Repost from KQED News [Editor: Significant quote for Benicia: “Last Friday afternoon there was a problem at the Valero refinery in Benicia, prompting the facility to send out flares for at least the next 63 hours. The “unscheduled flaring” released more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air…The company will not answer any questions about the incident.”
Local Air Regulators Investigating Three Separate Recent Refinery Problems
By Ted Goldberg, June 30, 2016 (Updated 8:30 a.m., Friday to include more details of Tuesday’s upset at the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo.)
Bay Area air regulators are looking into several recent malfunctions at Chevron’s Richmond refinery, Valero’s Benicia facility and the Phillips 66 plant in Rodeo that led each facility to send flares into the sky.
All three companies, though, are releasing little information about what caused the problems.
The most recent plant upset took place at the Phillips 66 refinery on Tuesday evening.
One of the facility’s cooling devices shut down at 6:20 p.m., prompting flaring that sent sulfur dioxide into the air, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.
Sawyer said that one of the water pumps that cools gases as they travel through part of the refinery malfunctioned. Initially, it was thought that one of the plant’s entire units had shut down.
The county determined that the incident did not have an “adverse acute impact on the health and safety of the community,” said Sawyer.
The flaring lasted for more than three hours, according to Ralph Borrmann, a spokesman at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Paul Adler, a Phillips spokesman, confirmed that refinery operations were back to normal but offered no other details.
Last Friday afternoon there was a problem at the Valero refinery in Benicia, prompting the facility to send out flares for at least the next 63 hours.
The “unscheduled flaring” released more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air, according to a report the company filed with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
The company will not answer any questions about the incident.
“It is Valero’s policy to not comment on operations or possible outages beyond what is already publicly reported,” said Lillian Riojas, a company representative.
Flaring is a practice that allows the refinery to relieve stress from inside the facility.
In the recent Valero incident, it’s unclear how long it lasted.
Josh Chadwick, division chief at the Benicia Fire Department, says the flames stopped shooting out from the refinery at 7 a.m. on Monday.
But Borrmann, the air district spokesman, says flares continued intermittently until just before midnight on Wednesday.
That afternoon, Solano County’s Department of Human Resources learned that the operation ended, said Matthew Geisert, a hazardous materials specialist with the agency.
Geisert says his department has no other details about the incident.
That lack of information frustrates local activists who have called for tighter emissions regulations for the region’s refineries.
“What we don’t know is killing us,” said Andres Soto with Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s a deliberate policy strategy to keep the media and the public ignorant of what is going on with these dangerous chemical processes at the refinery.”
A malfunction at a processing unit at Chevron’s Richmond refinery led to flaring for several hours on June 19.
Contra Costa County health officials say the county’s dispatch center got lots of calls from concerned residents, but they didn’t feel the incident was severe enough to issue any serious warnings about it.
Contra Costa , unlike neighboring Solano County, does require more information from a refinery after certain flaring operations.
Chevron filed a 72-hour report with the county’s hazardous materials program that revealed the incident was prompted by a compressor in a processing unit tripping offline. The chemicals released during that operation did not rise above state standards, the report found.
But the company will not release more information.
“I can’t share any more detail than what we’ve provided in the county report,” said Chevron spokeswoman Leah Casey.
On March 29, Chevron’s Richmond refinery had a similar issue that caused flaring. In that incident, residents throughout the region complained of a bad odor. The upset sent sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the air.
In the hours after the flaring took place, Chevron did not admit its refinery had a malfunction, other than to say that flaring is an important part of keeping the refinery running safely.
That prompted Sawyer to call on the company to do a better job of telling the public about problems at its local refinery.
“Chevron should be open and say they did have a problem and they’re looking at it and they’re going to investigate it and see what the problem was,” Sawyer said then.
The company said it shared with the public what it felt was important information at the time and eventually filed a report that showed one of the refinery’s monitoring devices had failed.
The air district is investigating all four incidents.
For Immediate Release: Monday, July 6, 2015. 7:00AM
[Richmond, CA] Activists protesting the threat of oil trains were detained this morning as they attempted to hang a 60-foot banner in front of the Benicia-Martinez railroad bridge. The banner reads “Stop Oil Trains Now: Are You in the Blast-Zone.org.” The railroad bridge, which runs between the RT680 bridges, crosses the Carquinez Strait near refineries operated by Valero, Tesoro, Shell and Chevron. The Benicia-Martinez bridge is identified by the rail industry and on the blast-zone.org map as the route for oil trains moving through the Bay Area.
This action coincides with the second anniversary of the fatal oil train fire in Lac Megantic, Quebec, and the Stop Oil Trains week of action with more than 80 planned events opposing oil trains across the US and Canada. Climbers, who are risking arrest to drop the banner, are representing three groups: Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, and ForestEthics. Baykeeper also provided support for the action.
The groups cite the threat of fatal accidents, increased air pollution near railways and refineries, and carbon pollution from the high-carbon crude oil carried by oil trains. Oil trains have derailed and exploded five times in 2015, including high-profile events in West Virginia, Illinois, North Dakota and Canada.
“Richmond has been my home my entire life. My family, friends, and neighbors are here, and we refuse to live in fear of these bomb trains blowing up our neighborhoods, and we’re tired of living in the shadow of the Chevron Refinery and the oil industry,” said Laiseng Saechao, APEN Member and Summer of Our Power Fellow. “That’s why I’m speaking up, not just to revoke Kinder Morgan’s permit to bring oil trains into Richmond, but also to build community-led alternatives to dirty oil through the Summer of Our Power Campaign.”
“We are facing a triple threat. Oil trains dangerously roll though to burn filthy crude in refineries from Richmond to LA and Wilmington, all contributing to toxic pollution and global climate catastrophe,” says Jasmin Vargas, CBE, associate director. “Communities for a Better Environment is working in communities challenging the worst cases of environmental racism in CA.”
“I am risking arrest today because crude oil trains are too dangerous for the rails,” says Ethan Buckner, ForestEthics, California campaigner. “We don’t need this dirty crude oil and we can’t wait for the next oil train catastrophe to act. Our railways will play a huge part in our new, just clean energy economy, but oil trains have no part in that future.”
APEN advances environmental justice campaigns and policy with the leadership of low-income Asian Pacific American families in Richmond, Oakland, and across California. www.apen4ej.org
CBE works to build people’s power in California’s communities of color and low-income communities to achieve environmental health and justice by preventing and reducing pollution and building green, healthy and sustainable communities and environments. www.cbecal.org
ForestEthics demands environmental responsibility from government and the biggest companies in the world. Visit Blast-Zone.org to see if you are one of the 25 million Americans who live in the dangerous one-mile oil train evacuation zone. www.ForestEthics.org
California’s gasoline prices jumped 31 cents in the last week, pushed higher by rising crude oil costs and problems at several state refineries.
It’s the second time this year that California drivers have faced such a steep price spike. And it has some oil company critics livid at a state gasoline market they say is designed to fail.
“This is a problem that only benefits them, to the expense of California consumers,” said Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist who has pushed to raise the oil industry’s taxes in the state. “When you look at an oligopoly, is there anyone there with an incentive to solve this problem? I would say no.”
The average cost of a gallon of regular in California hit $ 3.71 on Monday, according to GasBuddy.com. Less than a month ago, in mid- April, regular was selling for less than $ 3.10.
And while gas prices have been moving higher nationwide, California has by far the nation’s priciest fuel. Even Hawaii currently pays less, with an average of $ 3.20. The national average stands at $ 2.63, according to GasBuddy.com.
Part of the problem lies in crude oil prices, which have risen 34 percent since mid-March. But California’s sudden price surge also reflects unique aspects of the state’s gasoline market that have frustrated drivers for more than a decade.
California uses its own pollution-fighting fuel blends not found in other states. As a result, most of California’s gasoline is made by 14 refineries located within the state’s borders. The state also has some of the country’s highest gasoline taxes — almost 66 cents per gallon. And starting in January, California’s cap-and-trade system for reining in greenhouse gas emissions added 10 cents to the overall cost, according to estimates.
Since only a limited number of refineries make California grade gasoline, any hiccup in production can move prices. In February, Tesoro temporarily shut down its Martinez refinery in response to a labor strike, and an explosion hobbled Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Torrance ( Los Angeles County). Prices soared for four weeks.
Analysts blame the current spike on production glitches at the Tesoro refinery in Martinez and the Chevron refinery in Richmond, which suffered a flaring incident on April 21.
In addition, the Oil Price Information Service reported last week that Chevron took down a key unit at its El Segundo ( Los Angeles County) refinery for maintenance, prompting the company to buy up extra gasoline supplies on the wholesale “spot” market to fulfill its contracts to fuel distributors. A Chevron spokesman declined to comment on the El Segundo refinery.
The price spike may be easing, with the statewide average rising just 1 cent overnight from Sunday to Monday. Wholesale prices are already started to fall.
Consumer advocates have long argued that the oil companies benefit from keeping gasoline supplies tight in California, with too little fuel held in storage for when the next refinery breakdown strikes.
A new report from the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog argues that refinery profit margins in the state rise during price spikes — even when a company has to buy extra wholesale gasoline to make up for refinery downtime. Soaring retail prices more than make up for the added expense of buying extra supplies, said Jamie Court, the group’s president.
“The oil companies know that even if it’s their refinery that’s knocked out, the higher prices will more than compensate them,” he said.
Court wants the state to require oil companies to maintain a specific amount of fuel in storage, to prevent or at least lessen future price spikes.
The U. S. Department of Energy is studying the idea of a fuel “reserve” on the West Coast — similar to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve — but has framed it as a way to prevent supply disruptions after natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunamis. Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said California officials have considered the idea before — and rejected it as unworkable.
“Intuitively, setting aside large volumes of fuel from the market is not going to help,” Hull said.
Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk
By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.
Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.
Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.
Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.
This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise. But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.
Buffett’s Bomb Trains
The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.
Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers). Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.
Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.
Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.
Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”
A Contested Permit
CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented
In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”
Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s. Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.
Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet
In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists. They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.
“As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”
One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.
Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.
RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”
Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.