VIDEO: Flaring at Valero Refinery prompts evacuations in Benicia

BENICIA (KRON) — Flaring at the Valero Refinery in Benicia had prompted evacuations Friday morning.

The refinery experienced a power outage at around 6:30 a.m. that resulted in flaring and the release of huge plumes of smoke.

Police have advised anyone downwind of the facility to evacuate the area. The Benicia Industrial Park has been evacuated.

By 8:30 a.m., police had advised residents in Benicia to shelter in place, close their windows and bring pets inside.

But that order has since been lifted. Air quality monitors gave the all-clear following flaring at the Valero Refinery.

At 5:30 p.m., the people were allowed to return to the Benicia Industrial Business Park. Additionally, Interstate Highway 680 off-ramps have been reopened, city officials said.

“I thank City staff, our residents and business community, and Benicia Unified School District for their quick response to this incident,” Benicia’s City Manager Lorie Tinfow said in a statement.

A Valero official told KRON4 that when there is no power, the stacks flare to safely release heat. There was no power for about 18 minutes.

Authorities say the power has been restored at the refinery but it unknown when the flaring will end.

The Benicia Unified School district has sent out an emergency notification due to the flaring.

Robert Semple and Matthew Turner elementary schools were under a shelter in place.

Evacuees may go to the Benicia Community Center at 370 East L Street. Entrances into the Industrial Park have been closed including off-ramps from I-680.

Highway 680 was closed in both directions near Lake Herman Road. The highway has since reopened. Expect southbound residual delays.

A KRON4 Viewer who works in the Benicia Industrial Park said they received an evacuation order by text at 7:47 a.m.: “Due to an incident at the Valero Benicia Refinery – An evacuation of the Industrial Park downwind (northeast of the refinery). More information to follow.”

Another viewer told KRON4 that “the smell is horrible.”

Residents in the area are seeing a thick cloud of black smoke coming from the refinery.

A man who has lived in Benicia for 20 years but has never seen flames that large at the refinery.

Fortunately, strong winds are blowing the smoke east, away from the rest of the Bay Area. The winds are helping to dissipate the thick black plumes.

Officials handling the emergency in Benicia said that residents are not in danger. However, residents say the air pollution concerns them.

PG&E crews are still investigating the cause of the outage but it appears to have happened during routine switching of an electrical transmission system, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

“We do have a cogeneration (power) plant, but it’s not sufficient to supply 100 percent of the power to the refinery,” said Don Cuffel, the refinery’s director of health, safety, environmental, community and government affairs at a news conference on Friday.

Cuffel said Valero is still waiting to hear from PG&E about what caused the power outage.

The shelter-in-place order was lifted at about 1:20 p.m. but the evacuation order is still in effect for the industrial park, according to city officials.

The Benicia Unified School District told parents Friday morning that if they chose to keep their children at home, they wouldn’t be marked absent.

Crews with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District are at the refinery monitoring the flaring, according to district spokesman Tom Flannigan.

“When this happens the refineries are required to notify the air district, which they did, then they are required to monitor the volume and combustion of gases that are burned in the flares,” Flannigan said. “They are accountable for what they’re flaring.”

The flaring, which produces dramatic flames and black smoke from large smokestacks inside the refinery, is a safety measure designed to burn off pollutants during an incident like a power failure at the facility, Flannigan said.

“It doesn’t happen that often, but we understand that for the people in Benicia that when it happens, it’s alarming,” Flannigan said.

The winds in the area Friday morning were blowing at about 21 miles per hour from roughly west to east and “there is no reason to believe that residents outside of Benicia are in danger,” Benicia police said in a written statement.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on hand with air monitors at the schools and the industrial park and is working with state, local and regional officials in order to monitor and assess the situation, according to Steve Calanog, an on-scene coordinator with the U.S. EPA.

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PG&E crews are still investigating the cause of the outage but it appears to have happened during routine switching of an electrical transmission system, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

“We do have a cogeneration (power) plant, but it’s not sufficient to supply 100 percent of the power to the refinery,” said Don Cuffel, the refinery’s director of health, safety, environmental, community and government affairs at a news conference Friday.

PG&E has issued the following statement:

“The health and safety of our customers and the general public is PG&E’s top priority.  As crews were preparing to perform planned upgrades on PG&E’s electric transmission system on Friday, May 5, the Valero refinery in Benicia, Calif., lost power at 6:40 a.m.  As crews worked safely and quickly as possible to restore power by 6:58 a.m. Friday, they identified and isolated the equipment that caused the disruption.  Crews continue to make necessary repairs. That repair process is ongoing and will continue through the night.  PG&E crews continue to work in close coordination with Valero on site, and stay in communication with city of Benicia officials. PG&E is also partnering with Valero and the city of Benicia to prevent similar power disruptions and strengthen reliability.”

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