Seeing flames shooting out of the Valero Energy Corp.’s Benicia refinery this week?
Don’t panic — there’s no cause for alarm, officials say.
Rather, the refinery is burning off excess gases prior a two-month overhaul — a “turnaround” in refinery-speak — that is expected to make the Bay Area’s fourth-largest source air polluter a lot more environmentally friendly.
“Unlike an appliance in your home, there’s not a simple off-on switch for the processing units,” Valero spokeswoman Sue Fisher Jones told the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper. “Units may require days to shut down and clear them of fuels before work can begin.”
As part of the overhaul, Valero plans to install a $700 million scrubber that promises to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 55 percent and sulfer dioxide by 95 percent, the newspaper said.
The new scrubber is the highlight of a long-term overhaul of the Benicia refinery, which was purchased by Valero in 2000 when Exxon Corp. was forced to sell the 31-year-old plant and other facilities in California by federal regulators due to antitrust concerns raised by its purchase of Mobil Corp.
The Valero Improvement Project was the subject of a lawsuit in 2003 that Valero settled by agreeing to contribute $14 million to environmental projects and nonprofits in Benicia, the newspaper said.
The refinery on the shore of Suisun Bay is part of Benicia Industrial Park, which was formerly the site of the Benicia Arsenal — the first U.S. military base on the West Coast established in 1849, a year before California became a state.
Thousands of refinery workers from across the county are expected to converge on the Benicia refinery in coming weeks to work on the turnaround.
The influx of workers is expected to be a boon for the local economy, particularly for hotels needed to house the workers.
“It’s a positive and it couldn’t come at a better time for us,” Claire McFadden, a consultant for the Best Western Heritage Inn on East Second Street told the newspaper. “It will be a significant boon to occupancy rates for about four to six weeks.”
McFadden is a member of Benicia’s Economic Development Board.
The Benicia refinery emits more than 2.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, according to figures provided by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the newspaper said.
Only three larger oil refineries in nearby Martinez and Richmond are larger sources of air pollution in the Bay Area, the newspaper said.
The last major overhaul of the Benicia refinery was in 2006, the newspaper said.