Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

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

‘We have to stop’: Plan for fossil-fuel drilling on the flanks of San Francisco Bay draws protest

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Kathy Kerridge: The Suisun Marsh is the largest brackish marsh on the West Coast. It deserves our protection. It will play an important role in mitigating climate chaos that is only getting worse. The county is working to approve this proposed drilling site with a mitigated negative declaration that does not cover some of the biggest problems with the drilling. The decision to approve this project and the mitigated negative declaration will soon be in front of the county planning commission.  If you want to be kept informed of action on this proposed drilling project please email me at  It would be great to have people write the planning commission and appear at the meeting.]

` A great egret takes flight over Grizzly Island in Suisun Marsh south of Fairfield. A natural gas well has been proposed for the area. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle.
SF Chronicle, by Kurtis Alexander, October 29, 2023

Two years after public opposition halted a bid to drill natural gas in Suisun Marsh, next to San Francisco Bay, a Florida energy company is taking another run at it.

Lantos Energy LLC submitted an application with Solano County last month to construct a well and a possible pipeline alongside wetlands about 10 miles east of Benicia, where the bustling East Bay eases into the quiet of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The area historically has been a bastion for natural gas, with many companies, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co., still getting a bulk of their fuel from the region. Hundreds of wells, for nearly a century, were drilled into the area’s rich fossil-fuel deposits to heat homes and generate power — without much fanfare.

Map: Todd Trumbull/The Chronicle • Source: Lantos Energy LLC.

But that was then, and this is now. Anxieties about fossil fuels overheating the planet and a better understanding of their ecological impact and potential for pollution are bringing increased scrutiny to even the most mundane projects. Some who fought the 2021 proposal for a well in Suisun Marsh, which included the state attorney general, have begun mobilizing to resist the new drilling effort.

“Do we really need more gas wells?” said Kathy Kerridge, a Benicia resident who was active in the opposition campaign two years ago. “Can’t we just be building solar panels and wind farms?”

Ducks swim in Suisun Marsh south of Fairfield. A Florida energy company has submitted an application to build a new natural gas well in the area, but it’s meeting resistance. |
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle.

Solano County’s Department of Resource Management has determined, despite the emerging criticism, that the proposed drilling operation will have no “potentially significant adverse environmental impacts,” clearing the way for the county’s Planning Commission to decide whether the proposal should move forward, likely early next year. Approvals from several state agencies will also be required.

While county documents cite possible problems for plants and wildlife in and around the marsh, including the San Joaquin kit fox and Western burrowing owl, they prescribe measures for reducing disturbances. The proposed well would be in grassy uplands adjacent to wetlands, which like the marsh are subject to some level of protection under the state’s Suisun Marsh Preservation Act.

As far as climate change goes, the county’s evaluation of the project says building a well won’t produce significant greenhouse gases, but it doesn’t address heat-trapping emissions that would result from the production and consumption of newly drilled fossil fuel.

Officials with Lantos Energy did not return calls to discuss the project with the Chronicle.

According to county documents, the company’s plan is to first drill to see if there are sufficient reserves of natural gas at the site, and if so, proceed with the construction of a pipeline to an existing pipeline nearby. Where the natural gas will end up is not clear.

The state has enacted an ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector — by 48% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels — and to be carbon neutral by 2045, in an effort to combat climate change. However, with renewable energy facilities still ramping up to meet demand, natural gas and oil wells continue to be developed.

Part of their endurance, says Rob Jordan, an earth scientist at Stanford University with expertise in global warming and energy extraction, is the limited window that fossil-fuel facilities have to operate as California winds down fossil-fuel production.

“California may be getting out of the oil and gas business, so there is some urgency for companies to get wells permits while they can,” he said.

Two years ago, Brentwood’s Sunset Exploration rolled out plans to drill at an abandoned well just west of the site of the current drilling proposal. The project drew a litany of concerns, including the potential for methane leaks that natural gas wells inherently pose and its proximity to low-income communities.

The company withdrew its application shortly after going public with the plan.

“We have to stop extraction,” said Shoshana Wechsler, a founding member of the Sunflower Alliance, an East Bay group that fought the Sunset Exploration project and is now sounding alarm about Lantos Energy. “We’re so far behind where we should be. We’re so heavily periled. We have to stop.”

The Greenbelt Alliance Needs YOU To Protect Solano from Sprawl Development

Click the image to be redirected to the Greenbelt Alliance’s donation page.

Message from the Greenbelt Alliance:

By now, you’ve likely heard of the infamous new sprawl city proposed for Solano County that plans to build over 50,000 acres of natural and working lands.

This development would be catastrophic for California’s climate goals by paving over wildlife habitat and climate resilient lands. Billionaire interests behind this proposal are using their unlimited resources to move quickly to the ballot with plans no one has even seen yet.

We have to move quickly as well to ensure that we can mobilize people power to represent the interests of the residents and natural areas that will be affected.

With your help, Greenbelt Alliance will protect and care for Solano County’s natural and working lands.

Right now, we’re hoping to unlock $50,000 in essential funding, with just a few days left to match every gift made. Please, donate now to help us protect this precious landscape and stop sprawl development.

Open space protection is what we do best. Greenbelt Alliance was founded 65 years ago by local community activists sounding the alarm on development proposals just like this that pose significant risks on iconic Bay Area landscapes.

And over six decades later, our work is more needed than ever.

Join our movement with a gift today, and help us protect Solano County lands.

[The BenIndy is not affiliated with the Greenbelt Alliance and was not asked to repost this fundraiser. We’re posting it based on a reader’s suggestion. That’s right, we take suggestions!]