“Who’s Monitoring the Monitors?” Last Night’s City Council ISO Status Report In Review

Valero’s Benicia Refinery, January 25, 2024.. | Galen Kusic.

Who’s monitoring our air monitors? Not Valero, apparently

Opinion by BenIndy’s Editorial Board, March 6, 2024 

Most Benicia residents will agree that when it comes to our health and safety, timely, clear disclosure of dangers to our community’s health is paramount to helping us make good decisions. In the context of keeping our families safe when industrial accidents or violations occur, “good decisions” may include evacuation or sheltering in place at one end of the spectrum, with closing windows, keeping vulnerable seniors and kids indoors, and discussing as a community how we feel about our biggest industrial neighbor, Valero, on the other end.

But the latest on Benicia City Council’s efforts to adopting an Industrial Safety Ordinance serves as a stark reminder of the many challenges and complexities we must face as we seek meaningful community oversight for industrial activity in Benicia.

At last night’s Benicia City Council meeting, Fire Chief Josh Chadwick’s status report on the City’s march to drafting, adopting, and implementing a Benicia Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO or BISHO) was a highlight of the meeting, demonstrating a step in the right direction towards enhanced public safety measures. The Fire Department’s efforts to improve and quickly deliver clear notifications to the public also received well-deserved recognition, with many commending its recent efforts as a significant improvement from past practices.

However, the presentation took a disturbing turn with the revelation that, to the best of our present knowledge, it is unclear who or what is actively monitoring the town’s air monitors and exactly what the process to notify the community is, so we know when we are in danger.

File photo of Valero’s Benicia Refinery. This image does not show the recent accident.  | Pat Toth-Smith.

Complaints triggered investigation into hydrogen sulfide accident, not air monitor spikes

As many of you know, there was an accident at Valero’s Benicia Refinery last weekend that released hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin,  into our air. The spill prompted questions and caused residents to call the Air District, Benicia Fire Department, and even Valero with complaints of a rotten egg smell, ultimately resulting in residents receiving a text alert about the odor through Alert Solano.

Until Valero’s 30-day mandated Investigation Report with a root-cause analysis is released, Benicia leadership as well as residents are in the dark as to the exact cause and impact of the release. But even without this report available, several concerns emerged regarding both this recent accident at the Benicia Refinery and Valero’s response to it during Tuesday’s presentation.

According to Chief Chadwick, monitors detected spikes in hydrogen sulfide levels starting at 4 am on the day of the release, yet there was a delay of at least two hours in notifying the community. This delay suggests a lack of active monitoring.

Furthermore, Chief Chadwick revealed on Tuesday that it was the Fire Department that first made contact with Valero about the odor after staff noticed it on an unrelated call, not the other way around. This indicates that Valero did not proactively inform the Fire Department about either the accident or the community complaints the refinery had apparently received.

While there may be good reasons why refinery staff should investigate the source of an odor before alerting the community, this recent release and Valero’s subsequent response exposes serious flaws in the existing cooperation agreement between Valero and the City – the cooperation agreement that is supposed to serve as the framework for incident response and notification protocols (more on this below).

As we reflect on the discussions and outcomes of the City Council meeting, the question “Who monitors the monitors?” resonates most deeply. It highlights the imperative for a comprehensive system with clearly defined standards and expectations, to ensure that the systems we rely on for our health and safety are not just in place, but are also actively and effectively monitored so timely and clear notification in emergencies can occur.

The path forward must include rectifying this oversight to prevent any lapses that could compromise public safety and our environmental surrounds.

Valero Benicia Refinery’s Community Relations director’s response demonstrates failure to relate to our community

Another disturbing revelation that the Benicia Herald reported on last week emerged when Editor Galen Kusic asked Valero’s Benicia Refinery Director of Community Relations and Government Affairs why the community was finally notified at 7:40 am when H2S was detected as early as 4 or 4:30 am, depending on reports.

In order to answer the question, “I suggest that [Mr. Kusic] review the Public Information Bank website along with that policy which defines the requirements of notifications,” the director responded. The policy the director referred to is Valero’s existing cooperation agreement with Benicia. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Steve Young questioned the delay as well.

Here, BenIndy’s Editorial Board offers two opinions and two speculations. The first opinion of this Board is that this was a wholly unacceptable response. Our first speculation is that this response  exposed that the director was either unprepared or refused to answer Mr. Kusic’s question.

The second opinion is that if this is what Valero considers to be appropriate “community relations,” it is clearer than ever that there is an immediate need for an Benicia ISO that can define, respond to, and deliver on expectations of a safe and healthy community.

Finally, we speculate that Valero will not be a willing partner, let alone a good-faith leader, in the effort to design and provide one.

It is up to our City to lead instead

Vice Mayor Terry Scott and City Council Member Kari Birdseye, who have been at the forefront of advocating for a robust ISO for Benicia despite attacks and opposition, joined Chief Chadwick in acknowledging the community’s interest in oversight. As the three members of Benicia City Council’s ISO Subcommittee, their determination in pushing for common sense safety measures to reduce accidents and improve notifications to our community is a breath of the freshest air.

But while progress is certainly being made in the right direction, the journey towards a more responsive and transparent notification system is ongoing, and may be uphill. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders in this process to remain vigilant, proactive, and collaborative in acknowledging and navigating the challenges that lie ahead, especially if Valero decides to dig in its heels.

This post was updated on March 7 to reflect that, at Tuesday’s meeting, Chief Josh Chadwick indicated that it was the Fire Department that made initial contact with Valero’s Benicia Refinery to report the smell, only to discover that the refinery had already received complaints but had not yet shared this fact with the City. The post was also updated to better clarify the nature of the City’s cooperation agreement with Valero’s Benicia Refinery.

The opinions above represent those of BenIndy’s editors and no other groups or individuals, but we will share that you can follow this conversation by becoming a Supporter of the BISHO Working Group at BISHO.org.

The Benicia Fire Department has a public page regarding incidents at the Valero Benicia Refinery. These are the uploaded documents regarding the February 2024 Valero Refinery Odor Incident:

2024-02-24 Valero Odor Incident Update 3
2024-02-24 Valero Odor Incident Update 2
2024-02-24 Valero Odor Incident Update 1
2024-02-24 Valero Refinery Odor Incident
2024-02-24 City of Benicia 72 Hour Report


The Benicia Fire Department also has a public page with incident notifications, starting in 2019:

Level-1 Notifications

Level-2 Notifications

Level-3 Notifications