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.
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.