[Note from BenIndy: Benicia residents have received an invitation from Valero’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to learn about refinery operations and engage refinery representatives in a Q&A session at the upcoming Community Information Night. It’s imperative that Benicians who are interested in the refinery and its operations take the time to attend this rare public meeting. Please see the image below for the full ad – and, if you plan on going, be aware the meeting room can be hard to find. Look below the ad and you will see a map we created to help newcomers get to the right place. A contact phone number and email address for this meeting are on the flyer as well. Unfortunately, there are no options to attend this meeting remotely.]
Valero’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP) invites Benicia residents to learn about operations at the Benicia Refinery
Read more!As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:
BENICIA – The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced Thursday that it had discovered continued violations at the Valero Benicia refinery during its investigation into years of toxic releases.
Specifically, the air district said that Valero had failed to install required pollution control equipment on eight pressure relief devices, safety devices that prevent extreme over pressurization that could cause a catastrophic equipment failure. The violations led to 165 tons of illegal emissions, the air district said. [Emph. added by BenIndy contributor.]
The air district said it is seeking an abatement order from its independent hearing board that would require Valero to immediately correct the violations.
“The extensive violations discovered at Valero’s Benicia refinery are of great concern,” air district chief counsel Alexander Crockett said in a statement. “Our priority is to protect the health and well-being of our communities, and we will vigorously pursue enforcement measures to achieve cleaner and safer air for all residents of the Bay Area.”
A Valero spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Benicia Mayor Steve Young said in a statement that Valero’s alleged continued pattern of emissions violations is “particularly concerning” and “should bother all Benicia residents.”
“The City is also waiting, with increasing impatience, to see how the separate, bigger, case of 16 years of unreported hydrogen emissions will be ultimately resolved,” Young said. “The citizens of Benicia deserve much more transparency from the refinery about these operational deficiencies than we have been receiving.”
The air district discovered the violations during its investigation into the release of toxic emissions from a hydrogen vent at the refinery that went on for nearly 20 years. The air district separately obtained an abatement order for those violations last year, though by the time it revealed the excess emissions publicly, it had already worked with Valero to correct them for some time.
Those excess emissions were first detected by Valero in 2003 when it started measuring output from the hydrogen vent, but the air district believes it likely had been going on even earlier and has no measurements from that time.
Since 2003, the air district estimates that the vent was releasing about 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons per day, far more than state regulations allow. Overall, the district found that Valero released more than 10,000 tons of excess hydrocarbons over 16 years, including 138 tons of toxic air contaminants ethylbenzene, tolyrene, zolerine and the especially carcinogenic benzene.
[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Please note that this BAAQMD news release regards separate and new violations distinct from the 16 years of undisclosed, unchecked emissions at the Valero-operated refinery that were first reported in early 2022. According to this release, Valero has also failed to measure and report widespread hydrogen emissions violations at the Benicia Refinery – for up to a decade. The risk to our community is presently unknown. What is known is that our ‘good neighbor’ Valero is failing our community and will continue to do so unless oversight and remediation mechanisms improve. After yet another decades-long series of violations, a pattern of alleged dangerous incompetence at best, and lawless disregard for our community and environment at worst is clearer than ever. Benicia deserves better, and you can help. The Air District will hold a hearing to consider issuing the abatement order, where the public can participate and demand action. I will post the notice for that hearing when it is scheduled, and you can sign up for Hearing Board updates at https://www.baaqmd.gov/contact-us/sign-up-for-information. The bolded elements below reflect my added emphasis.]
Requested abatement order would require the refinery to install pollution control equipment
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 10, 2023 CONTACT: email@example.com
SAN FRANCISCO – The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced today that it is seeking an abatement order from the agency’s independent Hearing Board to require Valero Refining Co. to cease ongoing violations of Air District regulations at its Benicia refinery.
The Air District is seeking an abatement order to require Valero to install pollution control equipment on eight pressure relief devices, or PRDs, installed on the refinery’s hydrogen compressor unit. PRDs are safety devices used to prevent extreme overpressures that could cause catastrophic equipment failure – not unlike the pressure relief valve on a home pressure cooker, but on an industrial scale.
Air District regulations require pollution control equipment to be installed on PRDs that experience two or more releases within five years. Valero’s PRDs have been subject to these requirements for years, and in some cases for over a decade, but Valero has failed to install the required pollution control equipment.
“The extensive violations discovered at Valero’s Benicia refinery are of great concern and the Air District is seeking an abatement order to ensure that Valero takes action to prevent harmful emissions from impacting the communities surrounding the refinery,” said Alexander Crockett, the Air District’s chief counsel. “Our priority is to protect the health and well-being of our communities, and we will vigorously pursue enforcement measures to achieve cleaner and safer air for all residents of the Bay Area.”
PRDs release emissions during upset conditions and not on a day-to-day basis. However, when PRDs releases do occur, the emissions go directly to the atmosphere unless they are captured and/or abated. The Air District is seeking this abatement order to require abatement equipment to prevent emissions from going into the atmosphere if and when any PRDs do experience releases.
Air District staff discovered these PRD violations in connection with an investigation into a series of widespread violations involving Valero’s hydrogen system, including extensive emissions from a hydrogen vent for which the Hearing Board issued an abatement order in 2022. Valero is required to report releases from its hydrogen system PRDs to the Air District, but it failed to do so for over ten years. As a result, these ongoing violations did not come to light until the Air District conducted further investigations after it found the hydrogen vent violations.
The Air District’s Hearing Board is an independent tribunal created by state law with the power to order violators to cease operating until they come into compliance with Air District regulations. Hearing Board proceedings are open to the public, and the public is encouraged to participate and comment when the Hearing Board holds a hearing to consider issuing the requested abatement order. Once the hearing is scheduled, a link will be posted on the Air District’s website at www.baaqmd.gov. The public can also sign up for Hearing Board updates at https://www.baaqmd.gov/contact-us/sign-up-for-information.
The Hearing Board is not empowered to impose monetary penalties for violations of Air District regulations. The Air District will take separate enforcement action to assess penalties for these violations to the maximum extent provided for by law. The purpose of this abatement order request is to seek an order requiring Valero to cease its ongoing violations with respect to these PRDs and immediately come into compliance.
Read more!As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:
[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Three refinery fires in three weeks! And the refineries involved are downplaying potential health impacts and insisting there is no danger to nearby communities. Sounds a lot like the Martinez refinery incident that occurred recently, where the refinery insisted that a shower of chemical dust that reached as far as Benicia wasn’t dangerous to residents . . . just before independent parties investigated and determined that this perfectly safe dust was actually highly toxic. So who can you trust after refinery incidents like these? It is essential that Benicia residents concerned about air quality and incident response at Benicia’s Valero Refinery attend the upcoming CAP public meeting this June 13 to learn more and ask questions about our own local refinery. – N.C. ]
‘Too toxic’: Refinery fires leave East Texas residents reeling
Three dangerous blazes in three weeks have struck refineries and a chemical plant, leaving one dead and over a dozen injured
First Shell, then Marathon, then Valero. In the last three weeks, major fires have broken out at these companies’ oil refineries and chemical plants in East Texas, leaving one dead and over a dozen injured.
The blazes in Deer Park, Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi follow a years-long string of explosions, fires and toxic releases in a region where oil refining and chemical production is highly concentrated, often close to residential neighborhoods. And while some residents have grown accustomed to the incidents, others are alarmed by how frequently they are hitting home.
“I have grown up here and watched neighborhoods near the refineries become too toxic to live in and people forced to leave their homes due to the toxicity,” Kristina Land, a resident of Corpus Christi, told The Washington Post.
On Wednesday, a fire broke out at the Valero West Refinery in Corpus Christi, sending smoke plumes into the sky and prompting emergency responders to mobilize. The cause of the fire is yet unknown.
Land, who is 45 years old, was in her home 20 miles from the refinery when she saw the black smoke on the horizon. She had to go on social media to find out what was happening.
She blames local officials for not encouraging more transparency.
“Our local government doesn’t ever want us to know how bad [the fires] really are, so we never truly know,” Land said. “They just sweep everything under the rug and never talk about it again.”
Refineries in the Lone Star State are regulated by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which did not make officials available for an interview, but issued a statement.
Victoria Cann, a media specialist for TCEQ, said the three recent fires appear to be unrelated, “but investigations are underway into the cause, response, and clean up actions associated with each incident.”
She said the agency responded to each of them by deploying staff with monitoring equipment as appropriate and has “conducted surveillance to assess potential impacts to the local community.”
The first of the May refinery fires happened two weeks ago.
On May 5, heavy gas oil, gasoline and light gas oil ignited at Shell’s Deer Park chemicals facility in Deer Park, which sent 9 workers to the hospital. The plume from the fire, which occurred right outside of Houston, was visible for miles.
The fire, which started at 2:59 p.m., blazed on and off for days — after being reignited multiple times — before crews could completely neutralize it nearly three days later.
Emergency crews responded to the fire less than 19 hours after the TCEQ hosted a hearing to expand the Intercontinental Terminal Plant — a plant near Shell which blanketed the area with high levels of benzene, a chemical linked to cancer, in 2019.
Environmentalists say the accidents keep happening because the oil industry has little fear of penalties from regulators.
“Without a change from industry … communities are going to continue to feel the effects of these chemicals being spewed out by these facilities,” said Cassandra Casados, the communications coordinator at Air Alliance Houston.
A week after Shell’s fire was contained, a new plant fire erupted in Texas City, under 40 miles away, erupted. Galveston’s Marathon Petroleum confirmed that the fire caused the death of one employee and sent two others to the hospital. Emergency crews extinguished the fire — caused by a failed pump seal — in under four hours, according to city officials.
This is the second fatal incident to occur at Marathon’s Galveston Bay refinery this year. In March, a contract worker died after being electrocuted at the refinery.
Air monitoring at the state and facility level for all three sites is ongoing to determine the exposure risks to harmful levels of chemicals. Officials at the refineries and in nearby communities said the fires were not cause for concern:
“There is no danger to the nearby community,” Shell Deer Park said in a post following the incident.
Texas City Emergency Management stated that there was no need for a shelter in place following the fatal fire and that there was no threat to residents.
Valero’s west refinery did not warrant any “action from the community,” the city of Corpus Christi said in a news release.
Over the last several years, the Environmental Integrity Project — a D.C. based watchdog group — has monitored refinery fires and emissions, in East Texas and elsewhere. Too often, local officials minimize the impact of these incidents and issue “all is well statements,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency official who directs the watchdog group.
Black plume smoke is usually indicative that fine particulate matter — too small to see generally — is lingering in the air, according to Schaeffer. When refineries catch fire, the chemicals from the plumes aren’t contained to the site: They drift into residential areas.
“You’re going to have a lot of pollutants released,” Schaeffer said of these incidents. “That’s probably the biggest concern for the residents.”