Category Archives: Flaring

Nov. 27 Chevron Richmond refinery power loss triggered flaring incident, black smoke clouds

Chevron Richmond flaring. | KPIX.

CBS Bay Area, by Dave Pehling, November 27, 2023

RICHMOND — Flaring activity at the Chevron Richmond refinery Monday afternoon due to a loss of power at part of the facility has sent a large cloud of black smoke over the region.

A Facebook post by the Chevron Richmond account shortly after 4 p.m. confirmed that the workers at the facility were attempting to “quickly to minimize and stop the flaring.” The post said a “Community Warning System (CWS) Level 1” was issued due to smoke and the visible flaring. This type of warning does not require action by the public, the post said.

A representative from Contra Costa Health (CCH) confirmed that Chevron Richmond notified them about the flaring due to “an unplanned unit shutdown” at about 3:30 p.m. CCH said it was sending a hazardous materials team to the refinery to investigate, but no shelter-in-place order has been issued in connection with the incident.

KPIX chief meteorologist Paul Heggen said the smoke plume is blowing to the west. According to the EPA and Purple Air monitors, there has not been a dramatic decline of ground-level air quality.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has not issued an alert regarding the incident and was currently showing the air quality to be moderate in the area around the refinery. District officials confirmed that their inspectors were investigating at the refinery and that they were “documenting any violations of air quality regulations and assisting first responders.”

The district initially said four complaints were received as of around 4:30 p.m. As of an hour later, 51 complaints had been submitted.

Richmond Fire officials are also at the scene and monitoring air quality.

Benicia Fire Department: Valero reports flaring incident this morning

File photo from May 5, 2017 incident. The city of Benicia was given a shelter in place alert and areas south of the Valero Refinery were evacuated after a power outage caused a flare up sending plumes of black smoke across Interstate 680. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Benicia Fire Department on Facebook, March 6, 2023, around noon. (Also posted on City of Benicia Nextdoor.)

Bay Area quake caused refineries to flare; ‘What happens if there’s a big one?’

Bay Area quake caused refineries to flare; ‘What happens if there’s a big one?’

10/15/19, 5:39 p.m.
The Marathon refinery in Martinez, shown here on Tuesday, experienced a problem due to Monday’s quake and had to flare. Photo: Paul Kuroda / Special to The Chronicle

A 4.5-magnitude earthquake centered in Pleasant Hill on Monday night caused flaring at the two refineries in Martinez, local officials said.

Flaring is a safety procedure to burn off excess gas. At the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Martinez, flaring stopped at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, according to a company spokesman.

Portions of the Marathon refinery shut down after the quake and things restarted early Tuesday, Contra Costa County health department spokesman Will Harper said.

Flaring also occurred at the Shell refinery in Martinez, Harper said.

Shell spokesman Ray Fisher said by email that “some equipment was temporarily affected by the quake,” but operations were back to normal Tuesday morning.

The Chevron refinery in Richmond sustained “no known damage,” according to a spokeswoman. Valero spokeswoman Lillian Riojas said in an email Tuesday that there were no major disruptions at the company’s Benicia refinery, and operations are continuing.

But the problems in Martinez prompted some people to wonder what will happen when a bigger quake strikes.

“Thank God for a small one last night, but what happens if there’s a big one?” said Torm Nomprasseurt, a senior community organizer with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network who has lived on the fence line of the Chevron Richmond refinery since 1975.

When there is a siren warning the community because of a flare at the Chevron plant, he shelters in place with his family.

“But if an earthquake happened … and we can’t stay in our house, what are we going to do?” he said.

“This is one of the challenges of living in an earthquake area with the industrial belt,” Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said Tuesday. He said officials have “gotten progressively better in the 25 years” with notifying communities about instances like flaring at refineries.

Amy Myers Jaffe, who served on the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee and is now based at a think tank in New York, said refineries carry significant safety and environmental risks. In an earthquake, underground pipes can rupture and storage tanks of gasoline or other chemicals burn.

Robert Young, associate professor of chemical engineering practice at USC School of Engineering, who used to work for Exxon, said “flaring is a very important safety measure” because it combusts highly hazardous or acutely toxic materials instead of releasing them into the ground or inside the facility.

The plants are equipped with safety devices that tell operations to shut down automatically when a vibration is detected, said Ralph Borrmann, spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

“It’s a normal process that occurs when the safety devices get triggered,” Borrmann said.

The air quality district is conducting an investigation following the quake, part of standard protocol.

At 11:10 p.m. Monday, due to the Marathon refinery problems, Level 1 of the community warning system was issued, the company said. On a scale of 0 to 3 that meant there were no expected off-site health impacts and only the health department and other county agencies were notified, according to Harper, the Contra Costa County spokesman. In the case of more significant incidents, the county would issue an advisory to the community.

Separately on Tuesday afternoon, at least two tanks caught fire after an explosion at a tank farm at a NuStar facility in Rodeo in Contra Costa County. A 4.7-magnitude earthquake struck near Hollister (San Benito County) on Tuesday shortly after noon, but it was unclear whether the explosion was quake-related. Hollister and Rodeo are 100 miles apart.

The tank farm stores fuels and hydrocarbons, according to Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County health officer, who said officials were trying to determine the explosion’s cause.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office released a shelter-in-place alert: “There is a hazardous materials emergency in Crockett and Rodeo at the NuStar facility. The danger will be much less indoors. Go inside, and close all windows and doors. Turn off all heaters, air conditioners, and fans,” the alert read.

“Unless you are using your fireplace, close your fireplace dampers and vents. Cover any cracks around doors or windows with tape or damp towels. Stay off the phone unless you need to report a life-threatening emergency at your location. Remain sheltered indoors until you receive further official instructions. Stay off the phones and do not call 911 unless you have a life threatening emergency.”

According to the company website, the facility has 24 tanks and holds a capacity of 3.04 million barrels.


Chronicle staff writer Anna Bauman contributed to this report.  Mallory Moench and Megan Cassidy are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. 

Valero Restarts Benicia Refinery 40+ days after major malfunction and pollution release

By Ted Goldberg, KQED
The Valero Benicia refinery. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Valero is restarting its Benicia refinery more than 40 days after a major malfunction and pollution release forced the energy giant to shut down the facility, contributing to the state’s recent spike in fuel costs.

“The Valero Benicia refinery has commenced the startup process, which is a multi-day sequenced event,” the company said in a notification sent to Benicia city officials over the weekend. The message warned of potential “visible, intermittent flaring” as a necessary safety precaution.

That flaring began Tuesday morning, according to a state hazardous materials database, and included a release of sulfur dioxide. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District sent staff to the refinery to observe the flaring, said agency spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Valero has also been in touch with the Benicia Fire Department about the startup and flaring, according to Fire Chief Josh Chadwick.

Valero shut down the refinery on March 24 after ongoing equipment problems.

The air district, along with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and Solano County inspectors, has been investigating the refinery’s problems since then.

The focus of the county investigation centers on two key refinery components that malfunctioned, allowing petroleum coke (petcoke), an oil processing residue, to escape.

For several hours on March 24, county officials issued a health advisory, warning residents with respiratory issues to stay indoors.

The petcoke releases later prompted Benicia’s mayor and air quality advocates to call for local air regulators and the city to create a more robust and coordinated strategy to measure what gushes out of the refinery. Two years earlier, the same facility experienced a full outage and a much more extreme pollution release.

The air district, which issued 12 notices of violation against Valero for the most recent releases, does not have a stationary air monitoring device in Benicia’s residential areas and had to drive a van to the area to monitor the situation.

The shutdown took place several weeks after California’s gas prices began to increase.

Energy experts correctly predicted that the refinery’s problems, coupled with maintenance issues at several other California refineries, would prompt an increase in crude oil prices.

The average cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline in California on the day Valero shut down its Benicia refinery was $3.49, according to the American Automobile Association. It has increased by more than 60 cents since then, and on Tuesday stood at $4.10.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the California Energy Commission to investigate the hikes.

But the average price increases have slowed in recent days, and an AAA representative said Tuesday that costs may be beginning to stabilize.

“The news about Valero was actually a pretty big reason for the prices evening out,” said AAA Northern California spokesman Mike Blasky.

He said just the talk of the Benicia refinery restarting contributed to a recent 8-cent drop in the average wholesale cost of a gallon of gas.

“When those units do restart, that’s going to really contribute to a higher utilization rate, which will lower prices as we see our stocks resupplied,” Blasky said. “Any major refinery shutdown in California tends to really throw things out of whack.”

KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler contributed reporting to this story.