Evacuations at an industrial park in Benicia were lifted late Friday afternoon, and city officials announced that the Valero refinery was restarting after a loss of electrical power Friday morning, which resulted in flaring and heavy smoke from refinery chimneys
The flaring forced the evacuation of the Benicia Industrial Park..
Two schools, Robert Semple and Mathew Turner elementary schools, also decided to shelter students in place. Police announced about 1:20 p.m. that, based on EPA monitor testing, the shelter in place for the schools had been lifted.
During a late afternoon news conference, city officials announced that all evacuations and shelter-in-place directives had been lifted, and the Valero refinery was in the process of restarting its operations. Although the city was concluding its emergency operations, officials said the Environmental Protection Agency and Bay Area Air Quality Management District would continue monitoring activities. They advised that flaring might continue overnight and for several days as part of the refinery’s start-up process.
Valero released a statement about the outage:
“At approximately 6:45 a.m. this morning, Valero’s Benicia refinery lost electrical power due to disruption from Pacific Gas & Electric. This resulted in sending product to the flare, an industrial safety device that is normally used to safely dispose of products in a controlled manner during power outages or other situations.”
The oil refiner said that no injuries were reported and that the air was being monitored. Valero was cooperating with the city of Benicia and other agencies to resolve the issue, the refiner said in the statement.
A Benicia Fire Department spokesman said that industrial businesses downwind of the refinery were evacuated.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman Paul Doherty said the utility was working with Exxon and Valero personnel in Benicia. The exact cause of the outage is being investigated.
“We do know that during routine switching of an electric transmission system, power to the Valero facility was impacted at 6:40 a.m.,” Doherty said. “Our crews worked safely and as quickly as possible to restore power by 6:58 a.m.”
In a Friday afternoon news release issued by the city of Benicia and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Wayne Kino, the air district’s director of enforcement, said: “The air district was notified by Valero this morning about the power outage and incident and we immediately sent area inspectors to the facility as part of this multi-agency effort to investigate the situation. The investigation is active and will likely continue for several months to determine the cause.”
The news release described the flares found at all Bay Area refineries as safety devices that burn pollutants that would otherwise be directly released to the atmosphere. Flaring may result from “the start-up and shutdown of units or during accidents or upsets,” the release said.
Dr. Michael Stacey, Solano County’s acting health officer, issued a statement late Friday afternoon saying that the incident involved the release of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide at levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible levels.
By afternoon, he said, the chemicals had started to dissipate and air-quality tests indicated the chemical levels at the time were “extremely low and are not expected to cause any adverse health effects.”
Stacey said during the news conference that area hospitals had not reported any increase in cases of respiratory problems as a result of the incident.