Category Archives: Solano County Department of Resource Management

Solano County Says Valero Benicia Refinery Violated State Regulations in March Shutdown

Valero Benicia Refinery facing stiff fines

KQED California Report, by Ted Goldberg, September 5, 2019
The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Solano County inspectors documented a long list of shortcomings and inadequate procedures at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery that contributed to a major pollution release from the facility earlier this year, newly released county documents show.

The county’s Department of Resource Management documented violations of eight separate state regulations. The infractions included failure to fix important sensors in a refinery furnace unit, infrequent inspections of key equipment, and failure to have an operating plan in place to deal with unexpected refinery conditions.

Solano’s probe relied in part on Valero’s root cause analysis of the shutdown, which found that one of the worst refinery incidents in the Bay Area in years was caused by a mistake made months earlier.

Both reports focused on tubes in the refinery’s furnace that heat up crude oil before it’s routed to other parts of the facility for processing. County and refinery officials say those furnace tubes were damaged during maintenance work last November, which caused the devices to fail and contributed to the plant’s malfunctions in March.

The Valero complex ended up belching out a massive amount of black sooty smoke, which led to health concerns for people living nearby.

The refinery’s subsequent closure contributed to a statewide spike in gasoline prices and prompted investigations by several government agencies, renewing attention on the refinery two years after a power outage caused a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide in the area.

Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas declined to comment directly on the company’s violations. Instead, she pointed to the company’s May filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which it reported it’s facing more than $342,000 in fines in connection with the incident. The company told the SEC it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from Solano County and $100,000 from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Valero’s root cause analysis, completed in July, examines a series of problems that led to the refinery malfunctions.

Company inspections during the refinery shutdown found that furnace tubes were bulging and leaking. Valero says when the facility was restarting a unit last November, a safety valve improperly “lifted,” allowing crude oil to bypass one of the refinery’s furnaces.

Valero says “it was not appreciated at the time” that allowing the bypass “exposed the furnace tubes to elevated temperatures.” Extreme heat gradually deformed the tubes and allowed a solid substance called petroleum coke to form inside. Valero’s analysis concedes that the deteriorating conditions were “not timely identified and mitigated, leading to the tubes’ subsequent failure” and the March refinery malfunctions.

Solano County’s investigation reported that carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors in the refinery furnace were not operational for at least three years.

“Proper functioning sensors would have provided an indication that the furnace was malfunctioning to Valero staff, allowing them to act sooner to correct the condition and prevent additional release,” said Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, in an email.

“The issue with the furnace upset the system,” Schmidtbauer said.

Those system issues became more evident in early March as two other refinery components experienced problems. One was a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest components of crude oil processed at the refinery. Another, a flue gas scrubber, removes fine particles before gases are released from the facility’s smokestacks.

Malfunctions with those devices led to an increase in carbon monoxide levels, according to Valero, To reduce those levels, refinery crews ended up increasing the temperature on the furnace tubes, thus accelerating their deterioration.

There was little liquid in the tubes, which puts them at risk of damage, according to Professor Eric Smith of Tulane University’s Energy Institute, who specializes in refinery operations.

“One result is thermal degradation of the metal tube,” said Smith, who reviewed company and county findings. “Another effect is that the liquid that does make it through the tube is converted into petroleum coke.”

That dynamic led to the release of sooty smoke and resulted in elevated levels of particulate matter and a health advisory.

County inspectors discovered several problems with lines that carry petroleum coke. On the day the refinery was shut down, one was leaking. Valero staff told Solano officials in April another line had failed five times in the last three years.

The county’s Department of Resource Management has ordered Valero to make a series of changes, some of which it has already completed. They include orders to reduce petroleum coke releases, new procedures for preventing the overheating of furnace tubes and increased training.

Solano County’s Schmidtbauer said the department was still assessing what penalties it will levy against the refinery.

Local air regulators issued 12 notices of violation against Valero. Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the air district, said the agency’s probe is not yet complete.

An investigation by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, is expected to wrap up in the coming weeks, according to agency spokesman Frank Polizzi.

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    KQED: Valero Benicia one of three Cal oil refineries shut down – gas prices up, Chevron flaring

    Repost from KQED California Report

    Valero Could Restart Troubled Benicia Refinery by Mid-May

    By Ted Goldberg, Apr 15, 2019
    The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

    Valero’s Benicia refinery, shut down since last month because of equipment malfunctions, could be back online by mid-May, Benicia city officials and state regulators say.

    Although the company won’t provide a date that it plans to restart the Solano County facility, Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick said Monday he estimates the refinery will be back online in the next three to four weeks.

    Chadwick said a Solano County hazardous materials specialist assigned to Valero provided him with the estimated timetable. County officials did make the specialist available for comment.

    The California Energy Commission said Monday that the Benicia refinery is one of three California crude oil processing facilities that the agency expects to be restarted over the next several weeks. Shutdowns at the refineries — including two in the Los Angeles area — have helped drive up the cost of gasoline statewide.

    Valero powered down its Benicia facility on March 24 after failing to resolve malfunctions that led to the release of soot-laden smoke.

    The incident prompted Solano County to issue a health advisory for people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

    A Valero representative said the company will not disclose its restart date.

    “I know we shared information about the status of the refinery on March 24, but beyond that, it is Valero’s policy to not comment on operations or possible outages/restarts at its facilities beyond what is publicly reported,” said Lillian Riojas, a company spokeswoman.

    The California Energy Commission has been in touch with Valero but does not release certain data about its operations due to regulatory restrictions, according to agency spokeswoman Sandy Louey.

    But Louey said refinery issues that have played a part in recent gas price increases — including the Valero shutdown — would be coming to an end in the coming weeks.

    “The Energy Commission can say that the three large refinery maintenance issues are scheduled to be resolved over a period beginning late April through the middle of May,” she said in an email.

    Besides Valero, the facilities involve two in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson: a Phillips 66 refinery that suffered a fire and a Marathon Oil refinery that’s been down for planned maintenance.

    The statewide average cost of a gallon of regular has increased 62 cents since Valero’s March 24 shutdown, according to AAA. It now stands at $4.006.

    “We’ve had major refinery issues all spring,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Michael Blasky.  “I’ve heard it referred to as a perfect storm in the industry, with a lot of refinery incidents of flaring or shutting down for days or weeks at time.”

    In fact, Chevron’s Richmond refinery experienced its seventh flaring incident of the year on Saturday, according to Contra Costa County’s chief environmental and hazardous materials officer, Randy Sawyer.  The incident caught the attention of the Oil Price Information Service.

    Monday’s price marks the first time the statewide average cost for a gallon of regular has topped $4 in close to five years, Blasky said.

    He said that while other factors have played a part in the rise — for instance, an increase in the price of crude oil worldwide — the refinery issues have been a major contributing factor.

    “I would hope, as refineries come back to their normal levels of production, that we start to see prices level out and hopefully start to come down by mid-May,” Blasky said.

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      City of Benicia Press Release-Solano County Releases Incident Report on Flue Gas Scrubber Incident

      Repost of a City of Benicia press release, including downloadable Incident Response Inspection Report

      Monday, April 1, 2019 at 5:10 PM

      Press Release – Solano County Valero Flue Scrubber Report

      Benicia, CA (April 1, 2019) – The City of Benicia has received an Incident Response Inspection Report from the Solano County Department of Resource Management related to the flue gas scrubber incident at Valero Benicia Refinery. A copy of the report is included with this press release.

      On March 24, 2019 at approximately 7:00 a.m., the City of Benicia issued an advisory

      notice for all residents with respiratory issues to stay inside due to particulate matter released by the Valero Benicia Refinery. The City actively monitored the air quality and incident response activities, and provided information to the public via media outlets including social media and Alert Solano.

      Benicia Fire Department personnel continues to work closely with Solano County Environmental Health to monitor operations and potential impacts to the community.


      Press Release and Incident Response Inspection Report are available here: https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/vertical/sites/%7BF991A639-AAED-4E1A-9735-86EA195E2C8D%7D/uploads/Press_Release_So_Cty_Valero_Report_040119.pdf

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        KQED: Details on probe of Valero pollution releases – violations now up to 12

        Repost from KQED News

        Two Parts of Valero’s Benicia Refinery Under Scrutiny in Probe of Pollution Releases

        By Ted Goldberg, Mar 29, 2019
        A plume containing petroleum coke dusts wafts from a smokestack at Valero’s Benicia oil refinery on March 23. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

        Two key components at the Valero refinery in Benicia experienced problems earlier this month, leading to weeks of releases of petroleum coke dust that intensified on Sunday, culminating in the shutdown of a large portion of the facility.

        The new details on the refinery’s malfunctions are laid out by Valero in a preliminary report filed with Benicia city officials this week.

        The malfunctions are the focus of at least one part of an investigation by Solano County inspectors into an incident that led to health concerns for people living near the refinery and to a statewide spike in gasoline prices.

        Valero’s report says that the recent problems at the refinery began March 11 when a crude oil processing unit called a fluid coker experienced “operating difficulty.”

        Normally, a fluid coker heats up and “cracks” the thickest, heaviest components of crude oil processed at a refinery, breaking them down into material that can be used in diesel or other petroleum products. One of the byproducts of the process is solid carbon residue called petroleum coke.

        The problems with Valero’s fluid coker unit allowed petroleum coke dust, called coke fines, to flow to a second unit called a flue gas scrubber. The scrubber cleans out fine particles before they’re released from the refinery’s smokestacks into the air. That process is supposed to ensure that the refinery’s emissions don’t violate air quality standards.

        But the coke fines moving through the scrubber unit set the stage for a release of particulate pollution from the refinery — a release that was clearly visible from outside the facility.

        “The presence of coke fines in the FGS resulted in a darker than normal plume appearance,” Valero’s 72-hour report said.

        Solano County investigators want to know if the scrubber was somehow overwhelmed or damaged, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s director of resource management.

        “We know something’s not operating properly,” Schmidtbauer said.

        California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health Cal/OSHA and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are also investigating the refinery.

        After the problem surfaced, the air district issued eight notices of violation against Valero for public nuisance and visible emissions.

        Refinery crews worked to reduce the releases and Valero said the situation showed “significant improvement” by last Friday, when the plume coming from the refinery’s stacks “returned to normal appearance,” Valero’s report said.

        But that changed the next day. The scrubber “experienced an operational upset resulting in a dark, opaque plume and emissions of particulate matter,” the report said.

        A new surge of petroleum coke dust billowing from the refinery’s stacks prompted Benicia officials to issue a health advisory, urging people with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

        The refinery began to shut down several units, and the air district wound up issuing four more violation notices.

        The powering down of the the facility is contributing to an increase in gasoline prices.

        On Friday the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gas in California jumped to $3.59, up 16 cents from a week ago, according to AAA.

        Energy analysts and state regulators say the price will continue to rise until operations at Valero return to normal.

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