An independent hearing board with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has approved an abatement order for the Valero Refining Company to cease unreported emissions at its Benicia refinery effective immediately, the oversight agency announced.

Valero is ordered to “design, engineer, permit and construct a project to stop the excess emissions,” the air district said this past Tuesday. Valero is also required to minimize emissions during normal operations, pending completion of the project.

The independent hearing was in response to earlier revelations that Valero had been releasing excessive levels of hazardous chemicals for nearly 16 years before the air district said it became aware of them.

According to the air district, Valero had been releasing benzene, ethylbenzene and other organic compounds considered hazardous. District rules set a cap on such emissions at 15 pounds per day and a maximum of 300 parts per million. Valero had been emitting an average of 5,200 pounds per day and 19,148 parts per million over a series of years.

During a presentation with the Benicia City Council after the findings, Joshua Tulino, general manager of the Benicia refinery, told the council and community that they too were unaware of the emissions until 2018 and “immediately” administered piping modifications that solved 71 percent of the hydrocarbon emission issues. He also said that since then, Valero has reduced them by 98 percent.

Tulino maintained that informing the community about dangerous emissions is an “obligation” they take seriously but that “this source of emissions did not fall into that category.”

The air district says that ending excess emissions at the Valero refinery will “protect the health and safety of those in the surrounding community.”

“The air district will now focus on assessing penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the violation and that will act as a deterrent against similar violations in the future,” the district said.

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.