Category Archives: Benicia Fire Department

KQED: Valero Flaring Sends 10 to 20 to Kaiser Medical Center

Repost from KQED, The California Report
[Editor: Significant quote: “On Friday, officials said that only two residents called with respiratory complaints, and there was no indication that anyone was hospitalized. But… Between 10 and 20 people went to the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, according to Kaiser spokeswoman Deniene Erickson.”]

Benicia Mayor Calls For Key Emergency Improvements After Valero Refinery Outage and Flaring

By Ted Goldberg, MAY 9, 2017
PHOTO: The power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero Refinery in Benicia lasted several hours and led to flaring at the refinery. Flaring is a process that allows the refinery to relieve pressure – but it can send out smoke and toxic gas. (Craig Miller/KQED)
The power outage on May 5, 2017, at the Valero Refinery in Benicia lasted several hours and led to flaring at the refinery. Flaring is a process that allows the refinery to relieve pressure – but it can send out smoke and toxic gas. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Benicia has to do a better job of telling its residents about major emergencies, the city’s mayor said Monday, after a series of communication problems surfaced in connection with a power outage at the Valero refinery that has caused intermittent flaring since Friday morning.

The city’s government access television station broadcast inaccurate and inadequate information in the hours after the outage and not enough residents could hear the city’s emergency sirens, said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson in an interview.

“It’s really troubling that we don’t have these things in place,” Patterson said.

On Monday air regulators announced that Valero is being penalized for the incident.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which is investigating the flaring, issued four notices of violation to the energy company on Friday, three for excessive smoke and one for causing a public nuisance, according to agency spokeswoman Kristine Roselius.

On Monday afternoon the district issued a fifth notice of violation for excessive visible emissions.

“Valero was preparing for start-up when smoke started  coming out of one of the stacks,”  Roselius said.

A Valero spokeswoman has not returned a request for comment on the district’s penalty.

The refinery’s first full power loss in 30 years started around 6:30 a.m. Friday. The outage began shortly after crews took one of two transmission lines offline to complete upgrades, said Matt Nauman, a Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman.

Circuit breakers opened after a component of a “protective relay system failed,” according to Nauman.

But the San Francisco-based energy company did not directly contact Benicia officials quickly enough about the outage, Mayor Patterson said.

“Why didn’t PG&E call the city of Benicia so that we could begin to think about the consequences of power loss to the refinery 15 minutes earlier than we were alerted by Valero?” Patterson asked.

PG&E says it did tell the city, just not as fast as the mayor would have liked.

A company representative contacted the Benicia fire chief and the Solano County of Emergency Services at 8 a.m., according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras, adding that utility crews worked quickly and safely to restore power in 18 minutes.

The outage caused gases used in the refining process to build up inside the refinery. To relieve pressure, Valero sent toxic gas to its flares.

Valero, like other refining companies, emphasizes that the flaring process is a safety device.

At first that process sent flames and a huge plume of smoke into the sky, which resulted in the evacuation of an industrial area near Valero and a shelter-in-place order for two elementary schools.

Even that order wasn’t clear. Initially, some authorities called for the rest of the city, except for the adjacent industrial area, to stay indoors.

“All other areas of town shelter in place. Keep doors and windows closed. Bring pets inside,” said a tweet from the Benicia Police Department.

Minutes later the agency published a corrected tweet, focusing the order on the two schools, but that was not entirely clear.

“No shelter in place for the rest of the (city) except for Matthew Turner and Robert Semple. Everyone’s encouraged to close doors and windows,” the follow-up tweet read.

On Friday, officials said that only two residents called with respiratory complaints, and there was no indication that anyone was hospitalized.

But, it turns out, the toxic air did send people to the hospital.

Between 10 and 20 people went to the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center, according to Kaiser spokeswoman Deniene Erickson.

The flaring continued over the weekend and on Monday as Valero restored operations.

“We may have some intermittent flaring as we continue through safe startup process,” said Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas in an email Monday.

Meanwhile, the city has begun a top-to-bottom review of its emergency response, according to Benicia Fire Chief Jim Lydon.

“There are some systems that we need to go back and look at and assess their functionality and make sure they’re working properly,” Lydon said in an interview Monday, adding that he saw complaints from residents about the emergency communication on social media.

After that review is completed, Mayor Patterson is calling for a City Council hearing to explore ways to improve emergency communication.

That hearing would also investigate why Valero does not have a backup power source, something Patterson said she was unaware of until Friday’s emergency.

The afternoon of the outage a company official blamed California’s greenhouse gas regulations for preventing the creation of an alternative power source.

Valero expanded its refinery in recent years to reduce emissions, according to Don Cuffel, the company’s health, safety, environmental director. That expansion increased the facility’s electrical load but the company never got a permit to create a “co-generation unit”.

“Adding another co-generation unit to the refinery only increases our carbon footprint,” Cuffel said at a Friday news conference.

LETTER SERIES: Craig Snider – Questionable endorsement in Benicia politics

[Editor: Benicians are expressing themselves in letters to the editor of our local print newspaper, the Benicia Herald. But the Herald doesn’t publish letters in its online editions – and many Benician’s don’t subscribe. We are posting certain letters here for wider distribution. – RS]

Concerns about endorsements by Benicia police and fire fighters associations

[Editor: note that although both Police and Fire associations appear on campaign signs, the $740 contributions mentioned below were reported ONLY by the Benicia Police Officers Association as of Sept 29.  UPDATE: The Benicia Herald published a similar correction on Oct. 26, adding,  “According to the Firefighters’ Association, contributions from that organization were less than $99 per person and thus have not been publicly reported, per California Fair Political Practices Commission runes.”  – RS]

Craig Snider
Craig Snider

My hat is off to the full slate of capable and qualified people vying for positions on our City Council. Anyone who follows the workings of this body knows well the time and commitment required in what’s too often a thankless job. Being a 13-year resident of Benicia, I’ve been drawn to the issues most likely to have a bearing on the safety, health and welfare of our community. But, as the election grows nigh, I’ve noticed various groups and individuals taking sides for or against the various candidates.

Two groups, the Benicia police and fire fighters associations, caught my attention right away. Their many yard signs promote a slate of candidates including Lionel Largaespada, Mark Hughes and Christina Strawbridge. In turn these same candidates tout the police and firefighter endorsements in their campaigns. When I learned that most of the police and firefighters don’t live in Benicia and that they each contributed $740 apiece to raise $20,000 to support their slate, that bothered me. From what I can tell, all the candidates want to promote public safety and support a strong police and fire department. So I was puzzled why they would endorse these particular candidates.

From my 35 years working in the federal government, I’m well aware of the Hatch Act, a law intended to protect federal employees from political coercion at work. The law is a safeguard to the merit system by ensuring that career advancement for federal employees is based on merit and not political affiliation. One of the other goals, which is tied to the two previous ones, is that it fosters public trust by requiring that federal programs, federal institutions be administered in a non-partisan fashion.

I know, city employees aren’t federal employees, and so long as Benicia doesn’t accept federal funding, city employees can use their positions to promote their political agendas. But I don’t have to like it. $740 apiece is a big chunk of change for most of us, so the police and firefighters must hope to gain something from these endorsements. To wit, unions typically support candidates that support higher pay and benefits and our police and fire fighters contract negotiations begin next year. Hmmm.

The only other reason I could see for the police and fire endorsement is their perception of “growth.” Like the construction trades that operate on the “more is better” premise, the police and firefighters may hope that unbridled growth will result in more jobs and city revenue in support of future pay and benefits. If that’s the case, it’s clear why they are supporting Largaespada, who openly supported Valero’s Crude-By-Rail Project and amending the General Plan to allow construction of 900-plus homes on the Seeno property. Hughes and Strawbridge similarly voted to consider dropping the approved business park plan in lieu of residential development on the Seeno property. Elizabeth Patterson and Tom Campbell voted against adding residential as that would limit our ability to attract businesses there.

Oddly, the council candidate most knowledgeable about community development, Steve Young, was passed over by the police and fire fighters. Young was director of community development for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency from 1999 to 2008 where he oversaw a $20 million budget managing the development of large business and industrial parks at Mather and McClellan Air Force bases after they were closed. Steve knows what it takes to attract business and undertake planning and development. According to Steve, “good planning requires a Master Plan with input from the community to assure the end result satisfies both community and economic benefits.”

So why wouldn’t the police and firefighters endorse Young?

A likely reason is Young’s in-depth analysis of Valero’s Crude-By-Rail Project while serving on Benicia’s Planning Commission. Young, like Mayor Patterson, is very detail oriented and his in-depth analysis highlighted reasons for rejecting Valero’s proposal that was later unanimously rejected by the Planning Commission and City Council. Yet, despite an abundance of evidence and hours of testimony, including findings by the state attorney general, both Hughes and Strawbridge were unable to reject the Crude-By-Rail Project initially, opting to delay the decision to get “more information.” Meanwhile, Patterson, Campbell and Young read the analysis, studied the regulations and rejected the proposal outright – without delay.

Which candidates will do the best analysis of the pay and benefits package for the police and firefighters next year? Which candidates are best prepared to oversee development of the Seeno property in a way that benefits all Benicians? In my view, it’s clearly Steve Young and Elizabeth Patterson.

Craig Snider is a Benicia resident who retired from the US Forest Service in 2014 where he fought forest fires among other things.