: Valero’s pollution monitoring data: “Questionable until further notice”

Repost from KQED The California Report
[Editor: UPDATE AS OF APRIL 12, 2019: According to sources, the refinery’s partial shutdown will continue for maybe another month. Valero reports that they will not be back online until sometime between early and mid May.  – R.S.]

Valero’s March Pollution Release Exposes Weaknesses in Benicia’s Air Monitoring System

By Ted Goldberg, Apr 10, 2019
A plume containing petroleum coke dusts wafts from a smokestack at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery on March 23. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

When a major malfunction caused Valero’s Benicia refinery to spew out pollution last month, leading city officials to warn residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors, the agency that regulates air in the Bay Area had to send a van to monitor the situation.

That’s because there is no stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas, even though the city is home to one of the largest refineries in California.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District took a series of air samples, but none during the height of the emergency that Sunday morning of March 24, when a plume of black smoke filled the air for hours, convincing officials to issue a health advisory.

Several people called 911 to report breathing problems at the time of the refinery breakdown. The air district said it received about a dozen complaints.

There’s also no evidence that Valero monitored the air in those residential areas during the time period when the releases were most extreme.

The refinery problems sent soot into the air and followed two weeks of more minor releases that regulators thought were tapering off. The plume that morning eventually led Valero to shut down a large part of its facility, a move that has contributed to the increase in the cost of gas statewide in recent weeks.

Several public agencies and companies conducted air monitoring work to measure for a variety of chemicals that may have spewed from the refinery’s stacks.

Some local officials say those tests may prove that, for the most part, elevated levels of particulate matter and toxic gases did not waft into nearby residential neighborhoods.

Indeed, it looks so far like the pollution was not as bad as the extreme release of toxic sulfur dioxide that accompanied Valero’s May 2017 power outage, one of the Bay Area’s worst refinery accidents in years.

But Benicia’s mayor, along with a leading air quality expert and two local environmentalists, say these most recent releases confirm that the small North Bay city needs a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of its largest employer.

“It seems that right now, if there’s an incident, what happens is folks kind of drive around and see if they can catch the plume,” said Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.

Valero’s data:”Questionable until further notice”

Three government agencies are investigating the most recent malfunction at the Valero refinery. The focus of at least one of those investigations centers on two key components at the refinery that experienced problems, allowing petroleum coke, an oil processing residue, to escape.

The refinery malfunctions began on March 11. Two days later, Valero hired an Arkansas-based consulting firm, the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), to take air samples around the refinery to test for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.

During eight consecutive days of testing, the firm detected more than a thousand small readings for particulate matter less than 10 microns wide and 2.5 microns wide, known as PM 10 and PM 2.5, respectively.

That work ended when regulators and Valero believed the releases were coming to an end. On March 23, petroleum coke began again belching from the refinery’s stacks.

But the CTEH did not restart air sampling until the following afternoon, well after the health advisory had ended and officials told the public the air was OK.

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, said it’s concerning that the CTEH data does not include the time period during the height of the releases.

“There is a huge gap of data that we are missing,” Kretzmann said.

A CTEH spokesman referred questions to Valero, which declined to answer questions about the firm’s work.

Valero runs fence line monitors around the refinery, but the site that publishes its data includes a warning that all of its measurements should be considered “questionable until further notice” because several of its parts require adjustments before they can produce reliable and accurate data.

Air district monitoring efforts

On March 24 and 25, BAAQMD inspectors drove the agency’s mobile monitoring van near the refinery to measure for hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as benzene, toluene and butadiene.

The agency compared those concentrations for acute, chronic and work-time exposure to state health standards, according to Eric Stevenson, the district’s director of meteorology and measurements

“What we saw in these results was nothing above those levels,” Stevenson said. “That being said, we did them on Sunday after a lot of the worst visual impacts were detected.”

Stevenson said the district did not collect air monitoring data when the health advisory was in effect in order to protect the health of its staff and because county officials did not request it.

“When the health department declares a shelter in place, we do our best to provide any information that they request. They didn’t request any information from us prior to that shelter in place,” Stevenson said.

Solano County spokesman Matthew Davis confirmed that the county did not request tests from the air district before it issued the health advisory.

‘”All of the air readings up to that point, during and afterwards, were ‘good’ to ‘moderate’ and at no time did the county or CTEH results show ‘unhealthy’ levels for sensitive individuals or the general public,” Davis said.

Elevated particulate levels  

However, an air monitoring log from the Benicia Fire Department shows six occurrences when particulate readings were elevated in the early morning hours before the advisory. Fire crews did not take any samples during the hours-long health advisory.

“The fire department’s monitoring shows particulate matter pollution repeatedly spiked to very high levels, far higher than what would be considered safe for daily air quality,” Kretzmann said. “It raises big concerns for vulnerable people, like kids with asthma.”

The fire department’s log also includes several instances in which crews noted moderate to strong petroleum byproduct odors.

“This is concerning since those could be toxic,” said Wexler, the UC Davis air quality expert.

By the time Solano County inspectors restarted tests that morning, at 9:45 a.m., the particulate levels had dropped.

The county also tested areas in the refinery on one day to determine whether high levels of heavy metals were in the petroleum coke dust coming from the stacks.

Those tests revealed that the releases did not include elevated levels of heavy metals, according to Jag Sahota, the county’s environmental health manager.

Calls for change

“You can’t fix what you don’t know,” Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said in an interview on Monday.

Patterson said the city needs a stronger air monitoring program, money to run it and expertise to understand it, similar to the one in Richmond, where Chevron’s refinery is located. A program there provides air quality readings from monitors in three neighborhoods.

“It’s not helpful if you don’t know the full extent of the public impact,” said Patterson. “If you don’t have the personnel and you don’t have the funds and you don’t have a clear path of information, you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t take measures to protect public health and safety.”

Wexler agrees.

“We really need to surround the plant with monitors in the neighborhoods where people are living and breathing,” he said. “If the facility can’t get control of its situation, it should incur some costs to protect the people who live in the region.”

Andres Soto, a Benicia resident and organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, said the city has gone too long without an efficient and robust air monitoring program.

“We need to have a very comprehensive monitoring system that is looking at both the greenhouse gases as well as the particulate matter,” Soto said. “We needed to do that 10 years ago. It’s beyond critical.”

Kretzmann, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said the refinery and air district do not have a plan in place to capture the most critical data when pollution threatens Benicia residents.

“There’s no telling what information we’re missing, and the community still doesn’t know the true extent of danger it’s facing,” he said. “The city needs a system that can accurately and comprehensively measure air pollution when dangerous events occur.”

More monitoring on the horizon

The air district said it’s planning to add monitoring stations to areas near all five of the Bay Area’s refineries.

“These stations will be sited to help evaluate and track refinery emission impacts in the surrounding communities,” said air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann, adding that the agency is “identifying and attempting to secure suitable space for the site in Benicia.”

Valero also plans to help fund work on community monitoring devices, as part of a 2003 settlement with a local environmental group. That group, called the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, is planning to hire staff to run a community air monitoring device in the city’s northwest corner.

That might ease the community’s concern but not lead to the best data, said Dr. Bela Matyas, Solano County’s health officer.

“More monitors would clearly give more refined information,” Matyas said. “But in places where that’s been done, that does not yield more accurate estimates of risk over the long term over that area.”

During major incidents, like Valero’s recent malfunction, he added, mobile air monitoring is still necessary to capture data that a stationary device would not be able to collect.