A Crucial Dec. 19 City Council Meeting on an ISO to Protect Ourselves Against Valero’s Toxic Emissions and Potential Explosions
By Stephen Golub, first published in the Benicia Herald on December 9, 2023
A Seat at the Table
Benicia is the only refinery town in the Bay Area that lacks an industrial safety ordinance (ISO), which could play a crucial role in protecting the safety and health of our kids, our older adults and all of us. On Dec. 19, the City Council will consider a proposal to instruct staff to examine whether the City should adopt such an ordinance.
Unlike the current, voluntary cooperation agreement between Benicia and Valero, an ISO would have real teeth in ensuring that we get timely information about leaks, accidents, violations and ongoing health-and-safety-threatening problems at the Texas-based corporation’s refinery (and potentially at other large corporate facilities here).
An ISO would enable us to learn about these kinds of developments when they occur. It could help prevent such threats in the future, rather than letting them fester for years – with all the increased risks of explosions, fires and poisoned air that come with them. (The cost would be covered by the affected facilities, not your tax dollars. Some estimates put it at several hundred thousand dollars per year. Regardless of the final figure, it would be a drop in the bucket for Texas-based Valero, whose profits were $11.6 billion in 2022.)
More specifically, an ISO would help prevent the kinds of catastrophic fires and explosions that have wreaked havoc on other communities and the many years of toxic, potentially carcinogenic Valero emissions – hundreds of times the legal limits – that have fouled Benicia’s air.
Right now, by and large, we only learn about such dangers at the discretion of Texas-based Valero or various large government agencies whose main focus isn’t Benicia. All too often, we learn little or nothing about these dangerous developments until months or years after they have occurred.
An ISO would give Benicia a seat at the table.
Potentially Catastrophic, Deadly and Toxic Dangers
In planning this column, I originally thought that I could simply list and summarize articles that document the violations, incidents and dangers that the refinery could pose for the community. But if I tried to do so, the compilation could well exceed what I have time to write or you have time to read. So here are just a few such items:
“Regulators are seeking an abatement order against the Valero refinery in Benicia to stop what it calls ongoing violations, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said Thursday. The air district wants to require Valero to install pollution control equipment on eight pressure relief devices (PRDs), which are safety measures used to prevent extreme overpressures that the district says could ‘cause catastrophic equipment failure.’” NBC Bay Area, Aug. 11, 2023
“The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) announced Thursday it has cited the Valero refinery in Benicia and three contractors for violations that led to the death of a worker there last November and is proposing a total of $1.75 million in fines…The oil giant, which reported earnings of $114 billion in 2021, was cited four times for either knowingly violating the law or not taking reasonable steps to address a known hazard.” NBC Bay Area, May 24, 2022
“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 has announced…’Failure to properly manage hazardous materials can pose serious risks to our California communities,’ [EPA regional administrator Martha] Guzman said…Benicia Mayor Steve Young said the city wasn’t notified by the EPA about its investigation or the findings.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 6, 2023.
“Officials in Benicia and Solano County want to know why Valero’s oil refinery there was able to release excessive levels of hazardous chemicals for more than 15 years before regional air regulators discovered the emissions — and why those regulators failed for another three years to alert local communities to the potential danger…The emissions consisted of a variety of “precursor organic compounds,” or POCs, including [carcinogenic] benzene and other toxic chemicals…The district’s investigation found that from December 2015 through December 2018, POC emissions averaged 5,200 pounds a day — nearly 350 times the daily limit.” KQED, Feb. 24, 2022
What You Can Do
If you want to find out more about the need and potential for an ISO, or wish to indicate support for this initiative, please check out the website recently put together to promote it: www.bisho.org
As the site says, employing a suggested name for the proposed ISO:
“We are concerned citizens of Benicia who support the adoption of a Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO) that would help prevent accidents, allow us to receive more complete and timelier information, hold local industries accountable, and give our City a ‘seat at the table,’ as all other Bay Area Communities with refineries have done.”
You can also attend the December 19 City Council meeting, which will start at 6 pm in the Council chambers at City Hall. Or you can Zoom into the session, via a link you’ll find at the Agendas and Minutes page of the City’s website shortly before the session takes place, https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/agendas
Or you can email the Council members, ccing the City Clerk, stating that you support an ISO for Benicia. It’s best if you send your comments by the Dec. 12 deadline for emails to be included in the public record attached to the Dec. 19 meeting. But an email at any time will be read and considered.
Their emails are:
- Mayor Steve Young: SYoung@ci.benicia.ca.us
- Vice Mayor Terry Scott: TScott@ci.benicia.ca.us
- Council Member Tom Campbell: TCampbell@ci.benicia.ca.us
- Council Member Trevor Macenski: TMacenski@ci.benicia.ca.us
- Council Member Kari Birdseye: KBirdseye@ci.benicia.ca.us
- City Clerk Lisa Wolfe: email@example.com
The Dec. 19 meeting is the first but crucial step in helping to make our community safer, and more secure for our kids, our older adults, our businesses, our employees and all of us. I hope that you’ll consider attending or emailing our representatives about the proposed ISO.
There is a group of concerned citizens of Benicia who also support the adoption of a Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO). To learn more about the effort and add your support, visit www.bisho.org.
If you support Benicia’s safety and health, consider sending a letter to Benicia City Council as outlined above or signing on to this community letter.