Category Archives: Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye

For Our Kids, Our Older Adults and All of Us: A Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance

Smoke from the Valero Benicia refinery during a 2017 incident. | Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub

By Stephen Golub, first published in the Benicia Herald on November 10, 2023

At 4 a.m. on June 21, 2019, a series of massive fires and explosions at a Philadelphia refinery sent both large amounts of toxic chemicals and huge chunks of debris into the air. One 19-ton fragment landed across the Schuylkill River, 2,000 feet away.

The cause of all this? According to the  U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a corroded ruptured pipe. Apparently, it had been poorly maintained.

The Philadelphia debacle is but one of many refinery and similar disasters that have occurred across the country in recent years. Many of us recall the Chevron fire in Richmond, just over a decade ago.

And just this week, a chemical plant explosion in east Texas triggered large fires, a shelter-in-place order for a five-mile radius around the facility and, even after that order was lifted, official caution “that residents should still avoid spending unnecessary time outdoors, and young children or people with respiratory illnesses and other health issues should stay inside.”

Against this backdrop, and in view of ongoing toxic pollution hazards presented by the presence of Texas-based Valero’s Benicia refinery, a proposal by Vice Mayor Terry Scott and City Council Member Kari Birdseye comes as a breath of fresh air. In a June 10 letter published in the Benicia Herald and through other outlets, the two describe reasons for Benicia adopting a new law that would make our wonderful city safer and healthier for our kids, our older adults and all of us.

Among other things, the ordinance would improve the monitoring of the refinery’s operations and the flow of information from Valero when documented or apparent emissions and violations occur. In these and other regards, it would improve on the rather toothless Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the City currently has with the giant Texas corporation. It would similarly improve on the MOU’s associated community advisory  panel that rarely meets publicly, that most of us have never heard of and, most importantly, that Valero substantially controls.

Now, does Valero’s track record indicate that Benicia needs a strong ordinance rather than the weak MOU?

Consider what a top official of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) said about the fact that for well over a decade the refinery released into Benicia’s air 138 tons of toxic contaminants hundreds of times the legal limits without informing BAAQMD, the City or any of us – something we only learned of last year:

 “We have a situation here where you’ve got a facility who’s [sic] taking samples of emissions from this vent to control and verify refinery processes. They’re doing that from 2003 onwards. And they knew or should have known that those emissions should have been reported. It’s that simple…”

Or consider these realities:

Despite the Memorandum of Understanding, we did not learn of other serious, longstanding Valero violations, which triggered a federal Environmental Protection Agency investigation, until the EPA announced major fines earlier this year.

Despite the MOU, Valero has committed hundreds of other violations over the past several years.

Despite the MOU, Valero did not report or adequately address the 2022 event in which approximately 200 Benicia households were impacted by an oily, airborne residue that fell onto yards, children’s play equipment, solar panels and other neighborhood facilities.

Despite the MOU, earlier this month air monitoring devices in the vicinity of the refinery detected the presence of the dangerous neurotoxin hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the air, quite possibly emanating from the facility, even as Benicians reported smelling something like rotten eggs – the odor of H2S – in several parts of town.

In addition, let’s be realistic about where the ultimate responsibility for the Benicia refinery’s safety, health and other decisions rests: at the company’s Texas headquarters. Its track record compares unfavorably even with other petrochemical corporations, as indicated by a leading Texas environmental activist’s assessment and a lawsuit filed against the corporation by the Texas Attorney General (normally an ally of the oil industry) over a Valero Texas refinery’s continuing “poor operational, maintenance and design practices.” That same refinery’s 2017 fire poured nearly a million pounds of potentially dangerous pollutants into the air, “including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds,” according to Valero’s own estimates.

Finally, consider the fact that the Valero facility is the only refinery in the North Bay that is not governed by an industrial safety ordinance (ISO).

None of this is to criticize the hard work and efforts of our fine Fire Department, which does its best to monitor actual and potential Valero hazards under the MOU, despite financial and technical constraints. As always, we should all appreciate its service. But we need more than that.

Also, I’m sure we value the jobs, economic impact and other benefits that the company brings to the area, as well as the wonderful current and former Valero employees who are our friends and neighbors. But if Valero itself wants to be a good neighbor, it needs to cooperate with the City as we move on from the MOU, which expires in 2025. In fact, one great feature of the Scott-Birdseye proposal is that it aims for a cooperative, consultative process.

So what’s next? As per the proposal, at its December 19 meeting the Council will vote on whether to instruct city government staff to examine what the next steps are, including a possible ordinance.

To be clear: This will not be a vote on an ordinance itself; it merely authorizes careful examination of options, in cooperation with Valero, the broader business community and of course all of us.

To read the Scott-Birdseye letter or show support for this initiative, please go to You could also weigh in by emailing the Council members with your thoughts. You can access their emails by going to this page at the City website.

In addition, you could attend the December 19 Council meeting, whether in person or via Zoom. The link for the latter will be shared by the City Manager (whom you also should feel free to contact about this) down the line.

This process is well worth getting involved with. The safety, health and lives we save could be our own.

There is a group of concerned citizens of Benicia who also support the adoption of a Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO). To learn more about the effort and add your support, visit

Moving Forward to Improve Benicia’s Industrial Safety and Health – An Open Letter to Benicia

Valero’s Benicia Refinery.  | Pat Toth-Smith.

On Sept 5, Benicia’s City Council unanimously initiated the first step of a process to assess the need to graduate the current Memo of Understanding (MOU) with Valero Benicia Refinery to an ordinance.

This step, which asks staff review the MOU, underscores the importance of transition from an MOU to an ordinance that would provide additional local oversight to help ensure appropriate measures are in place to protect the health and safety of our community.

Timing of the request corresponds with early planning for the sunset of the current Valero MOU set to terminate in June 2025.

Vice Mayor Terry Scott and Council Member Kari Birdseye, the two councilmembers who introduced the issue, clearly believe the primary responsibility of our City Council and City Government is to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of our residents, businesses, and visitors.

It is also Council’s responsibility to ensure that industries, which operate within our jurisdiction, employ the best available technology to detect emissions and discharges and best practices. Community notifications of emergencies or failures to meet state and federal regulations are a priority as well.

This responsibility extends beyond traditional roles like policing, firefighting, safe water, and wastewater treatment. It encompasses ensuring the quality of the air we breathe.

The two-step request posed the question: Does the City of Benicia possess the most efficient and effective tools to regulate, monitor, and enforce air and toxic safety standards that impact our community? This includes real-time emission measurement, performance monitoring, transparency, air quality management and stronger communications.

Our defined ask in the two-step process is for staff to analyze current MOU’s performance metrics and evaluate whether additional regulation is needed. Additionally, we request that an analysis of key learnings of our current working communications, monitoring and cooperation agreement with Valero be included in this process.

It is our belief that the time has come to explore the best practices to manage air quality and emissions, amplify transparency and real-time communication, establish cutting-edge monitoring measures, prioritize public health, encourage environmental stewardship, cultivate community trust, and elevate measurement and trust standards.

Simply put, we can only manage what we monitor. We must adequately monitor our air quality near the refinery and throughout our community.

We look forward to working with city staff, community groups, businesses, and concerned citizens to create a model of local air and health regulations that better protects Benicia.

In Service,

Vice Mayor Scott and City Council Member Birdseye

There is a group of concerned citizens of Benicia who also support the adoption of a Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO). To learn more about the effort and add your support, visit

‘La Migra’ – It’s Everyone’s Issue!

Sheri Leigh speaks with Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye for a City – and Parent – Perspective

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

This is the perspective of Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye, a 23-year Benicia resident and parent of two Benicia public school alumni.  As an elected official and a full-time communications manager for a non-profit environmental organization, Kari is a busy woman.  I ran into her at a recent Benicia Arts Council event and was grateful that she was willing to give me her perspective on the La Migra Games.  We had a very informative phone conversation between her work-related engagements.  

Benicia City Council Member, 23-year Benicia resident, and parent of two speaks to Sheri Leigh about ‘La Migra.’ | Photo from Kari Birdseye’s 2022 Campaign.

Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye and the other members of the Benicia City Council stand together with the Benicia police and the Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) on the matter of the student-orchestrated, traditional annual chase game they call La Migra.  Recognizing the racist overtone that is self-evident in the title of the game, the potential physical and emotional harm to individuals, and the ongoing threat to public safety, they want the games stopped – permanently.  This year, City Council and staff publicly acknowledged that this is a community issue that affects everyone in Benicia and teamed up with other municipal stakeholders.  

Ms. Birdseye is proud of the efforts that took place between City Hall, the police, and the school district this last year.  All three agencies worked together to notify the public about the upcoming game, sending out emails and issuing warning notices on their websites, in local news publications, and on social media pages.  The school district actively reached out to BUSD parents to educate them about the dangers of the game, urging them not to allow their children to participate.  Student leaders also urged their classmates to stay away from the games and out of trouble. The police department put extra patrols on duty on the night that was selected for the game.  

Click to enlarge. On March 29, 2023, BUSD issued a warning to parents and families of students that the game was imminent, describing its rules and warning of the potential physical and emotional harm.

According to Council Member Birdseye, the coordinated agency efforts made some impact: student participation was down from the previous year.  Over the course of the evening, police ‘apprehended’ dozens of students, keeping them at the station until they were safely remanded to parent or guardian custody.  When parents and guardians arrived at the station, they were provided with information about the game and warned to be more cautious about and aware of their children’s activities.  

The La Migra “games” has been going on for decades. They were happening when Ms. Birdseye’s children were in high school, and they vividly recall the experience.  Her daughter, who graduated in 2017, was (and still is) a social-justice warrior.  She was offended by La Migra games as a high school freshman, immediately seeing the racial harm.  Ms. Birdseye’s daughter actively advocated to her friends and classmates NOT to participate, continuing her efforts throughout her high school years.  She is now pursuing her Master’s degree in Education at San Francisco State.  

Some Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

Ms. Birdseye believes that the underclassmen are highly influenced by their desire to fit in.  They might not yet understand the harm or the danger of the game.  It’s the seniors, she feels, who should know better.  They are deliberately choosing to be in the role of pursuer, emulating and perpetuating a painful history, in effect weaponizing that history against our community’s Latino citizens and immigrants, and against those who are most vulnerable in our society.   

The work that the municipal agencies have begun towards dismantling this damaging tradition is just the beginning.  Ms. Birdseye assured me that each of the agencies, City government, police and the school district, are committed to maintaining their efforts to curtail the La Migra games.

But this is not just an agency problem.  We are all affected by this issue.