, May 23, 2022

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Watchdog alleges routine pollution at Port of Benicia

  •   2 min reads
Watchdog alleges routine pollution at Port of Benicia
An alleged petcoke plume at the Port of Benicia. Photo courtesy San Francisco Baykeeper.

BENICIA – An environmental watchdog has alleged in a letter to the Port of Benicia that it has routinely allowed petroleum pollutants to drain into the Carquinez Strait in violation of federal and state environmental laws.

The letter, sent Wednesday by the Oakland-based environmental nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper, alleges that petroleum coke, or petcoke — a product shipped from the Valero Benicia Refinery — is escaping into the strait from conveyor belts and ships during loading, particularly when equipment is sprayed down or when it rains. The group said it plans to sue in 60 days if the port, owned by Amports Inc., does not remedy the pollution.

As evidence, Baykeeper released photos and videos showing plumes from ships docked at the port that the group says was captured by drones flying over the premises between November 2020 and March 2021. Baykeeper said that it was alerted to the activity through a pollution hotline and alleges that the polluting may have been going on for much longer.

Drone video of alleged petcoke plumes at the Port of Benicia. Video courtesy San Francisco Baykeeper.

“Petcoke from the Amports facility may have been polluting San Francisco Bay and the nearby community for years, and now thanks to tips from the public, Baykeeper was able to catch the polluter red handed,” Baykeeper executive director Sejal Choksi-Chugh said in a statement.

Amports did not return an email or phone message seeking comment about the allegations.

The Port of Benicia is a 645-acre facility on the Carquinez Strait, an 8-mile waterway connecting the Suisun and San Pablo bays. The strait is home to endangered smelt, sturgeon and salmon species, according to Baykeeper.

The alleged pollution could harm those species. Amports has a permit from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to load 2 million tons of petcoke for export per year, but no permit to allow it to discharge into the strait, Baykeeper alleges.

Petcoke is used for fuel, but is also an environmental hazard, and may contain pollutants such as copper, zine, nickel, arsenic, mercury and vanadium that are harmful to fish and birds. In people, petcoke exposure can lead to asthma and heart disease.

After receiving a tip on its pollution hotline, Baykeeper started looking into whether the port was allowing petcoke to escape into the strait. Baykeeper says its investigators observed numerous instances of petcoke being discharged directly into the strait, including photographing black plumes of petcoke drifting away from ships docked at the port.

In fact, Baykeeper alleges that petcoke is released each time it is transported by rail from the Valero refinery. They also allege petcoke enters the strait every time the product is loaded onto a ship and when conveyor-belts, cranes and ships are sprayed down during cleaning and maintenance.

Baykeeper said it would attempt to negotiate a settlement with the port in the next 60 days, requiring the company to come up with a plan to bring its operations into compliance with environmental laws. But if it can’t reach an agreement by then, the group says it will sue the company to enforce the laws.

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