[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian – Texas-based Valero raked in about $11.5B of profit in 2022 — and that’s pure profit. While this fine represents progress, it also represents less than 1 hour of Valero’s 2022 profits. That’s right — in 2022, Valero made more than $1M just in profit per hour, 24 hours a day, for 365 days (Valero doesn’t stop profiting just because it’s a holiday or weekend). It’s clear Valero treats fines like these as fees; they represent just another minor cost of doing business in Benicia. Examples of fines from recent years: Valero Benicia Refinery was fined $266,000 in 2018, $122,500 in 2016 and $183,000 in 2014. It is rare for fines like these to actually financially benefit Benicia. The full text of the EPA News Release is available below this article from the Chronicle.– N.C.]
U.S. EPA hits Valero’s oil refinery in Benicia with $1.2 million penalty for two toxic flaring incidents
San Francisco Chronicle, by Julie Johnson, April 5, 2023
Oil refining giant Valero must pay a $1.2 million penalty for major flaring incidents at its Benicia facility that spewed dark plumes of pollutants into neighborhoods, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.
The “significant chemical incidents” occurred in 2017 and 2019 and forced people, including schoolchildren, to shelter in place because of the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, according to the agency.
Following a federal investigation, Valero executives agreed to make specific changes to their Benicia operations and pay a penalty totaling $1,224,550 in a settlement reached with the EPA. Martha Guzman, regional administrator for the EPA in California, Nevada and New Mexico, said the changes will help protect Valero workers, Benicia residents and the environment.
The EPA’s announcement is the latest investigation into problems at the Bay Area’s oil refineries. Earlier this year, health officials in Contra Costa County warned people living near the Martinez Refinery run by PBF Energy to avoid eating foods grown in surrounding neighborhoods, four months after the facility sent 20 tons of dust into the community that coated cars, homes and backyards in a mysterious fine white powder.
Last year, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced it had found Valero had been releasing unlawful and potentially harmful amounts of hydrocarbons from its hydrogen stacks — undetected — from 2003 to 2019. Valero said it also hadn’t detected the releases and took steps to end them.
On Wednesday, Valero didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about the federal fines.
Benicia Mayor Steve Young said the city wasn’t notified by the EPA about its investigation or the findings. The city has been pushing for greater transparency from oil refineries and the agencies that oversee them, especially after finding out last year that local air-quality regulators failed to tell the community about harmful releases until three years after the problems were discovered.
“We have concerns that we’re being left in the dark and only find out well after the fact,” Young said.
Oil refineries sometimes burn off flammable gases through tall stacks to keep careful equilibrium within pipes and other equipment and avoid disasters like explosions. But flaring is a highly regulated activity meant to be used sparingly because of the risks those burned gases and other pollutants pose to people nearby.
One major pollutant generated by these flares is sulfur dioxide, which can harm human respiratory tracts, exacerbating problems like asthma, and worsen pollution from particulate matter and acid rain.
On May 5, 2017, Valero stacks began shooting flames and churning out dark plumes of pollutants when the facility unexpectedly lost power. The emissions coated cars in an oily substance and sent employees at a nearby musical instrument factory to the emergency room, according to the EPA. More than 1,000 people were evacuated, including staff and students at both Robert Semple and Matthew Turner elementary schools. Ultimately, more than 10,000 pounds of flammable materials and 74,420 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released from the facility, according to the EPA.
Valero reported the flaring caused more than $10 million in damage to its facility, according to EPA records. The company later sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for the outage.
Then on March 11, 2019, another flaring incident led Solano County health officials to warn residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors. Some businesses sheltered in place. An investigation revealed more than 15,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide were released.
The EPA inspected the facility following both incidents and in 2019 found “several” cases where the company was violating the law.
“Valero failed to immediately report releases of hazardous substances, update certain process safety information, adequately analyze certain process hazards, and develop and implement certain written operating procedures,” the EPA said.
The agency found the company had violated the federal Clean Air Act’s regulations for preventing chemical accidents.
Valero is based in San Antonio and operates 15 petroleum facilities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
In a press release, Larry Starfield, with the EPA’s enforcement division, said the settlement “sends a clear message that EPA will prosecute companies that fail to expend the resources needed to have a compliant, well-functioning Risk Management Plan to the fullest extent of the law.”
Reach Julie Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @juliejohnson
EPA Orders Valero Refining to Improve Chemical Safety at Benicia, CA Refinery
Settlement Also Requires Company to Pay $1.2 Million Penalty for Clean Air Act Violations
SAN FRANCISCO (April 5, 2023) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement with Valero Refining-California to resolve violations of the Clean Air Act’s Chemical Accident Prevention regulations at their Benicia Refinery. The company will pay a $1,224,550 penalty and make changes to improve process safety at the refinery.
“This settlement sends a clear message that EPA will prosecute companies that fail to expend the resources needed to have a compliant, well-functioning Risk Management Plan to the fullest extent of the law,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
“Failure to properly manage hazardous materials can pose serious risks to our California communities,” said Martha Guzman, Regional Administrator of EPA Region 9. “This settlement will help protect Valero workers, the Benicia community, and the environment more broadly.”
After significant chemical incidents at the Benicia Refinery in 2017 and 2019, a 2019 EPA inspection at the facility identified several areas of noncompliance, including that Valero failed to immediately report releases of hazardous substances, update certain process safety information, adequately analyze certain process hazards, and develop and implement certain written operating procedures.
Under the terms of the settlement, Valero has agreed to make significant chemical safety improvements at the Benicia Refinery. The company has already made several of these changes, related to chemical safety, in response to EPA’s inspection. These improvements include updating and modifying process hazard analyses, modifying operating procedures, modifying reporting policies, and improving employee training. The settlement also requires Valero to modify several pressure-relief valves and update process hazard analyses to consider hazards of power loss at the facility. As part of the settlement, Valero will continue to implement safety improvements through June 2025.
The Benicia Refinery is one of thousands of facilities nationwide that make, use, and store extremely hazardous substances. Reducing the risk of accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities like the Benicia Refinery is one of EPA’s National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives. Catastrophic accidents at these facilities can result in death or serious injuries; impacts to the community, including orders to evacuate or shelter-in-place; and other harm to human health and the environment. The Clean Air Act requires that industrial and chemical facilities that store large amounts of hazardous substances develop and implement a Risk Management Plan to reduce the risk of accidental releases.
For more information on the Clean Air Act’s Risk Management Plan Program, please visit EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule webpage.
For more information on reporting possible violations of environmental laws and regulations visit EPA’s enforcement reporting website.
- Bay Area air regulators didn’t tell public about illegal emissions for three years. Can residents trust what comes next? | SF Chronicle, March 2022
- Big Oil reaps record profits while the planet burns. California should curb its greed | LA Times, February 2023
- Governor Newsom Unveils Price Gouging Penalty on Big Oil’s Excessive Profits to Protect Californians from Being Ripped Off | Oct. 2022 Press Release
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