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 https://www.bisho.org/. 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 www.bisho.org.