By Marilyn Bardet, December 12, 2023
At the Dec 19th’s council meeting, the mayor and city council members will be making a watershed decision in the two-step agenda process begun in September, whether to move to direct staff to prepare a model industrial safety ordinance for Benicia [“ISO”] for future consideration. I am urging a unanimous approval of this momentous “second step.”
With the primary duty to protect the community’s health, safety, and sustainability, this council has the choice to gain for the city and public local oversight capacity with enforcement clout to help ensure trustworthy, accountable, operational and management performance at the refinery and at other similarly regulated industrial facilities deemed eligible for inclusion under an ISO.
The community has long deserved enhanced protections that an ISO would provide. Every day, the major polluter in our midst risks public health, safety and environmental quality of the air we breathe and the waters off our shores. Tragically, a 35-year old contract worker died on the job at Valero in November, 2021. Mr. Guitierrez’ death could have been avoided, as could have the 16-year unreported releases from the hydrogen venting unit of benzene and other toxic gases that far exceeded EPA’s public safety thresholds for human health. The Bay Area Air District only learned of the problem in 2019; neither the City or the public was informed of the chronic violations until 2022.
Given the number and seriousness of Valero’s regulatory violations cited by US-EPA and the Bay Area Air District since 2017, it’s a no-brainer that Benicia needs an ISO—one modeled on Contra Costa County’s and Richmond’s, which were established in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Updated several times since, their ISOs go beyond current applicable state regulations and programs, as ours would.
So, while the refinery continues to do business benefiting its parent Texas corporation, a local workforce and city coffers, the council must not ignore its greater responsibility to improve health and safety conditions for our community and downwind neighbors.
We need an ISO that will institute forward-looking best practices—ISO programs and protocols aimed to prevent accidents, reduce and eliminate toxic air emissions, and audit ISO compliance to improve the refinery’s safety culture and clean up the air.
Benicians formally proposed a draft ISO in 2018. Instead, Valero and the City entered into a voluntary contract, the City of Benicia-Valero Cooperation Agreement, which had limited purposes, inherent weaknesses, onerous termination clauses that advantaged Valero, and an expiration date. There was no role for the public. The Agreement could never carry the weight of authority of an ISO that would be part of our municipal code.
With respect to the city’s drastic budget deficit and the costs of an ISO’s on-going administration: those annual costs would be paid for by industries as is the case for Contra Costa County and Richmond. The initial costs incurred over the next months to develop the draft ordinance should and can be absorbed: our city attorney can petition the Air District and US-EPA to direct a sufficient portion of fines assigned to Valero to be directed back to the city to implement the ISO’s creation. Surely it would behoove regulators that the City of Benicia would, through an ISO, be assuming a proactive oversight role to help ensure regulatory compliance and enforcement, including for accurate, trustworthy air quality monitoring.
Finally, to draft the ordinance, city staff will need to consult outside engineering expertise, likely from Contra Costa County. In addition, staff should invite the public’s input and insights: a voluntary ISO Working Group has been meeting for almost a year, researching possible elements of a “B-ISO”. Creating a model ISO, with public input, would be a very positive sign of the City’s commitment to uphold community values and protections for our collective good into the future.
BCAMP board member
Good Neighbor Steering Committee
Valero CAP member
Community Sustainability Commission, ex officio member
B-ISO Working Group
Sustainable Solano board member
By Stephen Golub, from his December 9, 2023 column, first published in the Benicia Herald
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:
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.