Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

It Takes a Village…and a Scott…and a Birdseye

Valero’s Benicia Refinery. | Pat Toth-Smith.
Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub

By Stephen Golub, first published in the Benicia Herald on December 24, 2023

Benicia got an early gift from Vice Mayor Terry Scott, Councilwoman Kari Birdseye and the rest of the City Council Tuesday night, December 19, when the Council unanimously voted to move ahead on putting together an industrial safety ordinance (ISO) that will help protect our kids, our older citizens and all of us against the risks of toxic emissions and potential fires/explosions. The decision capped months of patient, arduous work by Scott and Birdseye, who sought to address the views of all concerned parties along the way, resulting in their proposal that triggered the vote.

To be clear, the vote was to start a process, rather than to approve an ISO itself. But after an ISO is drafted and then presumably adopted next year, it will help us stay informed about accidents, incidents, violations, maintenance issues and other developments at Valero (and potentially other major industrial facilities in Benicia) that could affect our safety and health. It could enable Benicia to take preventive and enforcement action when necessary.

This contrasts with our current situation under a voluntary cooperation agreement with Valero, which provides for very limited information for and no enforcement by Benicia. For example, the refinery poured toxic emissions hundreds of times the legal limits into our air for well over a decade, until at least 2019. Even after the Bay Area Air Quality Management District learned of those emissions, that regional regulatory body failed to inform us about them for nearly another three years. We only found out in 2022.

Rather than being left out of the mix, Benicia needs a true seat at the table in order to get such information and take action. An ISO provides such a seat. The cooperation agreement and other current arrangements clearly don’t.

In the spirit of the holidays, I won’t delve into the substance of the debate any further. But I will emphasize that nothing about the ISO, or the effort to adopt it, is directed against the many fine Benician friends and neighbors who work at Valero or who are retirees from its facilities. Quite the contrary: The goal is to bolster safety and health for all of them as well as for the community as a whole.

Smoke from the Valero Benicia refinery during a 2017 incident. | Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

In fact, the hope is also that Valero’s leadership sees this is an opportunity to work with the City to provide its legitimate input. It would be a shame if the corporation walked away from such cooperation. Especially in view of Benicia’s budget problems and their implications for public safety, we need to pull together at this point rather than pull apart. Prompting bad national publicity, spurring divisions locally and other counterproductive fallout will do no good. Far better to act as a good neighbor.

Scott spearheaded the Council deliberations on Tuesday by highlighting how Benicia could construct a model industrial safety ordinance, learning from the experience of the other Bay Area refinery communities, all of which already have ISOs – which, by the way, fees on affected facilities pay for, rather than residents doing so.

Birdseye stood stalwart in repeatedly and successfully pressing for a vote even when there apparently was some temporary hesitancy or lack of clarity about how to proceed.

Thanks to Mayor Steve Young and Councilmembers Tom Campbell and Trevor Macenski, the motion was approved unanimously. And a bit of history was made: Reflecting community sentiment expressed at the meeting and elsewhere, as well as relevant research and experience, the Council decided that it wanted an ISO. If the resulting ordinance is true to that sentiment, research and experience, the ISO will be a strong one.

Thus, the devil will be in the details of what the eventual ordinance entails – something to be decided in the coming months under the direction of a subcommittee led by Scott and Birdseye. But this was a crucial first step.

So big kudos to Scott and Birdseye in particular for making this happen and making history for Benicia. And to the Mayor and other Councilmembers for backing an ISO. Thanks, too, to Fire Chief Josh Chadwick and other hardworking Benicia City staff members for the work they have done and will put into making all this a reality.

Last but not least, let’s also acknowledge the contributions of many other members of this wonderful village we call Benicia. Namely, the many Benicians who spoke, wrote letters and otherwise advocated for an ISO – spurred in part by the Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance (BISHO) alliance. To join the more than 150 supporters of this effort, or simply to find out more about this matter, please check out the group’s website at www.BISHO.org.

And have safe, healthy and happy holidays!


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Join the BISHO movement

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.

Benicia City Council Initiates Draft Industrial Safety Ordinance Process

Benicia Industrial Health and Safety Ordinance (BISHO) spokesperson Terry Mollica spoke passionately in favor of adopting an ISO in Benicia, calling existing agreements with Valero “toothless.” | Image still from City of Benicia Dec. 19, 2023 City Council meeting.

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

December 21, 2023 – Benicia, CA – On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council unanimously approved a proposal by Vice Mayor Terry Scott and Councilwoman Kari Birdseye to instruct staff, under the direction of a Council subcommittee led by the two, to conduct research, solicit substantial expert and public input and produce a resulting draft Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO) for the city. If the Council then adopts the ISO, it will cover Valero Benicia Refinery as well as other industrial sites in Benicia that meet the determined criteria. 

“City Council’s primary responsibility is to safeguard the health, safety and well-being of our residents, businesses and visitors,” said Vice Mayor Scott. “That includes policing, fire protection, clean water, and now we have the opportunity to create an Industrial Safety Ordinance that provides common-sense legislation to transparently monitor and protect the air we breathe.”

“Benicia deserves a ‘state of the art’ industrial safety and health ordinance that will best protect our community,” said Councilwoman Birdseye. “We will take the lessons learned in other refinery towns, from county experts, and local community members who have been impacted by refinery pollution for decades.”

Benicia is the only Bay Area refinery city without an ISO, as other communities have realized the importance and value of strengthening their relationships with and oversight of their resident refineries. In lieu of an ISO, Benicia currently has a Cooperation Agreement (CA) with Valero, initiated in 2019 and due to expire in 2025. Many citizens and city leaders believe the CA has not been strong enough, given Valero’s continued lack of transparency in reporting numerous violations of federal and state law.

Well over a dozen Benicians testified about the issue at the Council meeting, almost all in favor of a strong ISO, providing both scientific data and personal experiences. One resident of Benicia’s East Side, the area most affected by Valero emissions and fumes, spoke movingly about his family’s and neighbors’ experiences in which his son’s elementary school was evacuated because of an air spill of toxic oil pollution from the Valero Asphalt plant. “The county gave us an emergency order to lock down. A teacher went to the hospital. Valero denied all responsibility. The City and state appeared powerless to do anything substantial to protect against another incident,” he said. 

Benicia Vice Mayor Terry Scott

“We can’t protect public health without knowing what is in the air we breathe,” Scott said. “Moving forward with an ISO gives the city an effective tool for providing our community with an additional level of enforcement and trust.” 

Earlier this year, a call for the passage of an ISO was launched by a group of concerned citizens who believe that Benicia needs ways of monitoring, obtaining information about and taking enforcement actions regarding Valero emissions. Called the Benicia Industrial Safey and Health Ordinance (BISHO) working group, the initiative has more than 150 supporters in the community. 

Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye.

“We are grateful to Vice Mayor Scott and Councilwoman Birdseye for bringing this critical concern to City Council and for the entire Council for their support,” said Terry Mollica, a leader of BISHO.  “We need to make sure our community is notified immediately of refinery and other industrial emergencies or failures to meet state and federal regulations. We also need strong, enforceable penalties for the failure to do so.”

“It is our hope that everyone involved, the City, Valero, and the community, will have a seat at the table,” continued Mollica. “It is in all our best interest that we work together to make Benicia a safer, healthier place for all of us.” 

To find out more about the issue, BISHO, and how to get involved, go to the organization’s website, www.bisho.org.

“We want as many people as possible to read the materials, recognize how important this issue is to our community and become supporters of a strong Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance,” Mollica said. 

BISHO Working Group Contact:
Terry Mollica, beniciaisho@gmail.com, (707) 385-9972

 

Benicia to move forward with regulation of Valero refinery

The Valero Benicia refinery | Scott Morris / Vallejo Sun.

Residents felt that state and regional regulatory agencies had not followed through on enforcement.

Vallejo Sun, by Ryan Gellar, December 20, 2023

BENICIA – The Benicia City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin a community engagement process to create stronger regulations of the Valero refinery and other industries in the city through an industrial safety ordinance.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council chambers were filled with community members who expressed concerns about deficiencies in Valero’s fence line monitoring, accident reporting and the company’s dismissal of community input.

Many felt that state and regional regulatory agencies have allowed delays in monitoring programs and had not followed through on key avenues of enforcement. Mistrust was also fueled by a revelation in 2022 that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District had discovered that Valero illegally released toxic emissions for 16 years but the agency failed to notify Benicia residents until three years after the discovery.

In 2018, the city council considered adopting an ordinance to regulate the refinery similar to legislation in Contra Costa County and Richmond, but instead formed a cooperative agreement with Valero which is set to expire in 2025. After four years of the cooperative agreement, residents said that it has not provided sufficient oversight of industrial practices in the city.

Mayor Steve Young encouraged residents to define the areas where the current agreement falls short to indicate a direction for provisions that could be included in an ordinance.

Benicia resident Terry Mollica, who was involved in the drafting 2018 ordinance proposal and spoke on behalf of the Benicia Industrial Safety and Health Ordinance working group, said that the deficiencies are too numerous to list at the meeting. But he highlighted a key issue that the working group found to be particularly problematic.“It has absolutely no enforcement mechanism,” Mollica said. “In fact it includes a provision that allows Valero to unilaterally terminate the entire cooperative agreement at any time if it thinks it is being over-regulated.”

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TODAY! – Ask City Council to protect Benicia’s health and safety at the Dec. 19 Council Meeting

A Message from the Benicia ISO Working Group:

The crucial City Council meeting on whether Benicia should consider an Industrial Safety Ordinance will take place on TODAY, Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 6 pm at the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 230 East L Street. It is vital that supporters of a strong ISO attend and voice our support. Valero is gearing up to oppose this and may bring personnel to the meeting to voice opposition.

By attending and offering comments, you can offer support for the proposal by Vice Mayor Terry Scott and Councilmember Kari Birdseye, to be voted on by the Council on Dec. 19, instructing City staff to look into the possibility of Benicia adopting an ISO.

In addition, please voice support for not just the Scott-Birdseye proposal but for a strong ISO. This has become all-the-more important because of a problematic Benicia City staff report that, perhaps unintentionally, repeatedly presents incomplete and potentially misleading information that paints Valero’s refinery in a favorable light compared to Contra Costa County refineries covered by ISOs. The report neglects to mention evidence and experience to the contrary.

For instance, the report lists accidents that have occurred only at Contra Costa refineries. Yet it makes no mention of the many instances of severe violations by Valero, including the 2022 revelation about its Benicia refinery’s over fifteen years of unreported toxic emissions, hundreds of times regulatory limits.

In fairness, however, the report briefly notes, “In the years following [the Contra Costa County ISO’s implementation], it is believed to have contributed to a decline in accidents and releases at refineries in Contra Costa.”

The point is that voices for a strong ISO can help counteract any misimpressions that staff report might leave to the contrary.

If at all possible, your showing up early can help ensure that supporters of a strong ISO are near the front of the audience. But even if you can’t make it by 6 pm, that will be ok as the discussion of this matter probably won’t start until close to 6:30 pm (or possibly even later if the Council does not move this priority item to early in the agenda).

Also, participation by Zoom is an option. You can find the link that explains how to access the meeting here: https://granicus_production_attachments.s3.amazonaws.com/benicia/5f807fdd4c4cce692977198f6f31acd30.pdf. 

Thanks very much for considering all this and for any support you can show for making Benicia safer and healthier for our kids, our older adults and all of us.

See www.bisho.org for more information.