Dangerous Valero Emissions Went Unchecked For Years In Benicia

Benicia’s mayor and other city leaders said they were not informed of the problem until two months ago.

Benicia-Martinez Bridge, Valero Benicia Refinery in distance. (Paul Hames/California Department of Water Resources)

Benicia Patch, March 4, 2022

BENICIA, CA — Representatives from Valero and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District appeared in front of the Benicia City Council Tuesday night after revelations were made known that the refinery was emitting harmful, excessive levels of hazardous chemicals for nearly 16 years before BAAQMD said it became aware of them.

The council and community members also grilled BAAQMD for failing to notify the city of Benicia as soon as it found out about the emissions in 2018. Benicia’s mayor and other city leaders said they were not informed of the problem until two months ago.

BAAQMD began its PowerPoint presentation to the council with an image of Valero’s byzantine system of pipes, storage tanks, chimneys, towers, vents and smokestacks with a red arrow pointing down to one of them. Under the arrow stood a slim, vertical pipe emitting smoke that the air district claims it had thought was merely a steam vent. As it turned out, the innocuous vent had been emitting pollutants at hundreds of times the daily limit since 2003.

According to BAAQMD, Valero had been releasing benzene, ethylbenzene, and other organic compounds considered hazardous. District rules set a cap on such emissions at 15 pounds per day and a maximum of 300 parts per million. What the district discovered was that Valero had been emitting an average of 5,200 pounds per day and 19,148 parts per million.

The presentation given to council was an attempt of the air district to “be more transparent,” something they say they are committed to in the wake of the revelations.

“We should have done better and we should have done better sooner,” said Damian Breen, BAAQMD’s senior deputy executive officer of operations.

Joshua Tulino, general manager of Benicia’s Valero refinery, told the council and community that they, too, were unaware of the emissions until 2018 and “immediately” administered piping modifications that solved 71 percent of the hydrocarbon emission issues. He also said that since then, Valero has reduced the emissions by 98 percent.

Tulino maintained that informing the community about dangerous emissions is an “obligation” they take seriously but that “this source of emissions did not fall into that category.”

Tulino added that they were not aware that the vent was a source that needed to be monitored.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young asked Breen why the air district didn’t release the information it had gathered as soon as it found out and questioned how they could identify toxic releases and not share information with the city.

Breen said Solano County and “hazmat” officials were notified, but that they “should have done better” about notifying Benicia.

“That’s why you see us changing our policies here.”

The changes Breen referenced are holding more public hearings when violations occur, increasing transparency, keeping communities better informed, and monitoring refineries “better.”

As part of this effort, BAAQMD will be holding a March 15 public hearing about these Valero violations. The air district will also be installing a remote air monitoring station in Benicia near the Fire Museum at 900 East Second Street, a move that councilmembers unanimously accepted Tuesday.