From a cliff overlooking the Port of Benicia, Cole Burchiel pumped his fists in the air. It was a silent, solitary celebration – born not of happiness, but of vindication.
As a field investigator at the San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, Burchiel had been conducting one of his regular patrols of the bay. As he maneuvered his drone around the port, black plumes towered from the ship beneath it. And as he hit record, the drone – affectionately named Osprey – captured what for months had been impossible to prove.
Petroleum coke, a refinery byproduct that can damage the heart and lungs, was being mishandled at the Port of Benicia.
“It’s heartbreaking to see this happening to the environment,” Burchiel said. “But it was exciting because finally – after all this time – we have enough to do something about it.”
Five months later, in March of 2022, Baykeeper officially filed a lawsuit in federal court against Amports, which owns the Port of Benicia, and Valero, which produces the petroleum coke itself. According to Baykeeper, the incident Burchiel caught on camera was just one of many documented by the organization between November 2020 and March 2021.
Valero declined to comment on the suit, while Amports did not return requests to do so.
“We have a solid case lined up and some of the best lawyers I’ve ever met, so I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to deliver justice to this community,” said Burchiel. “The wheels are now in motion and the train can no longer be stopped.”
Baykeeper hopes the lawsuit will lead to increased regulation not just in Benicia, but across the East Bay, where many think decades of contamination – and the presence of five oil refineries – have led to increased asthma, respiratory disease, and other illnesses.
Elusive East Bay pollutants
The first call to Baykeeper’s hotline came from a longshoreman at the Port of Benicia in 2016. Black dust was billowing everywhere, the caller said, along with a thick, black substance that was seeping into the Carquinez Strait.
On land, many Benicia residents were noticing something similar. Pat Toth Smith, for example, said that those living near the Valero Benicia Refinery would wake up with a layer of powder on their cars. Constance Beutel, another Benicia resident, described seeing black dust, suspended and shimmering, in sun-lit air.
Baykeeper speculated that the black dust was petroleum coke, a bottom-of-the-barrel byproduct packed with heavy metals. Petroleum coke resembles coal, but is much dirtier – and when burned, it emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide.
At first, the Baykeeper team tried to locate the source of the petroleum coke on its small, blue-and-white speedboat. They knew that most of the petroleum coke produced in the area came from the Valero Benicia Refinery, which shipped the material to Asia via the Port of Benicia. In their boat, Baykeeper skippers and field investigators circled the strait, but were ultimately unable to detect evidence of contamination from the water.
Years later, Baykeeper was able to see the port – and spot the evasive pollution – from a new angle: the sky.
“The most significant pollution was an aerial plume of black smoke nearly 500 feet tall,” Burchiel said.
Over the last decade alone, 277 toxic spills in Benicia were reported to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), with 75 spills reported by the Valero Benicia Refinery itself. As part of their investigation into Amports and Valero, Baykeeper also found significantly high levels of zinc, nickel, mercury, copper, and arsenic in dredging material taken from the bay in 2010, 2013, and 2016, materials that point to consistent petroleum coke contamination, the organization said.
These findings occurred amid a regular barrage of pollution, smoke, and contaminants already drifting across the East Bay, which – even if reported – were usually invisible to those breathing them in.
Can’t see it, can’t prove it
While Baykeeper was looking into Valero, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District) was doing the same – albeit, from a different lens.
After an investigation into the refinery in late 2018, the Air District found that Valero was producing toxic emissions, including cancer-causing agents like benzene, that were hundreds of times higher than permitted. The Air District mandates that refineries produce less than 15 pounds of “precursor organic compounds,” or hazardous air pollutants, per day. But over the three years of their investigation, the Air District found that Valero was producing 5,200.
According to the Air District, Valero had been aware of these elevated levels since 2003.
“This wasn’t just a little bit over the legal limit,” said Kathy Kerridge, director of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee, an organization focused on environmental issues in Benicia. “This was like somebody driving 400 miles per hour in a five mile per hour speed zone.”
Though the Air District made these findings – and issued a notice of violation to Valero – in 2019, the agency did not notify the public until earlier this year, when it announced the imposition of an abatement order against the refinery.
Benicia Mayor Steve Young said he met with the general manager of the Valero Refinery nearly every month since he took office. Nothing about the investigation or the violation was ever revealed to him, either by Valero or the Air District, Young said.
“The fact that none of this was mentioned to me during any of these meetings is dispiriting,” said Mayor Young. “This was first discovered in 2003, but the Air District didn’t find out about it until 2018. Once they started to address it, they still didn’t let the city know. We are frustrated that something like this could go on – undetected and unreported – for this long.”
At a community meeting in February, Benicia residents repeatedly asked representatives how such pollution could have been concealed at Valero, and why the public was not notified until three years after the Air District began their investigation. According to the Air District, this information was kept from the public to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. Before releasing its findings, the Air District was working with Valero to develop a solution to the exceedance – one that ultimately reduced emissions, but not enough to comply with existing regulations.
"We could have done better, and we should have done better sooner,” said Damian Breen, the Senior Deputy Executive Officer at the Air District, at the community meeting.
In mid-March, the Air District approved an abatement order for Valero that requires the refinery to halt unreported emissions.
Even before these emissions were publicized, Valero was already the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter in the Bay Area, producing an estimated total of 2,186,096 metric tons of CO2 per year.
Valero was surpassed only by other oil producers, including the Shell Martinez, Chevron Richmond, and Tesoro refineries – the latter of which is now idled.
Life in a refinery corridor
According to Andres Soto, Benicia resident and environmental activist, the battle for transparency and accountability is nothing new to his community – one that is at the tail end of the Bay Area’s refinery corridor.
After living in Richmond and Benicia, Soto has seen similar things in both refinery towns, including a lack of trust with the Air District, a lack of trust with the refineries, and the impact those factors have on community members. Soto’s grandson, for example, plays on the local baseball team sponsored by Valero. He also has severe asthma, a condition which can be linked to the inhalation of refinery-produced materials.
Kerridge has also seen such illness firsthand. Two of her neighbors have died of lung cancer, and in the past two years, two of her friends’ husbands. She has had breast cancer. None of them were smokers.
“It’s very difficult to say this is caused by excess pollution, you can’t really pin it on that,” Kerridge said. “But I don’t know how typical it is to have that many people die of lung cancer in your neighborhood.”
Though it can be difficult to link pollution with health effects, Benicia’s toxic release score – used to enumerate exposure to chemical emissions from large facilities – is higher than 83 percent of the state, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. A 2016 report also showed that Solano County has rates of asthma and some cancers that are higher than the state average.
With three other refineries operating across the East Bay, communities like Richmond, Martinez, and Vallejo share Benicia’s health risks – and in some cases, face additional challenges. Richmond, for example, is home to Chevron, the largest refinery in the East Bay. In the neighborhood surrounding Richmond’s Levin Terminal, which handles coal and petroleum coke, asthma rates are higher than 99% of all neighborhoods in California, according to CalEnviroScreen.
Eduardo Martinez, a Richmond city councilmember and retired elementary school teacher, is intimately aware of such health effects. When he first moved to Richmond, he couldn’t understand why so many of his students were refusing to participate in their physical education classes.
“When I kept trying to push them, I got complaints from parents saying, I don’t know whether my son’s told you, but he has asthma,” said Martinez. “I started doing an inventory of my students, and I found out that over half my students had asthma.”
Realizing the extent of the issue, Martinez created an alternate physical education curriculum for those suffering from asthma, thereby creating an “asthma club” for children who couldn’t previously participate in gym classes.
It's something that is not lost on the refineries, including Chevron in Richmond. In response to a request for comment, Chevron pointed to its efforts to reduce emissions, increase refinery safety, and monitor air quality. It also highlighted its own community air monitoring program, which has been in operation since 2014. The full comment can be accessed here.
“Chevron has a long-standing commitment to reduce emissions at our Richmond facility,” said the refinery in an email. “Our recent major investment in a Modernization Project is a great example of efforts taken to improve energy efficiency, reduce air emissions overall, cap greenhouse gas emissions, and increase the safety and reliability of the refinery. This project enabled the refinery to achieve more than 25 percent reduction of particulate matter emissions refinery-wide.”
Still, many activists say such efforts are not enough.
“This is a huge issue: that you can have oil extraction and facilities around sensitive receptors – kids, older people, even you and me,” said Janet Scoll Johnson, Coordinator of the Sunflower Alliance, a Bay Area environmental group. “This is the fight in the East Bay. It’s an environmental justice issue of the highest order.”
Pushing forward, on land and at sea
Despite these challenges, organizations across the East Bay are continuing to push forward on land and at sea. From 1989 to today, Baykeeper has won over 300 lawsuits against polluters – and both the organization and Benicia residents are hopeful that their latest suit against Valero will lead to decreased pollution.
“We hope to work with the defendants to resolve this case quickly and in a way that protects the health of the bay and the local community,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, the executive director of Baykeeper, in an email.
In the meantime, community members are remaining hopeful. Kerridge and a team of activists recently unveiled the Benicia Community Air Monitoring Program, a system that scans for benzene, black carbon, and other pollutants right outside Valero’s gates. Martinez is running for mayor, with a foundational pillar of his campaign centered around a transition from fossil fuels. And Soto, though recently retired, is continuing to work with those in the ecosystem to hold institutions – both private and public – accountable.
“My hope comes from the fact that we have been able to organize, pull people together, and create networks all around the Bay Area addressing this,” said Soto. “The industry is going kicking and screaming, resisting these changes – but that’s nothing new. We expect that.”