Category Archives: Air Monitoring

‘Too toxic’ – Recent string of deadly refinery fires in Texas includes Valero

[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

A motorcyclist drives by Valero's West Plant in Chorpus Christi
A motorcyclist rides past Valero’s West plant as black smoke billows from a fire at the refinery on Wednesday in Corpus Christi, Tex. (Angela Piazza/AP)

Three dangerous blazes in three weeks have struck refineries and a chemical plant, leaving one dead and over a dozen injured

Washington Post, by Amudalat Ajasa, May 20, 2023

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.”

A map of recent fires at TX refineries

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.”

Read more! 
As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:

Save the date! Valero CAP open to public June 13

Valero’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP) invites Benicia residents to learn about air monitoring and incident response at Benicia Refinery

The Valero Refinery in Benicia was one of four refineries in the SF Bay Area that did not meet air quality requirements for compliance with the Bay Area Quality Management District. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

By Nathalie Christian, May 17, 2023

Save the date of Tuesday, June 13, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. for a peek behind Valero’s curtain

Benicia residents have received a very special invitation from Valero’s Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to learn about how Valero’s Benicia Refinery monitors air quality and responds to incidents. Please see the image below for the full ad distributed by Valero’s Benicia-based Director of Government Affairs and Community Relations.

Marilyn Bardet, a CAP member representing the Good Neighbor Steering Committee (to name just one of her many community-facing roles), wrote the following regarding this rare opportunity:

The subject will be air monitoring and Valero’s incident reporting as per the current [memorandum of agreement] governing the City’s obligatory relation to Valero vis a vis emergency response, incident reporting, et al. […]

I urge you to attend (via Zoom or in person), especially if you are concerned about air quality in Benicia [and the] transparency and accuracy of Valero’s [monitoring and

Of the five San Francisco Bay Area refineries, only the Martinez Refining Company has met the minimum air quality requirement for compliance with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Putting the ‘fine’ in ‘refinery’

In a recent post, Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program Board Member Kathy Kerridge said that after her trip to Valero’s Benicia refinery several months ago, she’s “not surprised” that it and the three other refineries that failed (Richmond’s Chevron and Phillips 66 and Pacheo’s Tesero) were non-compliant with Air District and EPA requirements – despite the ongoing threat of fines.

“Fines are trivial to them,” Kerridge said in the article. Indeed, oil companies like Valero have enjoyed astronomical profits these last few years as they capitalize on the worldwide energy crisis, raking in billions while customers pay more at the pumps.

Such fines include the Benicia Valero refinery agreeing to pay $1.2 million for multiple Clean Air Act violations, including one dangerous incident in 2017 that led to a shelter-in-place order at two elementary schools in Benicia.

When Valero had an adjusted net income of $3.1 billion in the first quarter, nominal payouts for dangerous events impacting Benicia’s most vulnerable – elementary-aged children – can feel “like a direct slap to the face with the community,” as Kerridge has put it.

You can’t spell ‘refinery’ without the word ‘fine,’ after all.

So what do we do when we have community concerns and don’t feel that fines leveraged by the EPA and BAAQMD are having the desired impact?

We should show up to events like these.

A reminder to attend will be posted closer to June 30. Presumably, Zoom details will become available as we approach the date.

Valero CAP Announcemnet
Click image to enlarge.


[Conflict of interest note: In full disclosure, I recently encouraged a family member to apply to sit on Valero’s CAP. Truly, their intentions were honorable – this family member has a much brighter outlook than I do and really felt Valero could be a great community partner here in Benicia. Alas, they were not selected. One must wonder if our shared last name and my activity here factored in that decision. Thankfully, Marilyn sits on this panel as our representative, and we’re in great hands with her!]

Read more! As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:

Benicia Valero Refinery failing to meet Bay Area Air District requirements

[Editor: After this quick read, PLEASE SEND YOUR COMMENTS on Valero’s Air Monitoring Plans and Quality Assurance Project Plans to the Bay Area Air District.  They are accepting comments on the refineries’ plans through Thursday, April 20 at 5 p.m. Details on the BenIndy here. Comments should be sent to]

The Valero Refinery in Benicia was one of four refineries in the SF Bay Area that did not meet air quality requirements for compliance with the Bay Area Quality Management District. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Martinez refinery only one of five in SF Bay Area to pass

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Thomas Gase, April 15, 2023

Of the five San Francisco Bay Area refineries, only the Martinez Refining Company has met the minimum air quality requirement for compliance with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, according to a news release sent out Friday.

Four other refineries — Benicia’s Valero, Richmond’s Chevron and Phillips 66 and Pacheo’s Tesero — all use the same air monitoring system for H2S, and didn’t meet the requirements as defined by BAAQMD and Rule 12-15.

Rule 12-15, passed in 2016, requires refineries to monitor and report fugitive gasses from their operating equipment, such as valves, compressors, and storage tanks. These emissions impact the health of the surrounding communities — the toxic gases released include noxious chemicals like the cancer-causing benzene and other serious gasses like hydrogen sulfide which can mix with PM 2.5 from other cumulative sources to create a toxic mix that affects the quality of the air.

Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program Board Member Kathy Kerridge said that after a trip to the Valero Refinery a few months ago, she’s not surprised at the four refineries failing.

“I was very much expecting this because when the Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program visited the site the refinery had a slideshow about hydrogen sulfite,” said Kerridge. “They knew what the regulations were and the slide show was showing what it was detecting. You can’t have an average of more than 15 parts per billion and their system was showing many times above that limit. Their three-month plan with different systems and operations was not showing they would be able to pass. They were different from Martinez in that it was clear that what they were doing was not working.”

BAAQMD set new requirements for H2S monitoring (part of Rule 12-15) that went into effect in January. Under the direction of its contractors, these four refineries installed H2S fence line systems that failed to meet the performance standards of the rule, and that provide unreliable, confusing data reports from those fence line sources. The operational and data display requirements in the QAPPs are not uniform across the four refineries.

According to the news release, “All the refineries should utilize equipment that meets the Air District requirements, be as uniform as possible in their operation, and display data to allow communities to compare measurements and performance across them. It is vital that the non-compliant refineries be held accountable — not just by paying fines, but by installing the equipment that will meet the BAAQMD’s requirements without delay.

Kerridge said she is not sure what will happen next, but is hoping to put pressure on the BAAQMD to make the four refineries come in compliance.

“Fines are trivial to them,” Kerridge said. “It’s like they are having a direct slap to the face with the community. The main problem is that the air monitoring gives us the sense of false security.”

Those fines include the Benicia Valero refinery agreeing last week with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay $1.2 million for violating the Clean Air Act.

After what the EPA called “significant chemical incidents” at the refinery in 2017 and 2019, an inspection found that Valero had failed to report the release of hazardous substances, among other noncompliance issues.

“This settlement sends a clear message that EPA will prosecute companies that fail to expend the resources needed to have a compliant, well-functioning Risk Management Plan to the fullest extent of the law,” said Larry Starfield, the acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in a statement.

As part of the settlement, Valero agreed to make chemical safety improvements at the Benicia refinery.

Emissions from the refinery have plagued nearby residents in recent years, leading city officials in 2019 to urge residents to stay indoors after the refinery started emitting hazardous particulates.

This isn’t the first time the Valero refinery has had to pay up for emitting smoke or chemicals into the air. In April 2017, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District fined Valero $340,000 for 28 violations committed in 2014. A month later, they were hit with four additional violations — one for causing a public nuisance and three for releasing excessive smoke.

The BAAQMD is accepting comments on the refineries’ plans through Thursday at 5 p.m. Comments should be sent to[BenIndy Editor: PLEASE SEND YOUR COMMENTS on Valero’s Air Monitoring Plans and Quality Assurance Project Plans to the Bay Area Air District.  They are accepting comments on the refineries’ plans through Thursday, April 20 at 5 p.m. Details on the BenIndy here.]

Grace Hase of the Bay Area News Group contributed to this article.

Read more! As Air Quality is so essential to our health, you might want to check out these resources:

Benicia Community Air Monitoring – Meeting Moved to March 3

City of Benicia Announcement, February 22, 2022
[Editor: See also: Save these dates for important meetings on Air District charges against Valero for continued air pollution violations – R.S.]

Air Monitoring Meeting Moved to March 3

The Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program meeting mentioned in the 02/14/22 edition of City of Benicia This Week has been moved to Thursday, March 3 at 7 p.m.  Original details below…

Air Monitor Now Operational

Following recent news of Stipulated Order between Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Valero Benicia Refinery, the City Manager shares the following information:

The Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program (BCAMP*) air monitoring station is now operational.

Real-time air quality data can be accessed at this website:

The website provides real time and historical air quality data for the following pollutants: particulate matter, black carbon, sulfur dioxide, ozone, benzene, toluene, and xylene. A new hydrogen sulfide monitor will soon be added. The website also provides additional information including:

    • A map showing the location of the monitoring station relative to potential sources and current wind speed and direction.
    • A tab for “How to Report a Problem” with important links and phone numbers
    • A “Resource” tab that provides some background about BCAMP and Argos Scientific. Argos is the main contractor for BCAMP that provides the technical support for the instruments and data transfer to the website. This page also has links to relevant community organizations as well as local elected officials and regulators.
Learn more at BCAMP’s Unveiling Webinar:
February 24 Thursday, March 3, 7 p.m.
Register in advance for this webinar:
*BCAMP is a non-profit established for the benefit of the community to monitor ambient air quality in Benicia. BCAMP’s mission is to sample and measure local air in real time; report and archive raw data on the website; and provide education on health risks as related to air quality.