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.

1 Million Animal And Plant Species Are At Risk Of Extinction, U.N. Report Says

By Bill Chappell and Nathan Rott
NPR All Things Considered – Research News
“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” a U.N. panel says, reporting that around 1 million species are currently at risk. Here, an endangered hawksbill turtle swims in a Singapore aquarium in 2017. Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Up to 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction — many of them within decades — according to scientists and researchers who produced a sweeping U.N. report on how humanity’s burgeoning growth is putting the world’s biodiversity at perilous risk.

Some of the report’s findings might not seem new to those who have followed stories of how humans have affected the environment, from shifts in seasons to the prevalence of plastics and other contaminants in water. But its authors say the assessment is the most accurate and comprehensive review yet of the damage people are inflicting on the planet. And they warn that nature is declining at “unprecedented” rates, and that the changes will put people at risk.

“Protecting biodiversity amounts to protecting humanity,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said at a news conference about the findings Monday morning.

The report depicts “an ominous picture,” says Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (commonly called the IPBES), which compiled the assessment.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” Watson says. He emphasizes that business and financial concerns are also threatened.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Watson says.

The report lists a number of key global threats, from humans’ use of land and sea resources to challenges posed by climate change, pollution and invasive species.

“Insects pollinators are unfortunately an excellent example of the problems caused by human activities,” Scott McArt, an entomology professor at Cornell University, says in a statement about the report.

“There’s actually a newly coined phrase for insect declines — the ‘windshield effect’ — owing to the fact that if you drove your car at dusk 30 years ago, you would need to clean the windshield frequently, but that’s no longer the case today,” McArt says.

In its tally of humanity’s toll on the Earth, the assessment says that “approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year,” adding that the figure has nearly doubled since 1980.

Here’s a short selection of some of the report’s notable findings:

  • 75% of land environment and some 66% of the marine environment “have been significantly altered by human actions”
  • “More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources” are used for crops or livestock
  • “Up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss”
  • Between 100 million and 300 million people now face “increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection”
  • Since 1992, the world’s urban areas have more than doubled
  • “Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980,” and from “300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge” and other industrial waste is dumped into the world’s water systems

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net.’ But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” says Sandra Díaz of Argentina, a co-chair of the global assessment.

Díaz and other experts portrayed humans as both the cause of the threat and a target of its risks. As humanity demands ever more food, energy, housing and other resources, they say, it’s also undermining its own food security and long-term prospects.

“The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” says Josef Settele, a co-chair from Germany. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The report found patterns of “telecoupling,” which another co-chair, Eduardo S. Brondízio of Brazil and the U.S., describes as the phenomenon of resources being extracted and made into goods in one part of the world “to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”

That pattern, Brondízio says, makes it more complicated to avoid damage to nature through the usual avenues of governance and accountability.

While the report’s eye-popping statistics about what the world stands to lose because of human activity are drawing headlines, conservation advocates say they hope the assessment helps people grasp the bigger picture.

“The hope is that folks will be able to extrapolate beyond the individual stories they’ve been seeing about orcas or monarchs or bees or bats or caribou or whatever,” says Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. He adds that the new report could help people “see that this is a systemic threat that could potentially cause the sixth extinction even, if we don’t act quickly.”

Hundreds of experts worked together to create the global assessment, with a total of 455 authors representing 50 countries taking part, according to the IPBES.

The agency calls the report one of the most comprehensive assessment of the planet’s health ever undertaken, saying it’s the first global biodiversity assessment since 2005.

Its findings are based on reviews of some 15,000 scientific and government sources, the IPBES says, adding that in addition to those formal sources, the report also includes insights from indigenous and local communities.

To create the assessment, the IPBES was asked to answer several wide-ranging questions, from reporting on the current status and patterns of change in the natural world, to “plausible futures” for nature and the quality of life through 2050. Other questions sought to find interventions and challenges for coping with those changes — and possibly improving dire outcomes.

The goal, the report’s authors say, was not only to take stock of a worsening predicament but to give policymakers “the tools they need to make better choices for people and nature.

The assessment highlights dire predictions for habitats and native species in South America and parts of Asia. But the NWF’s O’Mara warns that the U.S. also has much to lose — especially if biodiversity is viewed as someone else’s problem.

“This is a problem here at home,” O’Mara says. “About one-third of all species right now in the U.S. are at heightened risk of potential extinction in the next couple of decades.”

Echoing what environmental experts said in Europe as the IPBES released its report, O’Mara says it’s not too late to act.

See also the New York Times, Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace, by Brad Plumer

Fishing nets and ropes are a frequent hazard for olive ridley sea turtles, seen on a beach in India’s Kerala state in January. A new 1,500-page report by the United Nations is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe. Credit: Soren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Should Trump be impeached? Here’s what Bay Area members of Congress say

SF Chronicle: What each of our Representatives and Senators have to say about impeachment

Tal Kopan May 2, 2019
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, speaks at the Economic Club of Washington in March. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — With the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the question is before lawmakers: What will they do next?

Democrats are split over whether to move to impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the House, the only chamber of Congress they control. With Republicans opposed to impeachment and in control of the Senate, such an effort would largely be for the purpose of uncovering information that could be damaging to Trump, either politically or in the congressional proceedings.

Here’s where members of the Bay Area delegation — many of whom sit on committees where articles of impeachment would be considered or where investigations would be conducted — stand on whether to try to remove Trump from office.

The speaker is the member with perhaps the most important vote on the matter, as she will likely decide whether the House will proceed to impeachment. She has largely steered her members away from it, saying before the Mueller report’s release that Trump was “just not worth” the consequences of impeachment and telling fellow Democrats after the special counsel’s redacted findings were made public that congressional investigations would come first. “I hate to disappoint some of you, but I’m not struggling with this decision,” she told her caucus.

That approach hasn’t changed. “We’re hyper-focused on transparency and continuing our investigations,” an aide said in a statement, “because the special counsel’s report raises more serious questions about Trump’s relationship with the Russians and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, the administration’s efforts to protect our elections, especially given the purging of key staffers at the Department of Homeland Security, and the effect of Trump’s abuses of power on other areas we think people care about, like the administration’s efforts to sabotage Americans’ health care.”

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord:

“As a matter of principle, I support impeachment and I also believe we need to proceed with the congressional investigations currently under way to get to the truth for the American people,” DeSaulnier said in a statement. “During Watergate, it was congressional hearings that led to the resignation of an unethical president.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto:

Rep. Anna Eshoo. D-Palo Alto, in November 2013. Photo: Stephen Lam / Special to The Chronicle

“As a member of Congress, I must be provided an unredacted copy of the special counsel’s report and all underlying documents in order to make a decision as to whether the House moves to impeach the president, or whether it’s done the old-fashioned American way — impeachment at the ballot box next year,” Eshoo said in a statement.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael:

“We should follow the facts,” Huffman told MSNBC. “We should do this full-throated investigation. We should read the Constitution and remember that our founders anticipated a moment like this and they put the constitutional remedy of impeachment in the Congress for a reason. We can’t just punt that. There is a real downside to that.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont:

“This is not a moment to rush to judgment,” Khanna said in a statement. “Rather, this is a time to be deliberate and methodical in our approach, and gather all the facts before making a determination on articles of impeachment. We need further investigations, public hearings, and potentially contempt proceedings to promote political accountability. Yet again, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shown outstanding judgment and wisdom in her approach for our caucus.”

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland:

“Congresswoman Lee believes Trump must be held accountable, strongly supports congressional investigations into the president and his administration’s actions, and believes that impeachment must not be taken off the table,” Lee’s office said in a statement.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose: “Impeachment is not just a legal issue, it’s also a political issue,” Lofgren said in an interview on KCBS-AM. She noted that the public largely supported the impeachment of President Richard Nixon by the time he resigned 1974, in contrast to widespread opposition to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.

“I don’t know what the Congress and the public will think when we finish the entire review of this,” Lofgren continued. “I think it’s a mistake to try and jump to a conclusion. We’ve got to go in a boring, orderly, thorough fashion and see where we are. When you’re doing impeachment, you’re undoing an election, which is a pretty serious matter, and you don’t do that unless there’s really no choice.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo:

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, in New York on Oct. 15. Photo: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

“Clearly the Mueller report was meant to inform Congress’ drafting of articles of impeachment,” Speier said in a statement. “That is why the House must conduct its oversight duty and investigate the damning evidence uncovered by the report and any other evidence of crimes and corruption. Because it’s not just the Senate that wields the power of impeachment, it’s the American public. And the public needs and deserves unvarnished access to the Mueller report, and any other evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors, so that they can ‘impeach’ the president in 2020 should the Senate fail to act.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin:

“We’re certainly having a conversation about how we hold this president accountable,” Swalwell said on ABC News’ “The Investigation” podcast. “I wouldn’t say impeachment is off the table.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena:

“The findings presented in Special Counsel Mueller’s report are serious,” Thompson said in a statement. “Congress will continue with our investigations to ensure our constituents get the truth. Nothing is off the table. At the same time, Congress will continue with our responsibility to pass legislation that helps our constituents and our country — we can do both at the same time.”

If the House did vote to impeach Trump, he would be tried in the Senate. Here’s what California’s senators have to say about the possibility of impeachment:

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

“The Mueller report certainly raises serious issues that Congress needs to investigate,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Whether impeachment proceedings should occur can be decided once that process is under way and we’ve learned more. And of course any decision on whether to bring impeachment charges would be made by the House.”

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris:

“I think we have very good reason to believe that there is an investigation that has been conducted which has produced evidence that tells us that this president and his administration engaged in obstruction of justice,” Harris said on a CNN town hall last month. “I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.”

Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. 

Report: How SF Bay communities should combat sea-level rise

[Editor: Download the Adaptation Atlas  here.  There is also a 2-pg. “Highlight Bullets” and an Adaptation Atlas Interactive website. For more details about this project, visit To participate in a report launch webinar being held on May 2 at 2:00 PM PDT, please visit  – R.S.]

Blueprint to battle Bay Area sea-level rise focuses on natural solutions

By Peter Fimrite, May 2, 2019 
The Oro Loma marshland along the Heron Bay Trail in Hayward is part of San Francisco bay’s 400 miles of shoreline. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

A blueprint outlining how San Francisco Bay communities should combat sea-level rise was released early Thursday by ecosystem scientists and urban planners who envision a ring of man-made reefs, rocky beaches and graded marshlands around the largest estuary on the Pacific coast.

The carefully designed features, outlined in the 255-page San Francisco Bay Shoreline Adaptation Atlas, would in many cases replace or bury seawalls, rip rap, culverts and other crude fortifications that experts say won’t hold up as the climate warms and water rises.

The idea, developed over the past two years by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and SPUR, a San Francisco urban planning research center, is to build eco-friendly features that support wildlife and absorb, rather than repel, the rising tides.

The report comes at a critical time: The U.S. Geological Survey recently calculated that property damage from sea level rise in the Bay Area could exceed $100 billion by the end of the century if nothing is done to stop carbon dioxide emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists said 4,100 homes in San Mateo County and nearly 4,400 in Marin County could be underwater by 2045.

A duck and ducklings swim along a waterway inside the Oro Loma marshland along the Heron Bay Trail in Hayward, Calif., Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The causes of climate change need to be addressed, but at the same time, scientists and planners need to brace for the fallout, experts say. Climate scientists say the sea level at the mouth of San Francisco Bay has risen almost 8 inches over the past century.

“The Bay Area is ground zero for sea-level rise,” said Warner Chabot, executive director of the Estuary Institute, who predicted the atlas would become a national model. “We have a trifecta threat of sea level rise, groundwater rising and lowland flooding from extreme weather patterns, and that guarantees a soupy shoreline future for the Bay Area.”

The plan, funded by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, is the first attempt in the Bay Area to develop a collaborative regional plan to both enhance the ecosystem and protect cities around the bay from the potential ravages of climate change.

The report was put together over the past two years in collaboration with scientists, planners and policymakers across the region. It provides graphics, explanations of ecological science and a framework for all nine Bay Area counties to build nature-like shorelines that would protect their communities.

San Francisco Bay has 400 miles of shoreline, including airports, landfills, marinas, wetlands, beaches, ports and residential neighborhoods.

The researchers divided the shoreline into 30 separate “operational landscape units” based on shoreline geology, terrain and infrastructure. They developed strategies for each section, including projects to re-route creeks into wetland areas, place shell structures offshore, use sediment to bolster shoreline elevations and create beaches to replace rip rap, the concrete or stone rubble placed along banks to prevent erosion.

The study incorporates in its recommendations restoration projects that are under way, like one at Giant Marsh in North Richmond. The California State Coastal Conservancy is installing 350 reef structures there, planting eel grass and connecting the wetlands to upland habitat. The goal is to create a sloping tidal system that starts in the water with oyster shell mounds that reduce wave action, then shifts into eel grass in the sub-tidal area and eventually marshland that slows down storm surges.

Marilyn Latta of the State Coastal Conservancy holds a miniature version of a reef structure, a living shoreline element that acts as a home for oysters and to combat sea level rise, placed off the Point Pinole shoreline in Richmond. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle
Oyster blocks placed by the State Coastal Conservancy as a living shoreline element designed to act as a home for native oysters and combat sea level rise are seen in the water off the Point Pinole shoreline in Richmond, Calif. Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Wetlands restoration has been going on for years in the former salt ponds in the South Bay and along Highway 37 in the North Bay, buffer zones that the atlas recommends expanding. The report recommends building a Highway 37 bridge or causeway so that tidewater can better migrate into the restored wetlands.

At least 18,000 acres of potential wetlands in the Bay Area have been acquired and are slated for restoration. The goal is to eventually restore 100,000 acres of bay marsh, much of it in the Napa and Suisun areas, along the Petaluma River and in the South Bay.

Another idea in the report is to reroute Santa Clara County’s Calabazas Creek, which was diverted long ago, so that it flows into restored wetlands that need the sediment from the creek to grow. The wetlands near Calabazas are among 16,000 acres of former salt ponds in the South Bay that were cut off from the bay by earthen berms and dikes.

Alameda Creek, Novato Creek and many other waterways in the Bay Area should also be realigned to help build up the marshes, said Julie Beagle, deputy director of the institute’s resilient landscape program and lead author of the study.

“We can use the sediment that comes out of our hills,” Beagle said. “We have to think of our sediment as a resource.”

Scientist Amy Richey, with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, views a defensive shoreline on the Heron Bay Trail in Hayward. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The authors collaborated with the California Department of Transportation, the Sonoma Land Trust and several cities in Marin and Sonoma counties to identify places along Highway 37 and near Petaluma, Napa and Sonoma creeks where new wetlands could be created.

The East Bay also is a critical area, according to the report’s authors. One example of a successful strategy, they said, is the horizontal levee built near a wastewater facility by the Oro Loma Sanitary District in Hayward. The levee uses vegetation planted on a slope that covers a vertical wall previously used to break waves. This setup allows the district to protect the facility and filter-treated wastewater through the ground instead of dumping it in the bay.

Beagle said she would like to see the beaches that once existed from Point Richmond to the Bay Bridge restored. Instead, the Highway 80 corridor is now protected mostly by rip rap, which she said speeds up erosion by essentially increasing the power of the waves that smack into the rock.

“There’s no reason in my mind that it can’t be a beach,” she said. “There is a huge amount of mudflats and shallow water, pocket beaches and small marshes. This is a place where different types of beaches would fit. You could even cover the rip rap with sand or a coarser, more porous material that would soften the wave action.”

Other strategies would have to be used for areas with less room for restoration, like Foster City, which is protected by seawalls. One solution would be to engineer shell beaches or jetties that would knock down the waves and create green infrastructure to work in coordination with the wall.

And, Beagle said, there is no way around the decrepit seawall in San Francisco, which is all that keeps the bay from reclaiming inland blocks built on landfill, including portions of the Financial District. Still, she said, it can be rebuilt as a green seawall, with pockets and textures that promote the growth of submerged aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, small mammals and fish.

The report does not address how much money would be needed — or where it would come from — to complete the projects outlined in the report. Up to $100 billion will be needed over the next 20 years just to rebuild the Bay Area’s aging shoreline infrastructure, according to recent estimates.

“We only have a few years to get a lot of these projects going because natural solutions take time to evolve,” Beagle said. “We need to get moving.”

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.