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Valero's Benicia Refinery Spewed Alarming Amount Of Chemicals During Power Outage

BENICIA (KPIX 5) -- There are some alarming new numbers about the air pollution from last month's power outage at the Valero refinery in Benicia.

The outage led to two weeks of flaring, and toxic gas filling the air and a year's worth of sulfur dioxide was released as a result.

On May 5th, the refinery began burning off gas without the usual filters to protect the air and the public was left with few details, until now.

Ed Ruszel, facility manager at Ruszel Woodworks said, "Around 7 a.m., I'm not sure exactly, I was just getting up, I heard the emergency sirens going off and then shortly after, maybe 20 minutes after or something, we got a text alert."

"They did say that there was an incident at Valero and that I think at first it came out it was a voluntary evacuation and then shortly thereafter they said there were actual evacuations at two schools and in the industrial park," said Ruzsel, who works in the Benicia industrial park.

That morning, PG&E had been working on some equipment, and that led to a power outage at the Valero refinery.

With no power, the refinery had to get rid of combustible materials -- which they did by burning them.

"In this case it was just not minor flaring which Valero seemed to indicate was the only issue but it seemed to be much more significant than that," Ruszel said.

We're just learning how much more significant. KQED obtained a copy of a report filed by Valero with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services

Hollin Kretzmann, staff attorney with the Center For Biological Diversity, said, "It shows something pretty concerning, that the Valero refinery is responsible for releasing 74,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air through a two-week period where it flared off this dangerous gas and put nearby communities at risk."

74,000 pounds compared to 15,000 pounds in all of 2015, and 14,000 pounds in all of 2016.

Kretzmann said, "Sulfur dioxide is a fairly harmful chemical that can cause damage to your skin, or irritate your eyes and lungs, can exacerbate or make worse people who are suffer from asthma."

That's not all.

Kretzmann said, 'The refinery released an amount of carbonyl sulfide which can cause damage to your brain and to your lungs over a long period of exposure."

And the public was not made aware.

"This is the first accounting that we've had of just how big a volume we're talking about," Kretzmann said.

The mayor of Benica has called for more transparency from the refinery and next month the city council will consider whether to impose new rules on Valero.

Ed Ruszel says Valero is not a bad company; he would just like more information when accidents happen.

"Valero has been good neighbors, I try to buy Valero gas when I can. In the neighborhood, they are a big, important part of our community, but they also are a big, fairly sophisticated and somewhat dangerous operation."

Valero has not responded to our multiple requests for comment. But a Valero representative did go to a city council meeting and blame PG&E for the incident.

But that doesn't explain why Valero didn't have a backup generator or why they kept the public in the dark about what they were burning into the air for two weeks.

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