Cathy Bennett: Is it safe to open your windows in Benicia?

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Cathy Bennett: Is it safe to open your windows, Benicia?

By Cathy Bennett, Special to the Herald, June 24, 2018
Asphalt: Plastic Road

When the subject of Valero comes up most of us think about the refinery.  For many of us, this is a reminder of the toxic emissions it releases into our air on a daily basis.  That’s troublesome enough, but most of us are unaware that Valero also operates the largest asphalt production plant in California, right here in Benicia located on the perimeter of the Valero refinery.  This means that in addition to all the toxic emissions we are exposed to from Valero’s refinery, Benicians are in double jeopardy due to the extremely high levels of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) being released into the air from Valero’s asphalt production plant.

I first learned about the asphalt production plant last April after we had our first hot spell.  During the warm stagnant evenings, I started sleeping with my windows open.  When I awoke in the mornings I had a headache, irritated eyes and throat, and a bloody nose!  These being unusual symptoms for me, I made some inquiries and subsequently did some research.  It turns out these are classic symptoms of toxic exposure to H2S.  And one of the highest concentrations of H2S come from asphalt production. Here’s what I learned.

Relatively “safe” limits of H2S are between 30 to 50 ppm (parts per million). At exposure to 50 ppm, one’s sense of smell is deadened (you cannot smell it any more) & nose, throat & lung irritation occurs. At 100 – 500 ppm  a potentially fatal build-up of fluid in the lungs & pulmonary oedema can occur.  At 500 – 1000 ppm respiratory paralysis, chest pain, heart failure, shortness of breath, collapse & death can occur.

There are two types of Asphalt: Paving asphalt (which the production of routinely emits H2S at 100 to 300 ppm) and rubber modified asphalt (which the production of can easily emit H2S between 500 and 3,000 ppm). Valero produces rubber modified asphalt (according to Wright Asphalts Products), the most toxic kind with potentially lethal H2S concentrations!

Asphalt – Highly toxic H2S comes from asphalt production.

In a nutshell, hydrogen sulfide is created during the process of refining crude, and then it is extracted to improve the fuel product. The remaining heavy residue is the asphalt.  Valero then takes that asphalt and adds synthetic rubber and a sulfur compound catalyst to treat the rubber.  In this process, the H2S vapor can easily elevate from the base asphalt at 100 to 800 ppm to more than 3,000 ppm inside the processing plant.  Valero’s asphalt processing equipment is not a closed system, and hazardous H2S vapors routinely escape into the environment. Valero relies upon gas collection systems to capture and treat the escaped H2S, and relies upon the wind to disburse it when it is released into the air.   Leaks, accidents and vapor escape is hardest to contain during the handling, transfer and transportation of the asphalt product. Valero moves this product from its offsite warehouse, to the processing plant, in and out of tanks, and into container trucks.  Most of the handling, loading and transporting of the material takes place in the wee hours of the night, while we’re all sleeping.

At Valero’s other asphalt processing plants, the refinery footprint has a natural buffer of miles of land between the plant and the local residents, allowing for wind to more safely disperse the escaped gas.  But in Benicia, the Valero refinery and asphalt plant are less than 100 yards away from neighboring businesses and residents!  There is no “buffer” to protect us from these escaped gasses.  A coincidental succession of leaks, combined with a lack of wind and/or a slow-moving waft of poisoned air blowing into the windows of unsuspecting neighbors, can result in catastrophic physical harm to anyone breathing this stuff!  The damage is compounded when you take into account the cumulative impact of long term exposure.   And Benicians are not informed when these highly toxic “incidents” occur!  Our only evidence, is the physical symptoms we experience and our declining respiratory and cardiac health.

So would Benicia benefit from an ISO?  Absolutely!  Valero has been able to operate under a cloak of invisibility for 17 years.  Since 2001, Valero has chosen to make a hazardous asphalt product even more hazardous because it elects to operate its plant as economically as it can get away with.  Valero knowingly makes a hazardous situation significantly worse for its neighbors and increases the dangers to the community & environment. And Benicia is none the wiser.

I totally get why Valero opposes an ISO!  Valero doesn’t want any additional oversight of its operations and especially to be held accountable for its ongoing abusive practices.  Why should Valero be pressed to cut into corporate profits and spend the extra money to keep the community safe, when the community at large doesn’t even know all of the dangers they are being exposed to? That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is why, after being fully informed of these and multiple other abusive practices, including Valero’s lack of transparency, failure to disclose incident reports and failure to provide air monitors to the residential areas of Benicia,  three of our City Councilmembers voted to shut down even a look at a draft of an ISO.  Yes, they actually refused to ask city staff to even review an ISO.  It’s obvious why Valero feels threatened by an ISO, but why are these three City Councilmembers refusing to even consider reviewing an ISO?  It’s a safety ordinance!  Whose interests are they serving? One has to wonder about the motive of any responsible leader, knowingly allowing such reckless harm to fall upon its citizens, and then to turn a blind eye when viable options such as an ISO is being offered.

We have a local election this November.  I urge all Benicia citizens to remember who on the City Council voted to protect Valero, rather than protecting the health and safety of the people they are elected to serve.

Cathy Bennett is a Benicia resident.

Train derailment: 230,000 gallons of crude oil released into Iowa floodwaters

Repost from the Des Moines Register

230,000 gallons of crude released into floodwaters after train derailment, railroad says

Associated Press, 4:59 p.m. CT June 23, 2018

DOON, Iowa — A railroad official says 14 of 32 derailed oil tanker cars in the northwest corner of Iowa dumped an estimated 230,000 gallons of crude oil into floodwaters, with some making its way to nearby rivers.

BNSF spokesman Andy Williams confirmed the details Saturday. He said that nearly half the spill had been contained with booms near the derailment site and an additional boom placed approximately 5 miles downstream. Williams had earlier said that 33 oil cars derailed.

Williams said that oil will be removed from that containment site with equipment to separate the oil from the water.

The railroad will focus on environmental recovery. Williams said “ongoing monitoring is occurring for any potential conditions that could impact workers and the community and, so far, have found no levels of concern.”

The train derailed early Friday just south of Doon in Lyon County, leaking oil into surrounding floodwaters from the swollen Little Rock River.

Crews work to clean up cars from the BNSF railway afterSome officials have speculated that floodwaters eroded soil beneath the train track. The nearby Little Rock River rose rapidly after heavy rain Wednesday and Thursday.

Within hours of the derailment, BNSF had brought in dozens of semitrailers loaded with equipment to clean up the spill, including containment booms, skimmers and vacuum trucks.

“We are working as quickly as we can to get this cleaned up,” Williams said Saturday. “We’ve had skimmers working since yesterday on the floodwater south of the site.”

A major part of that work includes building a temporary road parallel to the tracks to allow in cranes that can remove the derailed and partially-submerged oil cars. Williams said officials hoped to reach the cars by sometime Saturday afternoon.

The train was carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Stroud, Oklahoma, for ConocoPhillips. ConocoPhillips spokesman Daren Beaudo said each tanker can hold more than 25,000 gallons of oil.

Beaudo also did not know whether the derailed oil cars were the safer, newer tankers intended to help prevent leaks in the event of an accident.

“We lease those cars and are in the process of verifying with the owners the exact rail car specifications,” Beaudo said in an email.

Gov. Kim Reynolds was set to visit the derailment site Saturday afternoon as part of a tour of areas hit by recent flooding.

The derailment also caused concern downstream, including as far south as Omaha, Nebraska, about 150 miles from the derailment site. The spill reached the Rock River, which joins the Big Sioux River before merging into the Missouri River at Sioux City.

Omaha’s public water utility — Metropolitan Utilities District — said it was monitoring pumps it uses to pull drinking water from the Missouri River.

Rock Valley, just southwest of the derailment, shut off its water wells within hours of the accident. It plans to drain and clean its wells and use a rural water system until testing shows its water is safe.

ISO Working Group personal reflection: City Council says no to industrial safety…for now

By Roger Straw

Council turns down draft local ISO, puts trust in Valero, County, State and Air District

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

It’s a sad story.  An ambitious and dedicated group of us formed a Benicia ISO Working Group over 7 months ago.  We met, researched, wrote, met with officials and embraced the pro-bono attorney labors of Terry Mollica, who drafted a head-start on Benicia’s own Industrial Safety Ordinance.

The City Council didn’t buy it.  Mostly, they bought the joint opinion of Valero, Solano County and the Bay Area Air District – that a LOCAL ordinance is redundant given new regional and state regulations.  Which of course, it isn’t – redundant, that is.

Mayor Patterson and Vice-mayor Steve Young voted to direct staff to further review the concept and the draft ordinance and return to Council with recommendations.  Mark Hughes (predictably), along with Alan Schwartzman and Tom Campbell, voted to wait awhile.

Significantly, for the first time on the public record, all five agreed that the City of Benicia and its residents are long overdue for air monitors.

Campbell and Schwartzman threatened Valero that they would revisit the issue and vote in favor of an ISO in November 2018 if Valero has not complied with a new Air District requirement for a few “fenceline” air monitors on Valero’s southeast border.

Of course, we would get fenceline AND COMMUNITY-BASED, neighborhood air monitors with the draft ISO.  But three Councilmembers chose to take a slower route with much less leverage over our local Goliath.

It could go either way in November or December.  Valero could conceivably install the required but totally inadequate fenceline monitors.  Or they could seek a delay, or just never perform.  It really doesn’t matter.  Many are saying we should sit tight, and hold Councilmembers Schwartzman and Campbell to their promise if Valero doesn’t comply – that they would then vote for an ISO.  Fine, but a better plan is to simply remember that Councilmember Hughes is up for re-election in November.  Whether or not Valero complies, a third vote on Council would be assured with Hughes’ defeat in November.

This isn’t over.  Benicia continues as the only refinery town in the Bay Area without a local industrial safety ordinance.  Our City staff and our citizens need a measure of oversight and control when it comes to our public health and safety.

KQED Audio Report: When oil refineries flare, what happens to the air

Repost from KQED NPR – The Bay
[See also KQED: Benicia Rejects Safety Ordinance Proposed After Last Year’s Valero Outage.]

Listen to a fascinating and important 8-minute KQED audio report for interviews about asthma and Valero refinery pollution.  Extended interview with Ted Goldberg morning editor for KQED News, with updates on Benicia and Valero Refinery.  Click the logo above or here: When oil refineries flare, what happens to the air(Be patient – the audio has a slow start.)