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Report Highlights Prop. 23 Backers' Pollution History

Steam rises over the Valero Benicia refinery early Saturday morning, May 22, 2010.
Steam rises over the Valero Benicia refinery early Saturday morning, May 22, 2010.
Opponents of the measure to suspend the state's climate change bill hit Valero, Tesoro violations

Opponents of Proposition 23 released a report on Wednesday detailing safety violations at Valero’s and Tesoro’s refineries in California. The two Texas-based companies, which operate refineries in the Bay Area in Benicia and Martinez, are the largest financial backers of Prop. 23, the ballot initiative that would suspend AB 32, the state’s landmark global warming law.

The report, entitled “Off the Charts: How Tesoro and Valero Routinely Violate California’s Health and Safety Laws,” was issued by the No on 23 campaign and is based on documents obtained from state Air Quality Management districts through public record requests. The districts regulate the refineries.

“These powerful documents, which have previously not been made public, go to a matter of public trust when it comes to motives of the two Texas oil companies funding the initiative,” said Tom Steyer, chair of No on 23, in an e-mailed statement. “The documents make clear that Tesoro and Valero have repeatedly violated California's health and safety protections, exposed our people to harmful toxins and put our communities in harm's way.”

Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund manager, has personally given $2.5 million to the campaign to defeat the initiative. (Investor and philanthropist Warren Hellman, who is a major funder of The Bay Citizen and chairman of its board, has donated $75,000 to No on 23.)

The new report represents an intensification of the strategy by opponents of Prop. 23 to train public attention on the out-of-state oil interests that are spending millions in an attempt to stall California’s global warming law.

Prop. 23 would suspend AB 32 until unemployment in California reaches 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. In August, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the California Environmental Justice Alliance released a report entitled, “The Toxic Twins,” about Valero’s and Tesoro’s pollution records.

The new report charges that the two companies have allowed “serious leaks of toxic substances and prolific violations of health and environmental safety rules.” Emissions, such as hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs, and nitrogen oxides, a contributor to smog, can harm human health.

Representatives from Valero and Tesoro responding to the report accused the No on 23 campaign of diverting attention away from the substance of Prop. 23. Lynn Westfall, a spokesman for Tesoro wrote in an e-mail: “The allegations from the opponents of our support for Proposition 23 are misleading and false interpretations of our environmental record. We are disappointed that this group has resorted to the defense of the desperate…attacking the messenger instead of the message. The citizens of California should decide the fate of Proposition 23 on the basis of facts about the initiative.”

Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero, said: “Proposition of 23 would delay the implementation of AB 32, which does not have anything to do with any of these emissions. Proposition 23 only applies to the greenhouse gas regulation AB 32. It has nothing to do with these emissions, California air quality standards, smog.”

AB 32 requires the state to develop regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. While the law concerns greenhouse gas emissions, left unchecked global warming will harm overall air quality, according to Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior policy director for the American Lung Association in California, which opposes Prop. 23. “Increased temperatures increase formation of ozone in the atmosphere,” she said. “Smog or ozone is generated in the air, from specific pollutants. Nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons have to cook in the air. Hotter temperatures generate more ozone.”

The report accuses the Valero Benicia refinery of “more than 120 violation notices since the start of 2007,” based on data from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Day said that the company had 109 notices of violations in that period from the district. “Of those, we have settled 23 with the district, and we’re working on settling the remainder now.” He downplayed the seriousness of the violations, stating, “Fewer than 10 percent of them were for events that had an impact on the community. The vast majority of them were for small-term leaks or administrative requirements.”

One violation document from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, provided by the No on 23 campaign, which was reviewed by The Bay Citizen, showed that in March 2007 the Benicia refinery had failed to replace a filter that removes certain toxic chemicals from the refinery’s emissions. The report characterized it as a cost-cutting move.

Day, the Valero spokesman, disputes that interpretation of that violation. “That is not what happened,” he said, stating instead the filter filled up earlier than expected. “It wasn’t because of any system where we were skipping the change outs or trying to cut costs.”

The report states that Tesoro’s Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez has received more than 200 violation notices since 2006. Among them was a 2007 incident in which employees told inspectors that they could not find the source of the leak of the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide, according to documents from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, reviewed by The Bay Citizen and provided by No on 23.

Tesoro's Westfall refused to respond to the specifics of the allegations in the report, but said in an e-mail message: “Tesoro operates all of its refineries, including our two California facilities, with the highest regard for safety and environmental stewardship.

In Benicia, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson echoed concerns about the Valero refinery’s safety record. “We may not know the individual violations, but we know the cumulative effects of those violations,” said Patterson, reacting to the report. “Benicia has the fourth worst air quality in the Bay Area.”

The city is located downwind from bridge traffic, marine traffic and local refineries, Paterson explained. “While the air pollution is cooking it moves over into our area,” she said. “Valero is part of the soup.”

On Tuesday night, the Benicia City Council voted 3-2 against adopting a resolution brought by the city’s Community Sustainability Commission opposing Proposition 23. “The council considered the resolution and the majority decided that they shouldn’t be taking action on a statewide ballot initiative,” said Patterson, who was one of two voting in favor of the resolution.

Among those speaking at the meeting against the resolution were representatives from Valero. “The implication is that if you take action against Prop. 23, you’re taking action against the economic engine of the city,” she said. 

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