SF Chronicle editorial: Benicia needs an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO)

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

EDITORIAL On Pollution
Monday, November 27, 2017

Clear the air about safety – Industrial Safety is a Community Concern

The Valero refinery in Benicia,Ca., as seen on Tuesday June 20, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery in Benicia,Ca., as seen on Tuesday June 20, 2017. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Two Bay Area counties are home to oil refineries, but only one has an industrial safety ordinance directed at preventing accidents that could harm workers and pollute the air — Contra Costa County. Solano County has no ordinance, but Benicia, where Valero operates a refinery, is beginning a conversation on adopting a city safety ordinance.

The push for the city ordinance comes at a time when the state recently has adopted its own industrial safety ordinance modeled on the Contra Costa County ordinance. The regional air quality board also unanimously adopted on Nov. 15 the strictest regulation in the nation to limit emissions of cancer-causing toxic air contaminants. Solano County officials say they are studying the new state regulations but question the need for another layer of governmental oversight.

The goal, said Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who called the Nov. 14 community meeting along with a coalition of environmental and community groups, “is to get a seat at the table.”

Air quality is always a concern in a refinery town, but a May 5 incident at Valero that sent huge plumes of black smoke and flames soaring into the sky reignited community worries. The flaring resulted in shelter-in-place and evacuation orders and raised the price of gasoline. It was later determined the refinery had released 80,000 pounds of toxic sulfur dioxide — a huge amount, experts said.

Two investigations (one by the state, one by the county) found Valero not at fault, but the county’s findings were never forwarded to the city and only revealed through a public records act request. The regional air board is still investigating.

Valero is suing PG&E over a power failure that preceded the refinery losing control of its process.

An industrial safety ordinance would bring Benicia — and surrounding communities — into the know and give residents directly affected some say.

An ordinance also would require Valero to pay fees to the city, or Solano County if the Board of Supervisors adopts an ordinance, to contract for the engineering expertise needed to oversee prevention programs, audits and inspections. Unsurprisingly, Valero is against the idea.

Contra Costa County adopted its industrial safety ordinance in December 1998 after a series of incidents, and just days before four men were killed and a fifth seriously burned in a gruesome refinery accident. Richmond soon after adopted its own ordinance. Contra Costa’s ordinance is held up by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board as a model. The record shows the number of refinery and chemical facility incidents has diminished since adoption.

Industrial safety is a public concern. The public deserves to be in the know.


An Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO)
for Benicia

To learn more about ISO Benicia,
please attend a panel discussion with State Officials, and Contra Costa County experts on why and how Benicia can better protect our community.

Why:  Currently, Benicia is the only refinery town in the Bay Area not protected by an ISO. In Contra Costa County, the county Hazardous Materials Division of the Health Department is responsible for enforcing an ISO that governs the three refineries in the county unincorporated areas – Shell, Tesoro and Phillips 66. The City of Richmond has an ordinance that mirrors the county’s and contracts with Contra Costa County for enforcement activities governing the Chevron refinery and other industries.

When:   TODAY! Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 7pm.

Where:  The Benicia Public Library in the Doña Benicia Room at 150 East L St. in Benicia.


  • Gregory Vlasek, Local Program Coordination and Emergency Response, California Environmental Protection Agency
  • Clyde Trombettas, Statewide Manager and Policy Advisor for California OSHA, Process Safety Management Unit
  • Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County Chief Environmental Health and Hazardous Materials Officer
  • John Gioia,  Contra Costa County Supervisor
  • Staff representatives from Solano County were invited to participate and declined the invitation.
  • You:  There will also be an opportunity for the public to ask questions and make comments at the end of the presentations.

For more information:  Contact Andrés Soto at 510.237.6866 or andres@cbecal.org  [See also below: Quick Facts, and Where To Write.]

Event Sponsors:

Benicians For a Safe & Healthy Community | Progressive Democrats of Benicia | The Benicia Independent | Communities for a Better Environment  |  ALSO: Solano County Supervisor Monica Brown |  United Democrats of Southern Solano County  |  Carquinez Patriotic Resistance

Quick Facts

What is the purpose of an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO)?
The main goal of an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) is to prevent and/or minimize the effects of devastating accidents on the employees close to the accident and the surrounding communities.

Why does Benicia need this when the State has an ISO?
After the near-catastrophic May 5th Valero Refinery emergency shutdown and major flaring incident, it was even more apparent that Benicia is at risk without an ISO. Benicia is the only jurisdiction in the East Bay with a refinery or chemical industry that does not have a local safety ordinance such as the City of Richmond and other refinery communities have. The City of Benicia is covered by Cal/OSHA and Cal/EPA safety regulations.  However, there are additional concerns not addressed by Cal/OSHA and Cal/EPA, such as no direct safety reports filed at the City of Benicia, leaving Benicia in the dark.  An ISO would correct this and other safety matters. 

How would this improve communications between Valero and the community of Benicia?
A local ISO would facilitate cooperation between industry, the City, the County, local fire departments, Cal/OSHA, Cal/EPA, other agencies that have oversight of businesses, and the public in the prevention and reduction of incidents at refineries like Valero. An ISO would also establish local air quality monitors for access to real time data.

Why is the Valero refinery the only Bay Area refinery not involved with a county or local ISO?
In 1998 Contra Costa County adopted an ISO, and revised and updated it after the Chevron fire. The City of Richmond also has a local ISO.  These ISOs require among other things, refineries and other chemical businesses to submit a safety plan, undergo safety audits, and have risk management plans, each of which would allow more community input and access. The Contra Costa ISO has been praised as the best safety ordinance in the country, so effective that Cal/OSHA and Cal/EPA adopted many elements for state regulation and oversight.  Benicia is the only city in Solano County that is home to refinery and currently our County has no plans to develop an ISO.  It is up to the City of Benicia to develop and implement its own. 

How would the ISO be managed and can Benicia afford it?
Contra Costa County’s ISO enables the county to collect fees from industrial facilities to pay for comprehensive public safety alerts and local information about environmental risks and exposure to toxins due to an “event”.  

What are the next steps and how can I get involved?
Because Benicia deserves to be properly protected and informed, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, Progressive Democrats of Benicia, The Benicia Independent, Carquinez Patriotic Resistance, Communities For a Better Environment and additional community groups are urging the City Council to adopt and implement an Industrial Safety Ordinance for Benicia.  To learn more and get involved, visit BeniciaIndependent.com.  To write to Benicia city staff and council members, see below…


Mayor Elizabeth Patterson (epatterson@ci.benicia.ca.us)
Vice Mayor Steve Young (syoung@ci.benicia.ca.us)
Tom Campbell (tcampbell@ci.benicia.ca.us
Mark Hughes (Mark.Hughes@ci.benicia.ca.us)
Alan Schwartzman (aschwartzman@ci.benicia.ca.us)
City Manager Lorie Tinfow (ltinfow@ci.benicia.ca.us)
Interim Fire Chief Josh Chadwick (JChadwick@ci.benicia.ca.us)
Police Chief Erik Upson (EUpson@ci.benicia.ca.us)
City Attorney Heather McLaughlin (Heather.McLaughlin@ci.benicia.ca.us)

Mail to or visit City Hall: 250 East L Street, Benicia, CA 94510
Phone numbers are listed on the City’s CONTACT PAGE

Benicia Herald, 820 First St, Benicia, CA 94510, or by email to the editor at beniciaherald@gmail.com
Vallejo Times-Herald, P.O. Box 3188, Vallejo, CA 94590, Fax: 643-0128, or by email to Editor Jack Bungart at opinion@timesheraldonline.com.

KQED: Benicia Still Looking for Answers from Valero Six Months After Refinery Outage

Repost from KQED News
(See also Town Hall on Benicia ISO – TONIGHT)

Benicia Still Looking for Answers from Valero Six Months After Refinery Outage

By Ted Goldberg, November14, 2017
A power outage on May 5, 2017 at Benicia’s Valero refinery led to a prolonged episode of flaring during which more than 80,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide was released into the air. (California Environmental Protection Agency)

When a massive refinery outage sent flames, black smoke and toxic gas shooting into the sky from Valero’s Benicia plant last spring, the city’s mayor said the local government had little information about what was going on.

Days later Mayor Elizabeth Patterson called for the city to develop regulations that would give Benicia more oversight over the oil giant it hosts. She proposed regulations similar to those in Contra Costa County, home to several refineries, that require oil refining facilities to undergo safety audits and share their risk management plans.

Those rules would be part of an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) that would require Valero to provide Benicia with more data about its plant.

But six months after one the Bay Area’s worst refinery malfunctions in the last five years, the refinery oversight measure has not moved through the City Council. And according to Mayor Patterson and Councilman Steve Young, Valero has not provided the city with enough information.

“They have given the Council nothing. They have given the public nothing,” said Patterson.

“The City has still not received a report from Valero and has instead had to rely on media reports from KQED and others,” Young said in an email. “Significant questions remain unanswered.”

Valero rejects the notion that it has not been forthcoming.

“We find Mayor Patterson’s statements puzzling,” said company spokeswoman Lillian Rioijas in an email. “We’ve been very up front and open with the city as well as other regulators about what we know.”

The May 5 outage led to shelter-in-place and evacuation orders throughout the city and at least a dozen people sought medical treatment for breathing difficulties.

The refinery released more than 80,00 pounds of sulfur dioxide on the day of the outage and in the weeks afterward.

Two investigations, one by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and another by the Solano CountyEnvironmental Health Division, cleared Valero of wrongdoing. Another probe, by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, is yet to be completed.

City officials only became aware of the county’s investigative findings after KQED obtained them and asked for a comment, according to Patterson.

The mayor says an industrial safety ordinance would get the city that kind of information directly.

Patterson and a coalition of local environmental and community groups want the city to move forward on an industrial safety ordinance.  A town hall meeting to educate the public on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday night.

The ordinance would allow Benicia to audit Valero’s safety plans and take part in inspections of its refinery.

Valero is lobbying against the proposal.

“A local ISO would not have prevented this power outage,” Don Wilson, the refinery’s vice president and general manager wrote the Council in a letter in June. “A local ISO will be costly and duplicative of existing state and and local programs,” Wilson said.

The company has blamed Pacific Gas and Electric and has sued the San Francisco-based utility, seeking $75 million in damages and lost revenue.

“Let’s remember, PG&E abruptly shut off all power to the refinery without any notice,” said Riojas, the Valero spokeswoman.

PG&E hired a third party to investigate the outage. That report has been submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission.

In October California adopted new statewide refinery oversight regulations. Refineries are now required to adopt safety designs and systems, conduct periodic workplace safety culture assessments and investigate causes of serious refinery malfunctions.

Councilman Young, Councilman Tom Campbell and Terry Schmidtbauer, the director of Solano County’s Department of Resource Management, which conducts audits on the refinery, say they’re unclear on whether a city ordinance would add anything the state’s new rules don’t already cover.

“An ISO may be a great idea but I don’t want it to somehow get in the road of other already existing state and federal regulations,” said Councilman Campbell in an email.

“My only hesitation revolves around my desire not to have an ordinance that overlaps with recent Cal-OSHA requirements,” said Young.

Mayor Patterson says a local ordinance would go further: it would require Valero to report information about a refinery malfunction and the company’s proposed actions to prevent a similar incident directly to the city.

“The ISO would give us a seat at the table,” Patterson said.

Tuesday’s town hall meeting takes place at the Benicia Public Library at 7 p.m.  [More info]