A recent investigation by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) found that the Valero Benicia refinery in southern Solano County has been emitting hazardous levels of toxic chemicals for years — and residents are now upset that the district didn't tell them sooner.

The BAAQMD only went public last month with its findings about high levels of benzene and other POCs (precursor organic compounds) being pumped into the air by the Valero refinery, even though it had first detected the problem in November 2018, nearly three and a half years ago. The district held a community workshop Thursday to discuss the findings, as KPIX reports, and some residents were livid.

"When accidents happen in Benicia, we are never told about it in a timely matter where we can protect ourselves," said resident Pat Toth Smith, per KPIX. "That doesn’t work for those living next to the refinery that wake up to black powder on all of their cars. Kids are going to school and pets are out there breathing this black stuff that’s accumulating everywhere."

Per KQED, the district's report spells out some alarming numbers about POC emissions — which have been shown to cause elevated levels of cancer in humans.

An air district rule limits the release of such compounds to 15 pounds a day and a maximum concentration of 300 parts per million. The district's investigation found that from December 2015 through December 2018, POC emissions averaged 5,200 pounds a day — nearly 350 times the daily limit. The average POC concentration recorded during the first year of that period was 19,148 parts per million, more than 60 times the level set by the agency.

The BAAQMD first issued a notice of violation to Valero in March 2019, based ont he above.

The mayor of Benicia says that the announcement by the district last month was also the first he'd heard about the investigation, or the toxic chemical levels.

"We should have been notified by the air district when this was first discovered in 2019, and certainly while negotiations with Valero were going on," says Mayor Steve Young, who also sits on the city council, speaking to KQED.

A hazardous materials specialist with the county's Environmental Health Division, Chris Ambrose, also tells KQED that his agency "was never formally notified by [the district] or requested to participate in BAAQMD's emissions investigation."

Solano County Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas, who famously downplayed the workplace dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic to justify keeping offices and businesses open in the early pandemic, tells KQED that he believes most of the toxic chemicals probably blew elsewhere (like Vallejo? the Delta?), but "It doesn't excuse the failure to adhere to standards and it doesn't provide any excuse for the fact that the city of Benicia was put at some risk as a result of these emissions."

Valero only issued a brief statement about the chemicals report, saying, "The Valero Benicia Refinery discovered its hydrogen unit vent had trace contaminants. Valero took immediate steps to address the issue and has been working cooperatively with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District."

Photo: American Public Power Association/Unsplash