Category Archives: Valero Benicia Refinery

After Two Major Refinery Accidents, Valero and Benicia Take Steps To Work Better Together

[Editor: In addition to coverage of the current news story, KQED’s Ted Goldberg presents here an excellent summary of Benicia/Valero issues over the last 3 years.  – R.S.]

After Two Major Refinery Accidents, Valero and Benicia Take Steps To Work Better Together

By Ted Goldberg, KQED, Jun 25, 2019

The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Benicia officials are set to consider a plan designed to keep the city and its residents better informed when the town’s largest employer, the Valero refinery, has problems.

The City Council on Tuesday plans to vote on an agreement with the company aimed at establishing a stronger air monitoring network, improving communication and giving the public more access to information about the facility.

The vote comes three months after a series of serious refinery malfunctions and in the wake of a battle over operations at the facility that spilled over into the Solano County city’s last council election.

In March the refinery sustained its second major accident in two years.

The malfunction led to a significant release of soot and smoke that prompted a brief health advisory and a more than 40-day shutdown of the facility — a closure that contributed to last spring’s increase in gasoline prices.

Under the new proposal up for a vote on Tuesday, Valero would pay $278,000 a year to fund a division chief position at the Benicia Fire Department. The person who holds that job would work as a public liaison and be the point of contact for residents who have concerns or complaints about releases from the refinery. Valero would respond to the division chief’s “reasonable requests for information.”

The proposal also calls for Valero to give risk management and safety plans to the city, provide the Fire Department with incident reports 72 hours after significant refinery malfunctions and hand over investigative reports to city officials. The city would also work to create a “single, easy” place where residents can find such reports.

The agreement also promises improved air monitoring by Valero.

Last November, the company completed installation of a set of air monitors along parts of the fence line of its refinery. But after the releases in March, the site that publishes the fence line data included a warning that all of its measurements should be considered “questionable until further notice” because several of its parts required adjustments.

City staff say Valero plans to build, install and maintain more air monitors along its northwest boundary at a cost of $1.5 million. The company is also expected to spend $460,000 on adding “community” air monitors that would be located in the city.

The measure has drawn mixed reaction from members of the City Council, which in the past has considered an industrial safety ordinance, or ISO, to give local officials more oversight of the refinery.

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson called the proposal a “good first step” but wanted assurances the new air monitors would be effective.

“We clearly need to improve our air quality and acknowledge all the sources of air pollution,” Patterson said in an email Monday.

“This looks like a decent attempt to deal with all the issues that have been presented regarding air monitors and ISOs,” said Councilman Tom Campbell.

But Campbell pointed out that there’s no timetable for the proposed actions. He said if the Fire Department’s new division chief who worked as a public liaison is aggressive, the agreement would work.

“The division chief is in our seat at the table,” he said.

Councilman Steve Young called the proposal “an improvement” over current practices, but said it should be stronger.

“There should also be warnings to the public prior to any planned instances of increased flaring, as happens during turnarounds or other major maintenance activities,” Young said.

Councilmember Christina Strawbridge, the town’s vice mayor, called the agreement “well thought out and void of politics.”

A spokeswoman for Valero declined to comment on the proposal.

The March problems were the latest in a series of incidents in which the city and company have sometimes been at odds.

In September 2016, the Benicia City Council rejected Valero’s plan to build a railroad terminal that would allow trains to deliver crude petroleum to the refinery.

In May 2017, the refinery suffered a power outage that triggered the release of more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

That 2017 episode led to an effort by some on the council to consider an industrial safety ordinance.

Mayor Patterson, who complained that Valero and agencies that have oversight of its refinery have failed to provide the city “a seat at the table” when it comes to information about the facility’s problems, championed the measure.

The City Council rejected the ordinance a year ago.

But debate over the regulations set the stage for last November’s hard-fought election in which Strawbridge and another council candidate, both backed by a political action committee funded by Valero and its workers’ unions, beat an environmentalist candidate backed by Patterson.

Strawbridge, who voted against Valero’s bid to build a crude-by-rail terminal, acknowledged in an email Sunday that “tension had escalated with the refinery since the city went through that process. It intensified with last year’s election.”

The March malfunctions are the source of several ongoing investigations: Valero, the air district, state workplace regulators and Solano County inspectors are still looking into the incident.

The releases exposed weaknesses in how the air in Benicia is monitored after a refinery incident.

When soot began spewing from the refinery’s stacks, for instance, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District had to send a van to Benicia because it does not run a stationary air monitoring device in the city’s residential areas.

Since then the agency has been working on finding a monitoring site, air district spokeswoman Kristine Roselius said Monday.

District officials visited six potential sites and determined that it wants to place a new air monitor at Robert Semple Elementary School, which is three-quarters of a mile southwest of the refinery, Roselius said.

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    Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick – PGE / Valero prepared for power shut-offs

    Questions on PG&E shut-offs prompt Benicia response

    Vallejo Times-Herald, June 15, 2019

    In response to question about PG&E’s public safety power shut-offs [PSPS’s] and their potential impact to the city of Benicia and the Valero Benicia Refinery, the Benicia Fire Department said Fire Chief Josh Chadwick has been working closely with the State Office of Emergency Services and PG& E to gather answers.

    Here is what is known at this time:

    • The power interruptions in Benicia on Monday and Tuesday were not related to a PG& E PSPS.

    • PSPSs are designed to shut power off in either the Elevated or Extreme California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Fire-Threat Districts. There are no CPUC Extreme Fire- Threat Districts in Solano County. The only Elevated Fire-Threat Districts in Solano are in North Vacaville near Lake Berryessa and in the West area of Green Valley.

    • Valero Refinery has two separate sources of power — one that comes in from the north and the other that comes in from the south. Their system is designed so that if one of the sources were to be shut off, the second source would be sufficient to keep the power to Valero uninterrupted.

    • Per PG& E, PSPS are essentially based on upcoming weather events and should not come without warning.

    • Unlike a sudden and unexpected power loss, with prior notice Valero has the ability to limit impacts through a controlled shut-down.

    • Portable generators would not have the capacity to provide sufficient power to supply the refinery.

    • There are numerous major commercial, industrial, and critical infrastructure facilities located throughout California which would be severely impacted by a loss of power. State OES personnel are currently working with the California Public Utilities Commission to address these facilities.

    To learn more about Public Safety Power Shutoffs, visit the PG& E PSPs webpage.

    Josh Chadwick, Benicia Fire Chief

    For more information, contact Josh Chadwick, Fire Chief at jchadwick@ci.benicia.ca.us or (707) 7464275.

     

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      Valero Says It Faces $342,000 in Penalties Over Benicia Refinery Pollution Incident

      By Ted Goldberg, May 14, 2019
      KQED NEWS – California Report
      The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

      Valero says it’s facing $342,000 or more in fines from county and regional agencies after a major air pollution incident earlier this year at its Benicia refinery.

      In a filing last week with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, the company says it expects to face $242,840 in proposed penalties from the Solano County Department of Resource Management and at least another $100,000 in fines to settle a dozen notices of violation from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

      The reported penalty amount is about 1/100th of 1% of the San Antonio, Texas-based company’s reported adjusted net profit for 2018 — $3.2 billion.

      “While it is not possible to predict the outcome of the following environmental proceedings, if any one or more of them were decided against us, we believe that there would be no material effect on our financial position, results of operators, or liquidity,” the company said in its filing.

      The SEC document also reported a much larger penalty, $1.3 million, that Valero believes it faces in connection with an incident in the Texas city of Corpus Christi, where contaminated backflow from a company asphalt plant contaminated the area’s water supply for several days.

      A local environmentalist who has followed the Benicia refinery’s recent problems said the penalties barely amount to a drop in the bucket.

      “These fines don’t mean much to a giant oil company worth tens of billions of dollars,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

      “It’s likely only a matter of time before we see another incident, so the communities near these dangerous refineries deserve better protection from toxic air pollution,” Kretzmann said.

      Lillian Riojas, a Valero spokeswoman, said the company would not comment beyond its public filing.

      Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman for the BAAQMD, emphasized that the Valero fines were not settled yet.

      The district tends to spend several years negotiating settlements with local refineries, bringing together a handful of violations into a package long after they are the subject of media coverage.

      For instance, the district announced in March that Shell had agreed to pay $165,000 to settle violations at its Martinez refinery that took place in 2015 and 2016.

      Solano County’s investigation into Valero’s most recent incident is ongoing, according to Terry Schmidtbauer, the county’s assistant director of resource management, who emphasized that the agency has yet to produce or negotiate any final violations in connection with Valero’s March releases.

      But Schmidtbauer said it was typical for his department to discuss tentative findings and potential penalties with companies it’s investigating, talks he said would be preliminary.

      Two refinery components — a processing unit called a fluid coker, which heats up and “cracks” the thickest and heaviest components of crude oil, and a flue gas scrubber, which is supposed to remove fine particles before they’re released from the facility’s smokestacks — are under scrutiny in Solano County’s probe.

      They began malfunctioning on March 11, resulting in the release of sooty smoke from the refinery. The releases intensified two weeks later when the facility belched out a large amount of black soot, leading to elevated levels of particulate matter.

      The smoke prompted county officials to issue a health advisory for those with respiratory problems. Refinery managers shut down the facility.

      Valero’s SEC filing came as the Benicia refinery began a gradual process of restarting after being off line for more than 40 days.

      The resumption of operations at the facility coincided with a slow and very small drop in gas prices, after two months of increases. On March 24, the day Valero shutdown, the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California was $3.49, according to AAA.

      On May 7, as the Benicia refinery gradually got back on-line, the the average price was $4.10. On Tuesday, it had dipped slightly to $4.07

      Energy experts have said Valero’s shutdown coupled with other refinery problems in California and the high cost of crude oil globally led to the state’s recent gas price hikes, which are currently the subject of a state Energy Commission investigation.

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        Valero Restarts Benicia Refinery 40+ days after major malfunction and pollution release

        By Ted Goldberg, KQED
        The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

        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.

        Valero shut down the refinery on March 24 after ongoing equipment problems.

        The air district, along with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and Solano County inspectors, has been investigating the refinery’s problems since then.

        The focus of the county investigation centers on two key refinery components that malfunctioned, allowing petroleum coke (petcoke), an oil processing residue, to escape.

        For several hours on March 24, county officials issued a health advisory, warning residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

        The petcoke releases later prompted Benicia’s mayor and air quality advocates to call for local air regulators and the city to create a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of the refinery. Two years earlier, the same facility experienced a full outage and a much more extreme pollution release.

        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.

        Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the California Energy Commission to investigate the hikes.

        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.

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