Petition to Stop Valero Benicia Crude by Rail tops 1000 signatures

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: To sign the petition, go to http://tinyurl.com/SafeBeniciaPetition.  For more information, go to SafeBenicia.org

Crude-by-rail opposition: 1,000 signatures collected, petitioners seek more support at final farmer’s market

October 29, 2014, by Donna Beth Weilenman

Opponents of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project say they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the refinery’s application and plan to return Thursday to the Benicia Certified Farmers Market in hopes of gathering more names.

Pat Toth-Smith, a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said the organization has been staffing a table at the market since it opened in spring, and members will be doing the same thing Thursday that they have all season long.

“More people are finding out about this issue, and people want more information,” she said.

Toth-Smith said the organization’s petition “is basic.”

She said it asks that the undersigned be counted as opposing the shipment either of sweet Bakken shale crude or sour Canadian tar sands oil by train into Benicia, the Bay Area or communities along rail lines both before and after Benicia.

She said the petition also cites as concerns derailments, fires and explosions associated with increased crude oil rail traffic.

Project supporters have been collecting signatures of their own, too, and have delivered them, 100 or more at a time, during city public meetings. Requests to contribute to this story weren’t answered by press time.

Valero Benicia Refinery applied early in 2013 to extend existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks into its property, in addition to other infrastructure changes, so the refinery could substitute delivery of crude oil by train for the equivalent of oil currently brought in by transoceanic tanker ship.

The refinery has said in statements supported by a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) that bringing the oil by rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area because any emissions released by trains would be more than compensated by reduction in emissions from those ships.

But opponents worry that gases emitted uprail of Benicia wouldn’t have the offsetting benefits, and have cited explosions and fires associated with derailments as more crude is delivered from North American sources by rail.

The city agreed last year with those who said a mitigated negative declaration would be an insufficient environmental document under the California Environmental Quality Act, and ordered the more extensive analysis, the Environmental Impact Report. A draft of that report was issued in June and has been circulated for public evaluation.

The city Planning Commission had three lengthy hearings during which more public comment was accepted, and after the panel extended the deadline for comments California Attorney General Kamala Harris also weighed in, criticizing the DEIR.

Responses to public comments are being written before the city releases the final environmental report for a vote on its certification as well as the refinery’s use permit request.

Despite coverage of several Bay Area marches against crude-by-rail projects, public meetings by proponents and opponents and Benicia’s own hearings on the project, Toth-Smith said at each farmers market day someone has approached members of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community to say they hadn’t heard of the proposal.

However, she said, more residents are noticing both pro and con yard signs.

“People in Benicia are very smart and well-educated, and they know what they want to do,” she said. “Some people are cautious. They peruse everything they can. People take the process seriously, and I’m thrilled. It’s important people explore everything. People love Benicia and want it to stay like it is. That’s the main worry.”

She insisted that objections to the project didn’t mean opponents don’t like Valero.

“It’s about the transportation,” she said. “Valero is a good neighbor.”

Andres Soto, another member of the local organization, agreed that transport by rail is the main concern. But he also said there are problems with the DEIR.

“Some are demanding recirculation (of the document),” he said. “They must see their ship is on the rocks.”

He said the group’s table at the farmers market has been important for reaching out to Benicians, who make up the bulk of the signatures the petition has gathered. He said he sees the petition “as a barometer of sentiment of the Benicia community.”

Soto said his organization is distributing yard signs and keeping a tally of those he said were stolen by project supporters — more than 35 so far.

He noted that the Planning Commission hearings on the DEIR drew so many people that the Council Chamber at City Hall was full, and overflow seating had to be arranged in the building’s outdoor patio, Commission Room and conference rooms.

If 300 show up at one of those meetings, “that’s a lot of people,” he said. But 300 is a tenth of a percent of the city’s nearly 30,000 residents.

Soto said there are some residents “who don’t know; they’re not really plugged in.” That’s one of the reasons his organization will keep up its petition campaign after the farmers market concludes its season. Thursday’s market is the last until spring.

“What’s important to Benicia people is if there is a catastrophic event, who is on the hook for the toxic cleanup?” he said. They also want to know who would be responsible for the economic impact of an explosive derailment, or how it would affect the value of their homes.

High school students also have signed the petition, telling him they’re concerned about global warming and the environmental impact of production of both Bakken and tar sands crude.

He said he objects to those who are trying to use “scare tactics” such as suggesting the refinery might leave if the project isn’t approved, “especially after Attorney General Kamala Harris’s letter” in which she pointed out what she considers deficiencies in the document.

“People who wrote the draft EIR did a shabby, shabby job,” Soto said.

“It’s scandalous.”

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SF Chronicle Editorial, The real crazy train: moving Bakken crude by rail

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

Editorial: The real crazy train: moving Bakken crude by rail

Chronicle Editorial Board, October 26, 2014

GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari likes to deride Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail plan as the Crazy Train, but the loonier rail proposal is the one that would carry explosive Bakken crude 1,000 miles across the country to the Valero refinery in Benicia and other California refiners. Californians must have more assurances of safe rail operation before Valero’s oil-transfer-terminal plans proceed.

The City Council of Benicia, a town of 28,000 on the Carquinez Strait, has debated for months a draft environmental impact report on Valero’s plan to modify its refinery to bring in crude by rail. Oil, mostly from Alaska, currently enters the refinery via pipeline from ships docked at the Port of Benicia. Bakken crude, however, must come by rail because no major pipeline runs to the West Coast from North Dakota where it is extracted from the oil shale.

Community concerns include environmental risks but center on public safety because Bakken oil is more volatile than most other crudes. A derailed tanker train loaded with Bakken crude exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people in Canada and alerting transportation officials and the public to the real hazards of transporting this easily ignited oil. For Benicians, potentially explosive trains are no theoretical debate as two 50-car trains would pass daily through the north end of town.

Nor is it an abstract discussion for the residents of Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis, where trains would roll through downtown daily. Davis Mayor Dan Wolk noted: “This may be technically a city of Benicia decision, but no city is an island in our interconnected region. Our community has real concerns about the potential safety impacts.”

So does California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote Benicia officials earlier this month that “the DEIR fails to provide sufficient information for an adequate analysis of the safety risks from transportation or the air quality impacts from refining the new crude. These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action.” It is unclear whether the state would sue if the city failed to act.

Valero representatives clearly have no interest in expanding the scope of the permitting process to the state. Valero spokesman Bill Day told The Chronicle, “This is really the city of Benicia’s decision.”

Harris also wrote to Benicia that the draft report “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts by impermissibly limiting the scope of the affected environment analyzed to only the 69-mile stretch from Benicia to Roseville.” With so many communities affected, the state should stand firm and Solano County should use its authority over the refinery-expansion permits to persuade Valero to negotiate better public safety protections from the railroads, such as state-of-the-art train-control technology.

What’s really crazy is the federal law that allows pre-emption of municipal and state law when it comes to critical decisions on rail safety. Affected communities deserve a say over what rolls through their towns.

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Information and events on Crude By Rail and Valero's Benicia Refinery