Tune in to KPIX5 TV, CBS SF Bay Area at 7pm on Monday, October 25 – Featuring our own Marilyn Bardet!
Email, from Marilyn Bardet, 10/24/21
I’m following up on the letter I posted Oct 7th, to let you know that BayKeeper and KPIX Channel 5 news were in Benicia on Oct 12th, filming all around the port area, and Channel 5 also interviewed me– in my studio, since I have a direct view of the Port. The announcement that BayKeeper is filing an official complaint within 60 days has prompted Channel 5 to tell the story…
If you happen to be watching KPIX for local news during the storm, you might see one of their promo ads for the petcoke story segment they’ll be airing on Monday on their Nightly News at 7. (They even used me in the promo! Very strange!)
Benicia lawmakers are considering a proposal that could eventually require the city to fact-check political campaign advertisements — a novel response to alleged election misinformation that could face legal scrutiny.
The ordinance comes after a political action committee funded by Valero, the oil giant that runs a refinery in town, tried to influence voters in the last two city council elections. The company’s involvement in city politics also came as the Valero plant experienced two of the region’s worst refinery accidents in the last four years.
The ordinance was co-authored by Mayor Steve Young, whom the Valero PAC opposed in the last election. He said the committee put out ads that manipulated photos of him and distorted his record.
Now, Young said, the city should consider whether its campaign regulations “can be amended to prohibit digital or voice manipulation of images and whether any lying can be prohibited.”
The PAC, dubbed Working Families for a Strong Benicia, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 2018 and 2020 city council elections. Both votes revived debate between some city officials and environmentalists on one side, who want more regulations on the refinery, and oil executives and unionized refinery workers on the other, who say they fear the city’s real motivation is to shut the plant down.
In 2018, two candidates backed by the PAC, which is also funded by several labor organizations allied with the refinery, won seats on the Benicia City Council. Another candidate, an environmentalist who was opposed by the committee, lost.
Last year, Young won the mayor’s race despite the PAC’s opposition to his candidacy. The ads said that he was against affordable housing and that he didn’t need a job because he receives a pension from previous local government work.
The mayor said he does want cheaper housing and there’s nothing wrong with receiving a pension. He said Valero’s opposition to him began in 2016, when the Benicia Planning Commission, which Young was a member of, voted to reject the company’s crude-by-rail proposal.
“Steve Young wants to turn Benicia into a place where young families can’t afford to live and work,” one flier stated. “Who would vote against kids playing at the ballpark? Steve Young did,” another one said.
Young and the proposal’s co-author, Councilmember Tom Campbell, said the ads mean the city should do a better job of making sure future elections are fair and honest.
But turning the government into a fact-checking body would be ripe for a legal challenge, according to Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Marymount University professor specializing in election law.
“We know the First Amendment does in fact protect lies,” Levinson said in an interview. “I think this is absolutely open to a legal challenge the second they pass it, if they do.”
“Who decides what’s an embellishment, what’s misleading, what’s just an omission versus what’s actually a lie?” Levinson asked.
Since the 2016 election and the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, misinformation has become one of the biggest issues in American politics, said Levinson.
“We are tackling a situation where there are more lies and there’s more technology that allows us to lie than for sure the framers every dreamed of,” she added.
At the same time, the local news industry, which traditionally acts like a fact-checking body, has been decimated. Benicia gets some news coverage but is often overshadowed by larger Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Oakland.
“One of the things that keeps me up at night is not just misinformation and disinformation and the fact that people believe it, but the fact that we have a dwindling press corps and particularly in smaller jurisdictions,” Levinson said.
The details over how the city would fact-check political ads has yet to be worked out. The proposal, set to go before the city council on Tuesday, would forward the issue to Benicia’s Open Government Commission, a body that would consider changing the city’s election campaign regulations. The commission would work on new rules and forward them to the city council next April.
Valero fought with the city’s last mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, after she called for more regulations to be placed on the refinery following a May 2017 power outage that led to a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide and prompted emergency shelter-in-place orders. Less than two years later, the plant had a series of malfunctions that led to another significant pollution release.
Jason Kaune, the PAC’s treasurer and head of political law at Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm, declined to comment. Representatives for Valero and unions that supported the committee did not respond to requests for comment.
On the Baykeeper article with drone video and photos of petcoke pollution at Port of Benicia
I first heard a report about the petroleum coke plume spreading on the Strait from Benicia’s port on KQED radio yesterday, and now the Vallejo Sun (online news source—see link above)) has run an article that includes a drone video of what appears to be a plume from a coke ship at the Valero dock. Clearly, this can’t be a “first” incident. Thanks to Roger Straw,’s catch, the Benicia Independent ran the story yesterday.
The revelation is no surprise to me, although I’ve never had a drone to capture from the air what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes and photographed from near the port. In 1995, I snapped a picture of a “dust cloud” wafting up into the air from petcoke being dumped into the open hull of a coke ship. That “cloud” had been visible to the naked eye on a misty grey day. I’d reported this to the Air District then, (with photos taken from old camera) and similarly, over the years, to no avail. Petcoke is unregulated by Fed-EPA. (see “why” below).
I also took photos in 2013-2014 of coke trains traveling from the refinery along Bayshore Rd, and I’ve collected petcoke off railroad ties that had sifted out from the hopper cars’ undercarriage (from which hinged flanges open up for dumping coke onto underground conveyor belt at the port, which is then trasferred to the petcoke silos. (see photos below). The coke can still be seen along the tracks–proof of how coke gets airborne from its transport from trains to silos to ships’ hulls.
Petcoke is a dangerous particulate (PM 10 and PM 2.5) that settles on the water and all around the lower Arsenal area in the vicinity of the arts community and Arsenal Historic District. Tiniest invisible particles blow around, becoming part of the carbon grit that settles on cars, window sills, etc. etc.
As most of you know, I’ve railed for years, since 1995, about how petroleum coke is a serious airborne pollutant in our local environment. In 1995, Koch Carbon Industries (subsidiary of Koch Industries) came to Benicia proposing to build a mega-industrial 24/7 petcoke storage and shipping terminal operation that was to serve all five Bay Area refineries including Exxon Benicia (now Valero). That project would have been disastrous for Benicia, creating a massive “toxic coke dump” at our port, with all the cumulative consequences to public health and the environment. We, the public, fought the project fiercely and forced Koch Industries to abandon their proposed “Coke Domes” project. But they went up river and built a smaller coke terminal in Pittsburg instead— speaking of environmental injustice).
If you read no further, the announcement yesterday underscores my point, made over many years and currently, that residential development in the lower Arsenal should not be allowed, because doing so would deliberately create an environmental injustice: the area is inherently industrial and dangerous and polluted by the various specific operations of Valero and Amports. Check it out! Active crude oil pipelines run from the refinery behind our historic Officers’ Row and Clocktower to the Valero tanker dock, (located just east of the Clocktower); petroleum coke is is transferred from the refinery two or three times per week by train along Bayshore Rd to Valero’s petcoke shipping dock (immediately adjacent to Amports’ car import dock); diesel exhaust contributes toxic gases to the air from ships’ engines running while in port and on the Strait. To my knowledge, the cumulative amount of pollution produced everyday in the vicinity of the port has not been calculated.
For those of you not sure about how petcoke is produced and why it’s dangerous to human health: Petroleum coke is the name given to the residue left in the hydrocracker processing unit during the refining of crude oil’s distillates. This residue is an oily, black crumbly carbon substance that must be scraped out of the hydrocracker everyday, and transfered to a “coker” for more processing. to create what’s called “petcoke”. The heavier (dirtier) crude oil refined, the more coke residue is created. The coker unit at Valero transforms the coal-like rocks into a fluffed up powdery-fine granular particulate which is marketed as a product, sold mainly to Asia as a cheap fuel for use in place of more expensive coal in steel furnaces and for other domestic uses. With few exceptions, petcoke cannot be used as a fuel in the US.
Burning petcoke as a fuel contributes to global warming, every bit as much as burning coal or any other fossil fuel. It is also hugely dangerous to human health when inhaled. The coke particulates contain heavy metals, depending on the source of crude oil being refined on any given day. Nickel is a carcinogen when inhaled. PM2.5 particulates of petcoke lodge in the lungs and send other toxic gas molecules—which have piggy-backed onto airborne petcoke particulates—into the bloodstream, thus cumulatively affecting circulatory, heart and lung functions from chronic, daily, low-level exposures breathing airborne petcoke. Of course, petcoke ending up in the water on a regular basis can be ingested by fish and waterfowl and other organisms, contaminating the Strait. Much more investigation of this issue is urgently needed!
The sad, unethical fact is that long ago the oil industry lobbied Fed-EPA to exempt petcoke from regulation as a toxic waste, arguing that petcoke becomes a marketable “finished product” when further processed, and therefore belongs in the same category that includes gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and all other liquid distillates produced by refineries. As more and more heavy crude is being refined in California, our refineries will be producing much more petcoke for export as fuel for burning….
To date, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) responds to residents’ complaints about petcoke only if it is visible as an opaque dust cloud when backlit in the air! (This was told to me by BAAQMD staff member).
I hope this helps everyone understand why petcoke is a human health and environmental danger, and why we should NOT be allowing residential development in the lower Arsenal Historic District, for all the enviro reasons cited above. Period!
Please share with your friends!
On the side of public health and safety, social and environmental justice,