Benicia: Valero to pay $157,800 penalty over toxic chemicals
By Denis Cuff, October 5, 2016, 5:53 pm
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.
Refinery Town Says No to Valero’s Oil-by-Rail Plan
By Matthew Renda, Friday, September 23, 2016 5:14 PM PT
BENICIA, Calif. (CN) — The City Council of a small city of 27,000 in California’s San Francisco Bay Area made a decision this week that may have huge ramifications for the nation’s energy infrastructure.
The five-person Benicia City Council voted unanimously to reject the Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project — a substantial setback for an oil and gas industry that operates several refineries nearby and setting an interesting precedent for local government’s assertion of jurisdiction over oil and gas routes.
The Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project would have allowed the oil company, which operates a large refinery in Benicia, to bring in crude oil by rail rather than exclusively by ship as the current arrangement dictates.
However, Benicia City Council ended a divisive community fight over the issue by finding the project is too dangerous for the community. The potential for contamination of the Sulphur Springs Creek and other watersheds in the event of a derailment proved too much for the council members to brook.
“I have seen stories piled on top of the other about what wasn’t working and what is particularly troubling is the lack of financial resources provided in the case of a catastrophic event,” Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said during deliberation on Wednesday night. “The money comes in too late, people have to go out of business and people have to move away.”
Leading up to the decision, several questions about whether the City Council even had jurisdiction hovered over the matter, with project proponents asserting that the federal government regulates rail and any decision made by the city government is preempted.
However, the Surface Transportation Board wrote the city on Wednesday before the meeting saying while the federal government does regulate interstate commerce and the railroad, the proposed $70 million rail depot was within the regulatory purview of the city.
While many local residents applauded the decision, environmental groups talked about its reverberations.
“This is a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects,” Ethan Buckner with the group Stand — formerly ForestEthics — said. “The federal government has said once and for all that there is nothing in federal law that prevents cities from denying these oil companies’ dangerous rail projects.”
In the series of meetings leading up to the decision, Valero touted its safety record and said the train project carried minimal risk and would bring jobs and economic activity to the region.
“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” Valero said in a statement. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”
Valero is the largest employer in the city, according to a recent comprehensive financial report compiled by the city’s finance team.
However, Patterson said the city’s general plan calls for a more diversified economy that relies heavily on small businesses, many of which would be hampered by the crude oil by rail project, particularly if something went wrong.
“We have to be less dependent on the refinery as we pivot into an era of attracting different kinds of businesses,” she said.
In 2014, trains transporting crude oil spilled about 57,000 gallons of the environmentally hazardous substance, more than any other year since the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track in 1975.
The Columbia River, one of America’s most scenic rivers as it carves out the border between Oregon and Washington state, was spoiled by 42,000 gallons of oil when a train derailed due to a defective bolt on the track.
While many celebrated the possibly precedent-setting decision undertaken by the small city body, Councilman Mark Hughes resigned himself to certain litigation and its associated expense.
“Regardless of the decision tonight, I believe a lawsuit will be filed,” Hughes said.
So whether Benicia’s decision will be the first in an onslaught of local entities attempting to regulate elements of the oil and gas industry out of their communities or whether that will be left to federal and state authorities may be a matter for the courts to decide.
There are five major refineries in the Bay Area including the Valero refinery in Benicia: Chevron in Richmond, Tesoro outside of Concord, Phillips 66 in Rodeo and Shell in Martinez also operate and contribute significantly to both the local economy and air pollution.
The five refineries process about 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day and along with other oil and gas companies generate about $4.3 billion in local tax revenue, according to a 2014 study performed by Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation and commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.
But Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Courthouse News recently that the refineries are responsible for anywhere from 4 to 41 percent of the pollutants in the area, depending on which pollutant is identified.
Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia
By Matthew Adkins, 09/20/16, 9:54 PM PDT
BENICIA >> Environmentalists hoping to defeat Benicia’s crude-by-rail project scored a huge victory Tuesday night, handing Valero Refining Company a significant defeat in the process.
In a unanimous decision from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Benicia City Council, Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility was denied.
Vicki Dennis, who moved to Benicia two years ago, was one of many present at City Hall and said she was “just delighted” with the decision.
“I’m so proud of this city,” Dennis said. “Our council people are very thoughtful. This process has been a long one, but I think they handled it in a wonderful way.”
The City of Benicia’s Planning Commission first began considering the issue in December 2012 when the refinery submitted an application seeking permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.
In March, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the application and to not certify an accompanying environmental impact report. The decision was made against the recommendation of city staff who said the project’s involvement with rail-related issues made the decision a federal issue.
Valero representatives submitted an appeal looking to reverse the commission’s decision to deny their application, and the matter was postponed until Sept. 20.
As part of the appeal, Valero sought a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board on the issue of federal preemption in regards to the project.
During this time, many governmental agencies, private organizations and individuals publicly opposed the city council’s decision to transfer authority on the matter to the federal government.
At the city council meeting Tuesday, however, public comment on the topic was officially closed.
“We are eager to hear from you about any item that is not on the agenda,” Patterson said. “I know it’s a little difficult right now. We have an item on the agenda that I know a lot of you are interested in, but there is no public comment on that tonight.”
This drew a few hushed laughs from the crowd of approximately 150 people who had shown up to witness the landmark decision at Benicia City Hall.
Mayor Patterson’s warning didn’t stop a few concerned citizens from indirectly talking about the issue.
“I originally put in my request to speak before I knew you were not accepting public comments about Valero,” said one man. “If the council decides to change their mind and re-open public comment on the issue, I would be glad to come back up and speak.”
“Since I can’t talk about what the Surface Transportation Board has just done, I would urge the council to support the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline,” said another man.
After public comment was closed, a brief recap of the project’s journey though Benicia’s civic system was put forth along with two resolution findings, one for approval and the other for denial,
The denial resolution highlighted specific issues that city council members had with Valero’s proposed project, including the unclear traffic impacts of having an unregulated shipment schedule, spill risks associated with shipping by rail and the project’s uncomfortable proximity to the city’s waterways.
Before making a judgement, Council members took turns voicing their concerns about health, safety and the project’s effect on the environment.
“When we first started considering this, there seemed to be little risk involved,” said Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “After four years, the community has endured numerous public hearings with hundreds of people speaking about the project. During this time, there have been 13 derailments around the country involving multiple carriers.
“The derailment in Oregon was a game-changer for me,” she continued. “Union Pacific was the same carrier and the railroad cars involved were the same ones Valero is offering. The strongest car didn’t withstand a puncture and crude oil came in contact with fire and burned for 13 hours. Union Pacific failed to maintain its track, resulting in its derailment. The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards regarding the transportation of crude. I’m going to vote to deny the project in hopes that the community can begin to heal after such a divided process.”
After the council’s comments, Councilmember Tom Campbell put forward a motion to deny, and was seconded by Patterson.
A quick vote was taken and the motion to deny Valero’s presence in Benicia was decided.
Misao Brown, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Alameda, was thrilled with the council’s decision and was seen embracing her friends outside of Benicia City Hall.
“If there were any spills where we are in Benicia, it would be in the Bay and go all over the place,” she said. “Benicia is concerned about the greater good and it’s just wonderful. It was really hard sticking it out for so long, but they gave every chance to Valero. In the end, we’re really talking about life on earth. So, when the decision comes through like this under tremendous pressure, I’m really grateful to every member of the planning commission and city council.”