Category Archives: US Environmental Protection Agency

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.

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KQED: EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News

EPA Demands Answers From Valero Months After Massive Benicia Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, August 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.

The Valero Energy Corporation is facing a deadline in the coming days to respond to questions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about power issues at its Benicia oil refinery several months after an outage shut down the entire facility for weeks, leading to a major release of pollution.

The EPA wants detailed information about the outages that have led to flaring events at the refinery over the last three years, and it wants inspection records for all of the facility’s process units.

“EPA believes that much of the requested information is, or should be, readily available at the facility,” wrote Enrique Manzanilla, director of the agency’s Pacific Southwest Superfund Division, in a letter obtained by KQED.

The agency has asked Valero to explain its policies on handling outages, its risk management program and its flare system.

“The company may not withhold any information from EPA on the grounds that it is confidential business information,” the July 27 letter states. The EPA says Valero is required to respond to the agency within 30 days of receiving the letter.

The outage initially sent a huge plume of smoke into the air, prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. It would later lead to several local and state investigations, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, a decrease in profits for Valero and a push for more refinery oversight by the city of Benicia.

A Valero official says the company is working on providing answers to federal officials.

“We did receive the EPA request, and we intend to respond accordingly,” Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokesman, said in an email.

The EPA’s demands seem to go against the image the Trump administration has established as less interested in strong regulations on the fossil fuel industry.

“This letter is a bit surprising given that Trump’s EPA seems to be ignoring many public health issues to the delight of just about every polluter in the country,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “The EPA must think Valero’s practices are especially concerning if it’s asking for this information.”

Still, he says the agency is not being aggressive enough. “This might be little more than a public relations exercise in the face of increasingly high-profile pollution problems at Bay Area refineries,” Kretzmann said. “There’s no assurance that any of this information gathering will lead to meaningful action.”

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley who has long advocated for strong solutions to climate change, says the EPA’s demand for information from one of the nation’s largest oil companies in connection with a local emergency should be the kind of on-the-ground work the agency does, no matter who’s in the White House.

“Actual workers at the EPA have to continue their jobs irrespective of political interference,” Kammen said.

If the EPA did not act on its federal mandate to react to Valero’s pollution release, it could be sued by environmental groups, according to Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis.

“Despite (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt’s stance on climate and environment in general, in numerous decisions he has shied away from taking actions that will certainly lose in court,” Wexler said.

The agency’s demands are part of a review of the refinery prompted by the May 5 outage, according to EPA officials who declined to comment further on the agency’s letter to Valero.

They came a month after Valero filed a lawsuit against PG&E, blaming the utility for the power failure. The oil giant is seeking in excess of $75 million for damage to refinery equipment and lost revenue it says was the result of the shutdown that took place after PG&E “shut off all electricity” to the Benicia facility.

PG&E has said the power failure was triggered by an “inadvertent operation” to protect electrical circuits. It has hired an engineering firm to review the cause. That company, Exponent, has yet to turn over a report to PG&E, according to utility spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

The refinery released more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide from flaring in the days and weeks after the outage.

In June, KQED revealed that the refinery released more than 74,000 pounds of the toxic gas during 14 days of flaring after the outage, described as a “huge amount” by experts. That information came from a report the company filed with state officials and was obtained through a California Public Records Act Request.

Valero filed a separate report with the California Office of Emergency Services last month that showed the refinery released more than 8,200 pounds of sulfur dioxide on June 18 and 19.

The outage prompted several investigations, including one that revealed damage to part of the facility.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected the refinery after the power failure, closed its investigation the same month and decided not to issue any violations afterward.

But the outage did damage one of the refinery’s flares, according to Cal/OSHA. “Attention was given to the South Flare, due to damage on flare tips and the dump stack,” wrote Cal/OSHA safety engineer Sean Sasser in a notice after the inspection.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued several notices of violation against the company due to the flaring in the days after the shutdown. Its investigation is ongoing, according to district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management also launched a probe. That review is ongoing and is expected to be completed in October, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the department’s director.

Experts say the outage led to an increase in the state’s gasoline prices.

And the shutdown hurt Valero’s bottom line. Its lawsuit claimed that the company lost a “substantial amount of profits.” The company’s second-quarter earnings, released last month, fell by more than 30 percent, apparently because it took several weeks to get the refinery back online.

The outage has also prompted Benicia city leaders to consider increasing their oversight of the refinery and improve how they communicate with residents about emergencies.

On the day of the shutdown, authorities imposed shelter-in-place evacuation orders for parts of the city, and at least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

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EAST BAY TIMES: Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

Repost from the East Bay Times

Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals

By Denis Cuff, October 5, 2016, 5:53 pm
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)
The Valero refinery is photographed in Benicia, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

BENICIA – The Valero oil refinery has agreed to pay $157,800 in federal penalties for improper management and storage of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.

The violations included illegal disposal of benzene, a carcinogen, into an unlined storm water retention pond and not alerting the public about all of its toxic chemical releases, EPA officials reported.

In addition to paying the penalties, Valero will modify its piping operations by June 2017 to prevent an estimated 5,000 pounds of benzene from being released into the atmosphere over the next 10 years, officials said.

Evidence of the violations were detected during an EPA inspection of the Benicia refinery in May 2014 to assess compliance with the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Additional violations included the company’s failure to determine if solid waste generated at the refinery was hazardous; the failure to maintain and operate to minimize risks of a toxic release; and failure to maintain complete and accurate records, the EPA said.

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