Valero is restarting its Benicia refinery more than 40 days after a major malfunction and pollution release forced the energy giant to shut down the facility, contributing to the state’s recent spike in fuel costs.
“The Valero Benicia refinery has commenced the startup process, which is a multi-day sequenced event,” the company said in a notification sent to Benicia city officials over the weekend. The message warned of potential “visible, intermittent flaring” as a necessary safety precaution.
That flaring began Tuesday morning, according to a state hazardous materials database, and included a release of sulfur dioxide. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent staff to the refinery to observe the flaring, said agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann.
Valero has also been in touch with the Benicia Fire Department about the startup and flaring, according to Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.
The air district, which issued 12 notices of violation against Valero for the most recent releases, does not have a stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas and had to drive a van to the area to monitor the situation.
The shutdown took place several weeks after California’s gas prices began to increase.
Energy experts correctly predicted that the refinery’s problems, coupled with maintenance issues at several other California refineries, would prompt an increase in crude oil prices.
The average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California on the day Valero shut down its Benicia refinery was $3.49, according to the American Automobile Association. It has increased by more than 60 cents since then, and on Tuesday stood at $4.10.
But the average price increases have slowed in recent days, and an AAA representative said Tuesday that costs may be beginning to stabilize.
“The news about Valero was actually a pretty big reason for the prices evening out,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Mike Blasky.
He said just the talk of the Benicia refinery restarting contributed to a recent 8-cent drop in the average wholesale cost of a gallon of gas.
“When those units do restart, that’s going to really contribute to a higher utilization rate, which will lower prices as we see our stocks resupplied,” Blasky said. “Any major refinery shutdown in California tends to really throw things out of whack.”
KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler contributed reporting to this story.
The Benicia Independent learned yesterday that Valero Benicia Refinery will remain in “partial shutdown” until early or mid-May.
This news raises two concerns:
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?”
The partial shutdown has already raised gas prices in California. How will another month offline affect consumers’ gas prices?
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
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.
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.”
“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.
California drivers — or the millions of them whose cars still run on refined petroleum — can expect to pay more to fill up their gas tanks in the coming days thanks to the partial shutdown of Valero’s Benicia refinery.
The retail cost of a gallon of gasoline in the state is expected to rise immediately, according to David Hackett, president of Stillwater Associates, a transportation energy consulting company based in Irvine.
That’s after a 12-cent spike in wholesale gas prices on Monday, Hackett said.
“That price increase is likely to get passed through to motorists over the next week or so,” he said. “You’ll start seeing prices go up starting probably today.”
The average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in California is $3.51, 16 cents higher than a week ago, according to AAA.
Several agencies are investigating a series of petroleum coke dust releases at the Benicia refinery that began more than two weeks ago. Those releases intensified on Sunday, prompting city officials to issue a health advisory.
The Valero refinery’s flue gas scrubber malfunctioned, a problem that led to a sooty plume of petroleum coke to billow out of the facility’s smokestacks. To deal with the problem, the refinery is slowly shutting down a significant part of its operations.
Last week, problems at two other California refineries contributed to the recent jump in gas prices.
AAA says a fire at a crude processing unit at the Phillips 66 refinery in Los Angeles County and a series of flaring incidents at Chevron’s Richmond refinery drove prices higher.
AAA spokesman Michael Blasky said price spikes are the norm when refineries suffer problems that lead to curtailed production.
“When a refinery goes offline and supply drops, retailers incorporate price increases almost immediately in California,” Blasky said.
Wholesale suppliers that sell fuel to gas stations and hear about the Benicia refinery’s shutdown will probably go into the so-called spot market to buy gas, sending the price up, Hackett said.
The refinery problems come amid a jump in the price of crude oil over the last year, which has sent gas prices up nationally.