Valero's 2022 Toxic Emissions Scandal

Toxic emissions, explained.

“The Air District is saying that Valero knew or should have known that these emissions should have been reported.” – Damian Breen, Senior Deputy Executive Officer of Operations, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, at Benicia City Council meeting, March 1, 2022.

In early 2022, Valero admitted that from 2000 to 2020 it had released into Benicia’s air approximately 10,000 tons of “Pre-Organic compounds” and 138 tons of “Toxic Air Contaminants,” including carcinogens, without informing Benicians or city officials.

Certain of these emissions were hundreds of times the legal limits.

In fact, Benicia did not learn about any of this until January 24, 2022, when the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the governmental body in charge of protecting our air, issued a press release, “Air District seeks Hearing Board approval to end significant air quality violations at Valero.”

The press release and additional documents detailed how:

  • the violations dated back to at least 2003 and were continuing until the BAAQMD became aware of them in 2019;

  • BAAQMD only informed the Benicia City Council and the public of the violations about three years later, in January of 2022;

  • from 2003 to 2020, the emissions included what the BAAQMD describes as approximately 10,000 tons of “Pre-Organic Compounds” and 138 tons of “Toxic Air Contaminants,” including carcinogens;

  • the emissions massively exceeded legal limits.

As quoted at the outset of this post, the single most straightforward conclusion was offered by BAAQMD official Damian Breen at the March 1 City Council meeting, as part of his presentation to and question-and-answer session with the Council. Here are more extended excerpts from his remarks (emphasis added):

“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 . . . The Air District is saying that that Valero knew or should have known that these emissions should have been reported and they knew or should have known that these emissions should have been minimized.”

In other words, since 2003 Valero knew the incredibly high levels of toxic and other emissions it was spewing into Benicia’s air.

But Valero chose not to inform the BAAQMD, the Mayor, the City Council or Benicians in general.

The March 1 City Council meeting also included a brief presentation from and question-and-answer session with Josh Tulino, Vice President and General Manager of the Valero Benicia Refinery. In addition to providing some background on the matter and summarizing steps that Valero has taken to mitigate the emissions, his remarks included (emphasis added):

As the Air District mentioned, we did have sampling on that stream that went back to the year 2003, but it wasn’t, that we were aware, that the applicability of the regulation applies to that vent . . . With respect to the City of Benicia, I also want to mention that Valero takes its obligations under our cooperation agreement, which was in place since 2019, we take those obligations seriously, and we remain committed to providing notification to the city when there is an immediate or threatened release that could impact the public. This source of emissions did not fall into that category at any time.”

How did Valero not know that a regulation applies to a vent pouring many, many times the legal limits of pollutants into the air? And how do its obligations, under its 2019 agreement with Benicia or simply as a supposedly good neighbor for decades, not include informing Benicia (and the BAAQMD) of the extent of the emissions for over fifteen years?

It must be acknowledged that Valero has taken steps to substantially reduce the emissions since BAAQMD’s 2018-19 investigation compelled action. As of earlier this year, however, the emissions had not yet been brought completely below permitted limits.

In addition, following a March 15 public session to consider selected actions, the BAAQMD reported that its “independent Hearing Board, a quasi-judicial independent body authorized under state law, has approved an abatement order for Valero Refining Co. to cease unreported emissions at its Benicia oil refinery as safely and expeditiously as possible.”

Setting aside the odd wording of this announcement—shouldn’t all “unreported emissions” have already ceased?—the abatement order is an insufficient response to the situation.

Why is that the case? Though fines are being considered by the BAAQMD, neither the District nor Valero have made clear what if any air quality monitoring or other steps they will take or agree to in order to ensure that these kinds of violations and emissions do not happen again – not just from the particular stack that poured so much poison into the air, but from the refinery as a whole. Nor is it clear that Benicia, as opposed to the BAAQMD, will receive any share of negotiated or litigated fines that Valero might pay the District.

All of this brings us to a crucial point: Is Valero pouring massive funds into the City Council elections this year to avoid accountability to the city and its citizens for over fifteen years of unreported, unpermitted, massive emissions that it poured into Benicia’s air?

By getting its favored candidates elected, is it seeking to avoid accountability for future violations?

What does Valero want?