Category Archives: Stephen Golub

Stephen Golub: This Thanksgiving, Let’s Be Thankful for What We Don’t Have

By Stephen Golub, November 23, 2023, previously published in the Benicia Herald

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

Each Thanksgiving, and whenever I need to remind myself to feel thankful, my mind turns to an interview I conducted in a Southeast Asian refugee camp decades ago…

Back in 1985, fresh out of law school, I was dispatched by a U.S. human rights group to document and write a report about a torrent of abuses against 370,000 Cambodians who had escaped across the border of their war-torn homeland to find precarious shelter in refugee camps in Thailand. Most had languished there since fleeing the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

The savagery threatening the refugees took appalling forms: unspeakable brutality by Thai soldiers assigned to protect them, by rampaging gangs of Cambodian bandits and by Cambodian resistance militias battling the Vietnamese occupation, ostensibly on their behalf; deadly shelling of the camps by Vietnamese artillery based just a few miles away, in Cambodia; and brutal repression in the few camps controlled by the remnants of the fanatical Khmer Rouge regime, which had once ruled their country in a reign of terror. 

Every day for over two weeks, I spent dawn to dusk interviewing as many victims as my (non-refugee) Cambodian interpreter/guide could find. At the end of the trip, in Bangkok, I met with a Thai general who dismissed his troops’ cruelty with the glib observation that “boys will be boys.”

That chat was a doozy. But an interview with a particular refugee stood out far more. The memory has both haunted and moved me over the years…

Darkness was descending on the largest refugee camp, Nong Samet, when a furious, feisty, elderly woman rushed up to my interpreter and me. She’d heard that we were seeking victims to interview. We met with her and her 15-year-old granddaughter in a bamboo hut. The first thing that caught my eye was the circular scar, a healed bullet wound, spanning the girl’s wrist.

Getting shot was not the most recent attack that she had suffered, however. Just a month before my visit, a Thai soldier had viciously assaulted the girl, apparently as punishment for her sneaking to a banned edge of the camp to get water. She described the crime through a sea of tears. The crippled wrist, crushed spirit and brutalized body seemed to encapsulate the terrors visited upon her people. 

Many months later, colleagues and press coverage informed me that my resulting report, along with other types of pressure, helped spark Thai government action to better protect the refugees. But the abuses did not come to an absolute end until 1993, when a peace treaty finally led to the Vietnamese army’s withdrawal from Cambodia, the camps’ closure and the refugees’ repatriation.

Why in the world am I recounting this story, from so long ago, on the cusp of Thursday’s happy holiday? 

Each Thanksgiving, we break bread with friends and family. We toast with those loved ones. We’re thankful for what we have, as well we should be. 

But we might also pause to be thankful for what we don’t have. 

By and large, in America and other privileged nations, we don’t have our lives filled by wars, starvation, devastation and repression that plague many parts of the globe. Most of us don’t have the hunger and poverty that mar the lives of millions of fellow Americans.

While giving thanks, perhaps we can pledge to take whatever small steps we can toward the cures for such ills, at home or abroad.

My point here, however, is not just about suffering. It’s also about the incredible human spirit, strength and courage that enable people to survive horrific situations and to help each other despite the dangers and deprivation they face.

I have no idea what became of the specific refugees I interviewed in Nong Samet and the other camps back in 1985. But I do know that the remarkable resilience of the Cambodians there enabled most of them to endure, so as to eventually return home safely or resettle here in America. 

With all of this in mind, this Thursday, I’ll reflect on a post-it note I wrote years ago. I still have it stuck to the corner of my laptop screen. 

I glance at the note almost every day. I particularly value it when I’m feeling less than thankful and need a reminder about my own blessed lot in life. 

The note reads, “The Girl at Nong Samet.”

So here’s a toast to whatever you do to remain thankful throughout the year. And Happy Thanksgiving. 


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

November 3 Deadline for the Survey That Will Help You Shape Benicia’s Future

Benicia’s Capitol State Historic Park. | Uncredited image.

By Stephen Golub, posted in the Benicia Herald on October 29, 2023

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land

If you go to, or simply search for “Benicia Strategic Plan,” you’ll find a short but important online survey that the City has commissioned to help set priorities for years to come. The survey is one stage in a strategic planning process, stretching into early next year, by which we can all weigh in on where Benicia goes from here in terms of building on our strengths and tackling our challenges.

An online meeting this past Tuesday, attended by about 80 Benicians, provided a chance to discuss the planning process. We’ll have several more opportunities in the months to come. Watch for emails from and other announcements by City Manager Mario Guiliani for updates and future forums. The survey is a key component of this initiative.

But be aware:

The deadline for survey responses is November 3.

(Given the amount of time it can take for word about something like this to percolate, I’d suggest that the deadline should be extended. But let’s assume it’s set at November 3.)

The exercise takes maybe five or ten minutes to complete. It’s well worth the slight but interesting effort involved.

In taking the survey, I found myself wanting to endorse all fifteen potential answers for the “What are the things that make our community a great place to live?” question. We can only select up to five, however.

Nonetheless, there’s an opportunity to go beyond that list, under the “Other” option. I discussed the City’s waterfront setting as a significant asset that sets us apart from so many other communities.

Conversely, I wanted some more specificity regarding potential answers to the survey’s “What do you think are the top opportunities for improvement that the City of Benicia should focus on?” question. But thankfully, again, there is an “Other” option by which you can add and explain your own preferred answer(s).

Two things came to mind regarding that “Other” option:

First, I realize that we rely on Valero to some degree for jobs and other benefits, I appreciate the many fine Benicians who are its employees or retirees, and I respect the perspectives of our fellow community members who fully support it. But…

A truck drives into the Valero refinery in Benicia in July. | Rich Pedroncelli / AP.

There’s a major need to better address the massive, hazardous, longstanding air pollution violations Valero has committed, and which it didn’t tell us about for many years, while our kids, older adults and many other citizens possibly suffered health effects from potentially toxic emissions hundreds of times government limits. There are too many incidents and ongoing issues to detail here. But I’ll note that two examples of such repeated violations – at least one stretching back well over a decade – only came to light in 2022 and 2023.

Moreover, there’s nothing about Valero’s positive contributions that make them mutually exclusive with it being a better, safer neighbor. It’s the only refinery in the Bay Area that operates without a city or county ordinance geared to protecting citizen health and safety. The Texas-based corporation could do much better in partnering with the City, making its refinery here a less hazardous operation and sharing information vital to our safety and health.

The second thing that the survey brought to mind – even without specifically offering this as a potential answer – is that Benicia has the opportunity to diversify and strengthen its economy by taking advantage of potential private sector, federal and state funding to encourage manufacturing, servicing or otherwise profiting regarding wind, solar and other emerging technologies. Such initiatives would be great for local jobs and businesses, as well as our overall economic growth and health.

In a related vein, and even as we’re wary of the hazards the Valero refinery imposes or grateful for the economic benefits it brings, the facility won’t be here forever – or conceivably could be sold or altered in ways that make the need for alternative economic opportunities much more urgent. The strategic planning process, including the survey, gives us a chance to start considering such alternatives.

But those are just my quick reactions. And to be clear, the survey is about far more than such specific concerns, as it touches on parks, infrastructure, community engagement, arts and culture, festivals, policing, fire protection and a host of other matters.

So what are your thoughts? If you want to weigh in, the survey provides a great chance to offer your own goals and concerns. Yet another of its questions asks us to rank priorities; it’s a pretty thought-provoking exercise to engage in.

And again, it only takes five to ten minutes, at most.

And again, the deadline is November 3. Check it out!

Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land:  Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.

To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.


Stephen Golub: Despite the Hamas Horrors, Glimmers of Light Beyond the Unbearable Darkness

Hamas must go. So must Netanyahu.

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land.

By Stephen Golub, October 15, 2023

Amidst all the thoughts and feelings I had as 9/11 unfolded, the one that hit hardest was utter dismay at how incredibly cruel and savage people can be to each other.

That’s how I feel this week. Over 1,300 Israelis slaughtered – most of them civilians, many of them babies, children or elderly – with over 150 more taken hostage. Given America’s much larger population, this would be the equivalent of 50,000 people murdered here in a single terrorist attack, or seventeen 9/11s.

In the Hours and Days Ahead…

I won’t deeply delve right now into what’s going on and what’s to come as Israel takes the fight to Hamas in Gaza. There will be time enough for reasoned, complex or bitter debates about who’s to blame for that humanitarian calamity.

And, before seeking to see some light in this situation, I won’t deny that matters will most likely get much worse before they even have a chance of getting better.

More specifically: Within hours of my publishing this post, Israeli tanks and troops may be surging through Gaza. Or Lebanon-based Hezbollah, “the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor,” may open up a second front, raining many of its estimated 130,000 rockets down on Israel. Or the mounting violence and Palestinian deaths on the West Bank – 53 since October 7 – could explode into a full-fledged conflict there. Or some Palestinian citizens of Israel proper could rise up. Or the United States, or Iran, or both, could be drawn into the conflict.

Or all of the above.

Hamas Unveiled

Against this backdrop, why in the world speculate about something positive possibly springing from this horrific situation?

Because, despite the intense despair we all feel, we need to think about what happens to Gaza after the havoc ends.

So, even though it’s massively, monstrously outweighed by the October 7 massacre, what good could conceivably come of this? Two things.

First, Hamas has discredited and disgraced itself as a savage terrorist organization that cannot be trusted and must be crippled to the extent possible.

This seems painfully clear today. But up until October 7, and despite its many bouts of combat with and rocket attacks against Israel, certain experts and Israeli officials entertained the notion of a “pragmatic Hamas” that had evolved past its genocidal 1988 Covenant, a document that channels the notoriously fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other antisemitic attacks. These officials included the former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Will Hamas necessarily vanish from the scene in the wake of Israel’s likely onslaught? We’ll see. Its ideology will live on after many of its leaders and members are killed. What’s more, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedmanand other observers wonder whether Israel will walk into a trap if it launches a full-fledged invasion of Gaza. Hamas and its ally Iran may well welcome such an attack, valuing the propaganda victories that could flow from the potentially massive Palestinian and Israeli deaths to which they’re indifferent.

Regardless, it’s crucial to at least and at last clearly see Hamas for what it is. In the words of one Palestinian human rights activist: “The world knows Hamas now as terrorists who have committed depraved atrocities that would even make ISIS blush. But the people of Gaza already knew them…[as] monsters for years.”

Netanyahu’s Demise

Second, the atrocious intelligence, preparedness and response failures by the Netanyahu government – which, to be clear, I’m in no way equating with the Hamas butchery – could well result in his political demise after this war’s deadly dust has settled. As an Israeli former deputy national security adviser puts it, “The only good news is that the magnitude of the debacle will likely hasten the downfall of the criminally negligent and fundamentally illegitimate government in office in Israel today.”

Over the course of his many years dominating the country’s political landscape, starting long before he launched his current assault on Israeli democracy, Netanyahu has inundated the West Bank with settlements that undercut the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority there and sabotage the possibility of Palestinian statehood. He has explicitly vowed to block such statehood; he tolerated and even propped up Hamas in certain respects in pursuit of that goal.

In the interest of his evading justice and jail, last year Netanyahu brought into his government far-right religious zealots who prioritize West Bank domination over human rights, national security and national unity. They include his national security minister, previously convicted of supporting a terrorist organization, incitement to racism and many other charges.

Given that so much blood was spilled barely a week ago, is it too soon to point a finger at Netanyahu and his ilk? The brother of an Israeli soldier killed battling the Hamas invasion does not think so: “The bunch of imbeciles leading the country we live in, the country where my beloved little brother was killed protecting the homeland that forgot us — not because it was inevitable but because this disgraceful government is involved in everything it should not be involved in. My beloved brother was murdered by hate-filled terrorists, but those who disgracefully opened the door for them are the Israeli government, from the minister of national security and his messianic friends — clowns who busy themselves creating violent, idiotic slogans — to the prime minister, who is doing everything in his power to disintegrate the State of Israel.”

Could a peaceful two-state solution emerge in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, which recognizes Israel but is corrupt and ineffective? Quite possibly, though not inevitably. And for at least the near future, that possibility weakens in the wake of massive Israeli and Palestinian trauma. But until Netanyahu and his messianic allies lose control of the government, we may never know.

No Equivalence. But Both Must Go.

Let me again be clear: Like that slain soldier’s brother, I’m not equating the Hamas mass murder with the Netanyahu government’s conduct and policies, as execrable as they are. Hamas shows how horrifically low humanity can go.

Moreover, I’ll readily admit that in these unbearably dark days, the possible glimmers of light I’m pointing to lie way beyond the horizon, if they’re there at all.

But after the death and destruction are done or at least diminish, we must seek whatever good, whatever solutions, can emerge from the ashes.

We don’t have any alternative.

. . .

In the name of love, I’ll share a couple of post-October 7 U2 concert videos honoring the October 7 victims. If you’re able to access the first, you may need to go to your downloads to actually view the clip, along with the tear-inducing message and photos associated with it. The second lacks that additional information. But it is easier to access, and the band’s moving words and music are still worth viewing.

This post was produced by Benicia resident Stephen Golub. Steve blogs about domestic and international politics and policy, including lessons that the United States can learn from other nations, at A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country. If interested, you may sign up for future posts by subscribing to the blog.

Read more from Steve by visiting his blog or clicking any of the links below.