Tag Archives: Andres Soto

Listen: Why were toxic releases kept secret at a Bay Area refinery?

Valero in Benicia released chemicals at levels way above the legal limit for years — and regulators knew

San Francisco Chronicle Fifth & Mission Podcast, March 25, 2022 – 12-minute interview with SFChron reporter Julie Johnson.

Residents of communities like Richmond, Martinez and Benicia are angry after finding out that a hydrogen stack at the Valero refinery in Benicia was releasing chemicals at levels hundreds of times higher than the legal limit for years.

Government regulators knew — but had kept it a secret since 2019.

Many residents of communities like Richmond, Martinez and Benicia have long distrusted the region’s oil refineries. They may appreciate the jobs, and they may use the gas, but they feel like basic steps haven’t been taken to filter and monitor chemicals that pollute their air.

On this episode of the Fifth & Mission podcast, Chronicle reporter Julie Johnson joins host Demian Bulwa to break down the story and talk about whether these revelations validate those fears.

Photo above: The Valero refinery in Benicia in 2019.

Bay Area air regulators didn’t tell public about illegal emissions for three years. Can residents trust what comes next?

The Valero Energy Corp. refinery in Benicia emitted excessive levels of hydrocarbons for at least 16 years, a breach not discovered by air regulators until 2019 and not shared with the public until January 2022. | Samantha Laurey/The Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle, by Julie Johnson, March 25, 2022

Andrés Soto was upset to learn in January that one of the Valero refinery’s vents had been releasing unlawful amounts of toxic gasses for more than 16 years. | Samantha Laurey / The Chronicle

Benicia resident Andrés Soto can’t see Valero Energy Corp.’s oil refinery from his home in the old part of town near the waterfront. But the company’s fingerprints are all over the city, from its name on Little League baseball outfield signs to its logo on charitable donor lists.

A longtime environmental justice organizer, Soto recalls disasters including the 2012 Chevron refinery fires in Richmond that sent 15,000 people to local hospitals with respiratory problems and a 2017 power failure at Valero that caused 14 days of flaring that released 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide.

He’s always been suspicious of the steam he sees billowing from the petroleum manufacturer’s stacks. A tightly regulated soup of chemicals is in that vapor, released into the air from the factory below to keep the right balance of volatile substances Valero uses to manufacture gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Strict rules are meant to keep pollution levels low.

So when Soto first learned this year that one of Valero’s vents had been releasing unlawful amounts of toxic gases for 16 years without detection — including cancer-causing benzene — his first reaction was: “Wow, these guys got caught.”

Then he got mad.

“My grandkids’ baseball team uniform has a Valero patch on the left arm, yet they’re polluting the air that these kids breathe,” Soto said. “It’s that type of hypocrisy.”

Emissions ‘surprise’

From 2003 to 2019, one of Valero’s hydrogen stacks released an estimated average of 4,000 pounds of hydrocarbons each day — more than 266 times the 15-pound limit, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

The revelation stirred outrage, not only for Valero but toward the district for failing to detect the problem. Even more, some city leaders and residents are irked by the district’s failure to alert the public when it discovered the extent of the violations in 2019. Instead, the district waited three years.

Valero has described the excessive emissions as “a surprise” in a statement to the air district. A company spokesperson declined to answer questions from The Chronicle and referred a reporter to recordings of public meetings.

The district initially defended its silence, saying it was necessary to protect the investigation and its ability to work with Valero to address a complex problem. Today, agency officials admit it was a mistake and find themselves facing the same credibility challenges as the company they’re tasked with overseeing.

“There’s a fair amount of egg in the face of the air district,” said Vice Mayor Tom Campbell. “That’s their job: to protect us citizens from what’s in the air. And they just totally blew it.”

Mayor Steve Young said the explanation that air district officials gave the city for the agency’s silence is that public disclosure could have made it more difficult for regulators to get the company to quickly agree to fixes.

“I don’t understand the logic there,” said Young, who is leading an effort to revise city campaign laws because of Valero’s outsize spending on local elections. “They failed in their obligation to keep everybody informed.”

The district said the potential impact to people may have been minimal because of favorable weather conditions. Benzene is a carcinogen, and long-term exposure carries risks. The district calculated the risk from Valero’s excess emissions over those 16 years as 3 chances in 1 million for developing cancer.

But the risks may add up. The region around Benicia is home to four of the state’s 14 working oil refineries. They belong to Chevron Corp. in Richmond, PBF Energy Inc. in Martinez, Phillips 66 Co. in Rodeo and Valero, a $38 billion company based in San Antonio. Those facilities can produce more than 660,000 barrels of crude oil each day, which is nearly 40% of all crude oil refined in the state, according to the California Energy Commission.

Damian Breen, the air district’s senior deputy executive officer of operations, said his agency notified Solano County health officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when it learned of the emissions and was focused on verifying the data and negotiating a response with Valero. He said not alerting the public was a mistake and that going forward the district will immediately bring these types of violations before a public hearing board.

“We should have done better, and we should have done better sooner,” Breen said.

‘How did this happen?’

Some remain skeptical about the explanations officials have provided for how such emissions could go undetected for so long in a state with some of the toughest pollution controls in the country.

“I don’t know how a regulator can see a stack with steam historically over 16 years and not want to know what it’s doing,” said artist Marilyn Bardet, a painter who became an environmental activist after moving to Benicia more than three decades ago. “Valero has been sampling it for impurities, then why didn’t it wonder what the heck might those impurities be?”

Air district staff visit these facilities every day for emissions tests and other analyses. In Benicia, a local residents advisory group and city leaders meet regularly with company officials. The EPA tracks emissions data reported by refineries. The Benicia Fire Department also has air monitoring devices.

Washington, D.C., nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project tracks benzene emissions reports using EPA data taken from pollution monitors affixed to refinery fences. Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said data is imperfect because most stacks soar high above fences.

“If they found out the company knew and was knowingly falsely reporting their emissions, depending on the circumstances, that’s criminal liability,” Schaeffer said.

Valero, which operates 15 petroleum facilities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, has said it discovered the emissions issue at its Benicia refinery after receiving an inquiry from the air district about hydrogen vents.

The district made the inquiry in 2018 after another local refinery, Phillips 66, came forward to report excess impurities in steam emitted from a hydrogen vent, officials said. The district then sent an enforcement letter to the Bay Area’s three other oil refineries requesting information about hydrogen releases.

Valero provided data to the district in 2019 that revealed samples taken since 2003 contained large amounts of toxic substances potentially harmful to people, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The company said it was unaware that type of vent must be monitored under pollution laws, according to its filings with the district. Just one plant can have hundreds of emissions points, including storage tanks and other equipment, that require regular reporting to environmental regulators.

Valero said it embarked on a series of projects to limit releases in 2019. By May 2020, the facility had slashed those emissions by 71%, and today it reports the amount of pollutants have plummeted 98% from the peak.

The amount still exceeds lawful limits, and the air district ratified an agreement this month with Valero to require further reductions over time, a process company officials say could take years to implement because it will require temporarily shutting down the entire facility, which the company does about every five years for maintenance.

Megan Berge, a lawyer for the company, urged members of the district’s hearing board to approve the plan during a virtual March 15 meeting, saying the proposal “achieves compliance, protects the community, holds Valero accountable.” The board approved it.

Both Bardet and Soto spoke up at that meeting to demand the district do more to track air pollution in Benicia. Soto urged the district to impose large fines against Valero “to show them that you can’t get away with excessive pollution of an exponentially dangerous level.”

Just this month, Soto retired after nearly a decade working as an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment in Richmond. The jazz saxophonist is now focusing more on his music, teaching and playing gigs. He compares playing jazz to community organizing. Both require method, strategy and focus.

“People don’t really think it’s a problem until they have a health issue, their kid has asthma or they get cancer or the myriad other diseases,” Soto said. “Then they get focused on dealing with that rather than asking: How did this happen? Where did this start? And who is responsible?”

Breen said the district is not finished investigating Valero’s failures and is still considering what kinds of fines to levy against the company. It has referred the case to the EPA’s enforcement division. The district is planning to install more pollution monitors in Benicia this year.

Valero “had the data, they had the information, they simply didn’t come forward and report it,” Breen said. “And more importantly, they didn’t take care of that emission source.”

Julie Johnson (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @juliejohnson

Letter from Andrés Soto: Chagrined at Valero’s alcohol diversion

By Andrés Soto, April 27, 2020
Andrés Soto, Benicia CA

As we wound down the first shelter in place Earth Day/Week, I was prodded into chuckling at the Herald’s front page story of Valero diverting some of its ethanol production to the making of hand sanitizing liquids! This is like applying antibiotic ointment to a bleeding gun shot wound. Thanks Valero.

Valero and the other fossil fuel companies have been knowingly contributing to the destruction of our atmosphere and trying to exacerbate the problem by moving into refining extreme crudes such a tar sands and fracked crude. Thanks Valero.

It is now understood that those who have been suffering the greatest health burdens over time from the fossil fuel economy are – surprise, surprise – also the most vulnerable to infection from COVID 19! Benicia and other refinery towns are on the front line with children and seniors suffering disproportionately from asthma and other auto-immune diseases. Thanks Valero.

Of course, to protect their position to profit from poison they need political support. The 2018 Benicia election saw Valero and its deep pocket “boots on the ground” building trades union allies spend an obscene amount of money to personally destroy the reputation of Planning Commissioner Kari Birdseye and and pump up the pro-polluter candidates Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge to victory. Thanks Valero.

If Valero and its fellow oil cartel members really wanted to help Benicia and Earth it would join community members, workers and city representatives in the planning of a managed decommissioning of the refinery and reduce risks to COVID 19, massive wildfires and toxic pollution. Thanks Valero.

Andres Soto
Benicia CA

Phillips 66 seeks six-month delay in San Luis Obispo rail spur hearing

Repost from the New Times, San Luis Obispo, CA

Phillips 66 seeks six-month delay in rail spur hearing

By Chris McGuinness, August 18, 2016

The oil company proposing one of SLO County’s most controversial projects is asking the SLO County Planning Commission to wait six months before taking up the issue again.

After months of lengthy hearings, Phillips 66 requested that a planned commission meeting on its proposed rail spur extension project scheduled for Sept. 22 be pushed back until March 2017.

The move comes as the company waits for a decision by federal regulators on another controversial proposal also involving oil-carrying trains in the Northern California city of Benicia.

Hearings for Phillips 66’s project, which would allow the company to bring in crude oil by train to its Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, began in February. In a July 10 letter to county planning staff, the company said it wanted to wait until the Federal Surface Transportation Board ruled on a petition involving an oil train-related project in Benicia. The company in charge of that project, Valero, is seeking declaratory relief from the three-person federal board after the oil company’s proposal to transport 50 trains per-day carrying crude oil through the city was denied by the Benicia Planning Commission and appealed to its City Council.

At the heart of the Benicia case is the issue of pre-emption, or the extent of a local government’s authority over interstate rail transportation, which is the purview of federal government.

The same issue is at play in SLO. The hearings on the Phillips 66 project featured discussions over the county’s ability to set limits or conditions on the project.

“In the interest of efficiency of the commission as well as the planning staff, we believe it would be prudent to further continue the hearing on Phillips 66’s Rail Spur Extension Project until March 2017, so that all parties can benefit from the direction expected from the Surface Transportation Board,” the letter from Phillips read.

Andres Soto is a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, an organization of residents who oppose Valero’s proposed project. Soto told New Times he was concerned that the impact of a decision that favored Valero would have far-reaching consequences.

“It would gut local land-use authority across the country,” he said.

Whether Phillips 66 gets the delay will be up to the SLO County Planning Commission. The commission will take up the request at the Sept. 22 meeting.