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Air district seeks abatement order for ‘significant excess emissions’ at Valero Benicia refinery


  •   3 min reads
Air district seeks abatement order for ‘significant excess emissions’ at Valero Benicia refinery
The Valero Benicia refinery. Photo: Downtowngal/Wikimedia Commons. Shared under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

BENICIA – The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is seeking a legally binding order  against Valero to correct “significant excess emissions violations” at its refinery in Benicia, the air district announced on Monday.

In a news release, the air district called the action “a major shift in the handling of enforcement cases” against the Valero refinery.

Air district spokesperson Kristine Roselius said the violations had been going on for 16 years before they were discovered in 2019, resulting in more than 8,000 tons of excess emissions that were not reported.

“Valero’s disregard for air quality regulations and public safety in the surrounding community warrants decisive action and significant penalties to deter violations in the future,” air district executive director Jack Broadbent said in a statement. “Valero did not report or control the emissions from this source as required by Air District regulations, state and federal law.”

In a separate news release on Tuesday, city of Benicia officials said they only learned of the alleged air quality violations by Valero when the air district announced its findings.

"We are deeply troubled to learn of Valero’s 2019 actions that led to this order," Benicia Mayor Steve Young said in a statement. "BAAQMD’s announcement makes clear that not adhering to Air District regulations will not be tolerated."

City officials said that the city is working with the air district to set up a community air monitoring station on city-owned property near the refinery.

According to the proposed abatement order, Valero has already agreed to its terms. But by bringing it before the hearing board — a five-member body that adjudicates compliance issues and hears appeals of air district decisions — the air district said it will provide transparency of the evidence and violations and legally bind Valero to comply with the order. The air district said it will also seek unspecified fines from Valero.

The board is expected to hold a hearing on the order at an upcoming meeting that has not yet been scheduled. The air district said it has also contacted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether Valero violated federal law.

The action stems from a violation found at the refinery’s two hydrogen plants in 2019. The units were designed to vent excess hydrogen, but an air district investigation determined that they also vented non-methane hydrocarbons that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, as well as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene compounds, volatile organic compounds regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.

According to the order, after discovering the emissions, the air district issued a notice of violation to Valero. Valero then attempted to fix the problem, and while the air district acknowledged this significantly reduced the emissions, it did not eliminate them.

According to the air district, Valero then agreed to design a new project to bring the refinery into compliance. In the meantime, Valero must continuously monitor emissions from the vents and report its findings to the air district.

The two process units affected were part of the original construction of the refinery in 1968, according to the air district. The refinery has been operated by Valero since 2000.

If Valero does not comply with the terms of the order, the district can seek other unspecified penalties.

Valero did not respond to a request for comment from the Vallejo Sun. In a statement provided to the city of Benicia, Valero spokesperson Paul Adler said, “The Valero Benicia Refinery discovered its hydrogen unit vent had trace contaminants. Valero took immediate steps to address the issue and has been working cooperatively with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to develop a project as part of its long-term corrective action."

Valero typically pays about $200,000 a year to the air district to settle alleged violations at the refinery. Its most recent settlement was for $191,500 for 14 violations in 2017. That did not, however, include an additional 17 notices of violations sent for a May 2017 incident when a power outage sent toxic chemicals – including sulfur dioxide and carbonyl sulfide – into the air, which Valero estimated would cost at least an additional $100,000 to settle.

Valero also drew scrutiny in December, when the refinery released heavy oils that landed on residents’ homes and cars which was difficult to clean.

Refinery manager Josh Tulino said at a Benicia Refinery Community Advisory Panel meeting that the oil was released onto neighbors’ property  after the refinery was offline for more than two months for maintenance. He said there were no air quality concerns during the incident.

Young said that Valero would pay for cleaning any property affected and residents could contact Valero by calling 800-678-9355 and referencing the Valero Benicia Refinery Dec. 11, incident 190143 or by emailing Adler at Valero at Paul.Adler@valero.com.

This story has been updated with comments from Valero spokesperson Paul Adler and the city of Benicia.

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