Category Archives: Benicia Industrial Park

Refineries, Cancer and Other Health Problems: An ISO Can Help Us Breathe Easier

By Stephen Golub, originally published in the Benicia Herald on April 14, 2024

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land.

In the weeks and months to come, you may hear and read an increasing amount about Benicia adopting an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) that will help protect us against healthy and safety threats posed by the Valero Refinery, its associated asphalt plant and possibly other large industrial facilities.

There are many reasons for Benicia to have such an ordinance, so that we’re no longer the only Bay Area locale that hosts a refinery but is not protected by an ISO. Today, at the risk of getting a bit wonky, I’ll address one key reason: Living close to refineries can increase our risk of contracting cancer and other experiencing other medical problems; an ISO could help reduce such risks.

The point of this column isn’t to prompt panic, but to instead suggest action that will help safeguard our health. Through the better air monitoring, audits, inspections, reporting and above all preventive measures that the ordinance can bring, the City will be better able to reduce safety and health risks to our kids, seniors, small businesses and all Benicians.

The City Council has already taken the crucial first step in this direction. By a unanimous vote in December, the Council acted on a proposal by Vice Mayor Terry Scott and Councilwoman Kari Birdseye: It established a subcommittee comprising those two, aided by Fire Chief Josh Chadwick, to prepare an ISO.

While the ISO is being drafted, hopefully for adoption this summer, there are at least two things we can do to participate in the process:

First, please consider following and supporting the efforts of the Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO) initiative (of which I’m a member), which can be found  at (“Safety” and not just “health” is included in the name because one priority is to protect Benicians and Refinery workers against fires and explosions, and not just toxic emissions.)

BISHO’s evolving site provides reams of relevant information. It also includes how to join the almost 200 fellow citizens who are supporting an ISO (and who, given that some folks may back a measure even if they don’t sign on to it, may well represent many thousands of Benicians).

Second, check out and post your thoughts at the “Engage Benicia” site the City has established to exchange information and opinions about the planned ISO: It provides “Opportunities for Input,” where you can weigh in on a number of weighty questions regarding our safety, health and an ISO.

Clicking this image will take you to

The site isn’t ideal. (Then again, what is?) For instance, it solicits our thoughts on a current “Community Advisory Panel” (CAP) without noting that to a great extent it is controlled and serves at the discretion of Valero. Still, the site represents a laudable effort to seek community input as Birdseye, Scott, Chadwick and other City personnel work hard to take Benicians’ perspectives into account. It’s well worth visiting, to register reactions and questions.

Now, on to the less pleasant news: A variety of research findings from across the country and the world indicate that cancer rates and other health problems are higher near refineries and related facilities than elsewhere. (There’s also relevant health data from Benicia, but I’ll save that for another day.) Again, my point is that an ISO can reduce our risks, not least by regulating Valero’s operations and reporting in ways that perhaps are not being done adequately elsewhere, such as in oil industry-friendly Texas (where, by the way, Valero is headquartered).

So please take this list as grounds for hope and urgency, not despair, about what Benicia can do. (The place listed is where the refinery is located; the date is when the research was published.)

Cancer rates, Texas, 2020: “[A University of Texas] team studied the Texas Cancer Registry and US Census Data from 2001 – 2014 to compare rates of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, lung, lymphoma, and prostate) of people within 30 miles of active Texas oil refineries. The team observed that proximity to an oil refinery was associated with a significantly increased risk of cancer diagnosis across all cancer types. People living within 10 miles of an active refinery were more likely to have advanced disease or metastatic disease.”

Children’s liver and bone-related disorders, Texas, 2016: “This study examined the health effects of benzene exposure among children from a flaring incident at the British Petroleum (BP) refinery in Texas City, Texas…These findings suggest that children exposed to benzene are at a higher risk of developing both hepatic [liver-related] and bone marrow-related disorders.

Post-incident health problems, Richmond, California, 2019: “After the 2012 incident [release chemicals into the air], two Emergency Departments took the brunt of the surge [of patients]. Censuses [i.e., the number of patients under care] increased from less than 600 a week each to respectively 5719 and 3072 the first week…It took 4 weeks for censuses to return to normal. The most common diagnosis groups that spiked were nervous/sensory, respiratory, circulatory, and injury.”

Leukaemia, various locations, 2020: “The systematic review identified 16 unique studies, which collectively record the incidence of haematological [blood-related] malignancies across 187,585 residents living close to a petrochemical operation. Residents from fenceline communities, less than 5 km from a petrochemical facility (refinery or manufacturer of commercial chemicals), had a 30% higher risk of developing Leukaemia than residents from communities with no petrochemical activity.”

Children’s asthma, South Africa, 2009: “The results support the hypothesis of an increased prevalence of asthma symptoms among children in the area as a result of refinery emissions and provide a substantive basis for community concern.”

Female lung cancer, Taiwan, 2000: “The study results show that mortality from female lung cancer rose gradually about 30 to 37 years after the operation of a petroleum refinery plant began.”

There’s more, but I’ll leave it at that.

An ISO won’t be a cure-all by any means. But it will enable us to build on the work of state and federal agencies that, however well-intentioned, may not prioritize Benicia in view of the many areas they serve. It could well help to diminish our cancer risks and exposure to other health challenges.

And that should make us all breathe easier.


Benicia Herald columnist Stephen Golub’s questions about Valero’s ‘Hydrogen Sulfide Saturday’

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub.

By Stephen Golub, first appearing in the Benicia Herald on March 1, 2024


By the way, a big thanks to Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick and our Fire Department for their efforts to alert Benicians about Saturday’s incident at the Valero Refinery, particularly since it resulted in the release of the dangerous neurotoxin Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) into our air. While, as suggested below, the incident and the reporting more than ever demonstrate the need for an ISO, those efforts are nonetheless appreciated.

Thanks, too, to the Valero personnel who labored to clean up that mess, perhaps at risk to their own health. Of course, this does not let the Valero refinery or the corporation’s Texas headquarters off the hook for this dangerous event  – or for many other accidents and violations. But the workers who work to mitigate such harm merit praise. In fact, an ISO could benefit them as well as the rest of us.

So far, based on some very good reporting by Benicia Herald editor Galen Kusic and other sources, we have some initial knowledge about what happened. But dozens of questions remain.

For now, I’ll just address a few questions mainly raised by Kusic’s February 28 article and data shared by the Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program (BCAMP), a local non-profit that (as its website states) “has been established to monitor local air quality in real-time, operate a website, and provide education on health as related to air quality.” (For more information on BCAMP, here’s the group’s site:

  1. As Kusic’s article states, “It isn’t clear as to why alerts went out at 7:40 a.m. when H2S was discovered on Tank 1738 at 6:08 a.m. and H2S was detected in the air as early as 4:30 a.m.” In fact, as noted by BCAMP, Valero’s own monitoring system indicated alarming levels of H2S in the air as early as 4 a.m. And BCAMP data indicates a spike in H2S hours earlier than that.

So why the delay in alerting the public?

  1. What’s more, the current (and quite weak) City of Benicia – Valero Cooperation Agreement incorporates the requirement that the Benicia Fire Department must be notified immediately if there is a release or a threatened release of a hazardous substance that could harm people’s health. It certainly does not sound like Valero provided immediate notification – which to my simple mind, means as soon as possible.

Why was that the case?

  1. As stated in the Herald article, when asked about the delay, “Valero Benicia Refinery Director of Community Relations and Government Affairs Paul Adler responded, ‘In order to answer your first question, I suggest that you review the Public Information website along with that policy which defines the requirements of notifications.’”

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a straightforward answer to a straightforward inquiry about an urgent public health matter, rather than being shunted off to a website.

Why not provide that?

  1. Did the first information the Fire Department received about the incident come from the public reporting the “rotten eggs” odor of H2S in the air or from Valero? And if not Valero, why was that the case?

5.  BCAMP data reported an alarming spike in H2S in the air during the late afternoon on Saturday, supposedly after the worst of the incident had passed. Were we safe at that time?

I’ll note that I know one individual whose asthma was apparently greatly aggravated by this incident (though this is not a matter of medical certainty) and two others who reported feeling ill, all on the west side of town. Not scientific proof of danger, but not something to be ignored.

Again, these are just a few questions prompted by Valero’s release of H2S on Saturday. Coming on top of many Valero violations and other incidents, they point to the need for a far stronger way of protecting the safety and health of our kids, our seniors and our entire community. We can start by showing support for an ISO at the City Council meeting on March 5.

Other reporting on this recent refinery incident:

Benicia Herald on Valero Refinery spill of toxic Hydrogen Sulfide

[Note from BenIndy: The Benicia Herald  does not have an online edition but this Wednesday, February 28 article by Galen Kusic, editor, represents the best and most complete coverage of the Valero incident last weekend, including reactions from local representatives for Valero and our own elected officials. Supporting local journalism is crucial for ensuring communities are informed and facilitates transparency and accountability during important local events like this one. You can subscribe to the Herald by email at or by phone at 707-745-6838.]

Benicia Valero Refinery spill of hydrocarbon releases Hydrogen Sulfide; odor smelled throughout Benicia

Valero’s Benicia Refinery on January 25, 2024. | Galen Kusic.

By Galen Kusic, Editor, The Benicia Herald, February 28, 2024

On Sat. Feb. 24 at 7:40 a.m., the City of Benicia reported that Benicia Fire Department was working with the Benicia Valero Refinery “on mitigating an odor coming from the refinery.” The source, which was reported as “refined hydrocarbon” was actually Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), a dangerous neurotoxin.

According to the mandatory 72-hour report provided by Valero Benicia Refinery, between 5:30 and 6 a.m., Benicia Dispatch informed Valero of three odor complaints, and the Refinery received two inquiries related to odors smelled in the community. Residents noticed the strong odor throughout Benicia ranging from neighborhoods near Southampton, First St. and the lower east side.

As stated in the report, refinery operations began investigating the source of the odor and identified hydrocarbon on the roof of Valero Refinery’s Tank 1738 at approximately 6:08 a.m. Valero activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) around 7:48 a.m. and cleanup efforts began at approximately 1 p.m. Prior to the event, refinery operations were following emergency shutdown procedures to safely posture a unit that included transferring material to Tank 1738. The bulk of the material on the roof of the tank, currently estimated to contain less than 83 gallons of refined hydrocarbon, was removed by Sat. evening.

Levels of H2S spiked between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m., with levels reaching a maximum five minute average around 400 ppb (parts per billion) and a maximum one hour average around 142 ppb, according to data from the refinery’s fenceline website at

“It was a very low level,” said Benicia Fire Chief Josh Chadwick. “Dangerous levels are at 50,000 ppb and we start to get concerned at 1,000 ppb.”

To put that in perspective, those numbers are more than twice the level Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as an acute Minimum Risk Level (MRL) of 70 ppb over an hour period. The Reference Exposure Level (REL) determined by California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) for H2S is 30 ppb over an hour period.

In the report it states, “A REL is an airborne concentration level of a chemical at or below which no adverse health effects are anticipated for a specified exposure duration. RELs are based on the most sensitive, relevant, adverse health effect reporting in the medical and toxicological literature and are designed to protect the most sensitive individuals in the population by the inclusion of margins of safety.”

Two separate flaring incidents at Valero were reported by Benicia Fire Department on Feb. 18 at 12:39 a.m. and Feb. 23 at 8:30 p.m. Ongoing intermittent flaring that exceeded the 500 lbs. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) reporting threshold occurred as part of the unit shutdown. According to Valero, the flaring did not contribute to the community odors.

After detecting the odor, Valero provided communication to the City of Benicia and other appropriate agencies and cleanup efforts were initiated to abate the odor. The City of Benicia Fire Department responded as a member of the EOC and also conducted air quality testing using their portable air monitors at multiple points throughout the City. Refinery personnel continued to clean off the material also referred to as “slop” from the tank roof until there wasn’t enough daylight to continue.

The refinery continued to spot clean the remaining residue on the tank roof and expected to have that activity completed by Mon. evening. Samples are being taken of the containers that are holding the material removed from the roof to obtain a more accurate estimate on the amount of oil.

“The strong smell has dissipated,” said Chadwick. “There is currently no health hazard.”

An investigation is underway to determine how the hydrocarbon material got onto the tank. A summary of the investigation will be provided to the Fire Chief once it is completed. Chadwick estimates the investigation can take up to a month.

Valero Refinery is also required to submit a 30-Day Investigation Report with root cause analysis. The 30-Day report will be posted publicly when available. In addition, Solano County Environmental Health will work in conjunction with the City of Benicia to perform a full incident investigation report that will also be released publicly.

It isn’t clear as to why alerts went out at 7:40 a.m. when H2S was discovered on Tank 1738 at 6:08 a.m. and H2S was detected in the air as early as 4:30 a.m. When this question was posed to Valero Benicia Refinery Director of Community Relations and Government Affairs Paul Adler, he responded.

“In order to answer your first question, I suggest that you review the Public Information Bank website along with that policy which defines the requirements of notifications,” he said.

In the Valero Cooperation Agreement, it states that “immediate notification is required in all Level-1 through Level-3 incidents. This was categorized as a Level-3 incident, but nowhere in the agreement does it describe what actual time frame constitutes “immediate notification.”

While the City noted in an update on Sat. evening that the smell was dissipating, driving by the Valero Refinery at 1:30 p.m. on Mon. on I-680 the smell was still strong. According to the City, Solano County Public Health only recommended to shelter in place if the odor smell was too strong and/or if it was “aggravating.”

When asked about further updates on Sun., Mayor Steve Young responded, “I don’t sorry,” but noted that he was meeting with Chadwick and City Manager Mario Giuliani on Mon.

“Hopefully I will have more information then,” he said. Young did not respond for further comment by press time Tue.

There were no injuries associated with the event, and no reports of offsite injuries or property damage have been reported.

Other reporting on this recent refinery incident:

Weekend odor in Benicia caused by mechanical issue at refinery

[Note from BenIndy: You may be wondering why we’ve been slow to report on this incident at the Valero Benicia Refinery when usually we’d be all over it, and well ahead of the game at that. In this case there was a need elsewhere, in the form of helping the good folks in the Benicia Industrial Safety and Healthy Ordinance Working Group (BISHO) put a website together to generate more interest and community engagement in pursuit of Benicia adopting its own industrial safety ordinance. We regret the sparse coverage of this important incident at the Valero Benicia Refinery, but hope you understand that those of us keeping the BenIndy going are also active in service to delivering the brilliant, overarching goal of meaningful City and community oversight over heavy industry in Benicia. Please forgive this lapse in our coverage, and take a minute to review the website. If you are interested in these matters, please sign up using the contact forms on that website. Also, don’t forget to sign up for future incident alerts at]

Valero Benicia Refinery file photo. | Paul Chinn / SF Chron.

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Lynzie Lowe, February 26, 2024

The Valero Benicia Refinery informed the Benicia Fire Department on Friday of an unanticipated mechanical issue, which released refined hydrocarbons that caused a strong odor throughout the city of Benicia over the weekend.

When the unit went down, officials said it was necessary to immediately move the product inside into another tank.

“It was discovered that in the process of moving the product, some of it got on the lid of a tank and that was the source of the strong odor,” read a release issued by city officials on Saturday. “There is no specific name for the product; it is a mixture of refined hydrocarbons similar to a light oil. The chemical vapor in the air causing the odor is H2S, hydrogen sulfide. The odor has dissipated significantly in most parts of Benicia.”

Della Olm, Management Analyst and Benicia Fire Department Public Information Officer, said, as of Monday morning, the spill on the tank lid is almost cleaned up and is expected to be completely mitigated by the end of the day Monday or Tuesday morning.

City officials said the Benicia Fire Department has been in continuous communication with Solano County Public Health, who has recommended to only shelter in place if the odor smell was too strong and/or it was aggravating. The Benicia Fire Department staff were also activated at the Valero Emergency Operations Center over the weekend.

“The refinery is flaring intermittently due to the unit shut off on the evening of February 23,” according to a press release. “Intermittent flaring will continue for an undetermined period of time.”

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Other reporting on this recent refinery incident: