The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a $1.2 million settlement with Valero to resolve violations of the Clean Air Act at the oil giant’s Benicia refinery.

The EPA inspected the Valero refinery in Benicia following significant chemical incidents there in 2017 and 2019 and found several areas of non-compliance, the agency said.

The EPA found that Valero failed to immediately report releases of hazardous substances, and failed to update certain process safety information, adequately analyze certain process hazards, and develop and implement certain written operating procedures.

A spokesperson for Valero in Benicia did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

Under the terms of the $1,224,550 settlement, Valero agreed to make significant chemical safety improvements at its Benicia refinery, the EPA said.

Valero agreed to update and modify process hazard analyses, operating procedures, reporting policies and employee training. Valero must also modify several pressure-relief valves and process hazard analyses to consider power losses at the facility. These improvements will continue through June 2025, the EPA said.

“Failure to properly manage hazardous materials can pose serious risks to our California communities,” Martha Guzman, regional administrator of EPA Region 9, said in a statement. “This settlement will help protect Valero workers, the Benicia community, and the environment more broadly.”

Fined for deadly accident

Luis Gutierrez, a 35-year-old worker at the Benicia refinery, died in 2021 after losing consciousness due to an argon leak inside the space in which he was working. Gutierrez had descended via a safety harness into a regenerator overflow well to evaluate the condition of its interior and prep it for a welding project.

Authorities determined that argon escaping from a welding torch that had been left in the well overtook Gutierrez’s oxygen in the confined space, suffocating him.

Valero was cited and fined $528,000 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) for failing to follow confined space guidelines and failing to determine acceptable entry conditions for Gutierrez, which exposed him to the oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

In March 2022, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) settled 17 notices of violation with Valero Refining Company stemming from non-compliance with air quality regulations at its Benicia refinery in 2017, to the tune of $345,000.

“Failure to properly manage hazardous materials can pose serious risks to our California communities. This settlement will help protect Valero workers, the Benicia community, and the environment more broadly.”

Martha Guzman, Environmental Protection Agency

The violations included six for excessive visible emissions, three for public nuisances, three for exceeding carbon monoxide limits, one for exceeding sulfur dioxide limits, two for exceeding nitrogen oxide limits, one for oil on a tank roof, and five for late reporting.

Another abatement order given to Valero from BAAQMD regarding a 2019 inspection of its Benicia refinery found nearly 16 years’ worth of unreported, hazardous emissions at the site.

According to the air district’s 2019 inspection, 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.

BAAQMD is still determining what penalties to impose on Valero for the unreported emissions, a spokesperson for the district said.

Katy St. Clair, Bay City News

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.