Region north of Sacramento sees 200-300 tank cars carrying crude oil on a given day

Repost from The Appeal-Democrat (Sutter & Yuba counties in California)

Tracking trouble: Recent accidents highlight the dangers of transporting flammables on trains – including crude oil through Marysville

June 29, 2014, by David Bitton

It might be scarier to know how much of anything is being hauled through the Yuba-Sutter region via railroad. But it might be for the best to know exactly how much crude oil is going through; and it might help to put it into perspective.

Crude oil has been on the minds of communities with rails running through them since the booming of oil exploration and drilling in North Dakota. There have been a few high-profile accidents involving trains pulling tankers full of the crude oil.

It is now public record that Burlington Northern Santa Fe tank cars carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil pass through Marysville about once a week. The information was released this past week from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Railroad companies sought to to restrict such information to just emergency responders, citing security concerns, but the state, after some time, went ahead and released the information.

The transporting of crude oil from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota has come under greater scrutiny in the past year, with fears over the potential problems with the crude oil that is more volatile and flammable than oil from other regions.

There have been fiery derailments in North Dakota, Virginia, Alabama and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, all involving Bakken crude oil.

The likelihood of a train derailment in Yuba-Sutter isn’t any greater or different than much of the rest of the country, area emergency responders agreed. But that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen — they do. And due to those accidents, state and federal agencies are scrambling to tighten regulations.

Much of the concern comes from the ever-increasing quantity of crude oil entering the state by rail.

Crude oil heading to California refineries via rail has spiked in recent years from 498,000 barrels in 2010 to 6.3 million barrels in 2013, according to the California Energy Commission (a barrel contains 42 gallons of crude oil).

And by 2016, as much as 150 million barrels of crude oil, or 25 percent of total imports, could be coming into the state on rail, according to the California Energy Commission.

Less than 1 percent

Despite the increases, Aaron Hunt, director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific, said crude oil entering California currently accounts for less than 1 percent of its business.

“Though we ship more grain, cement and timber than crude oil, Union Pacific has safely moved crude oil on behalf of our customers for decades,” Hunt said. “Seeking energy independence, U.S. companies have enthusiastically developed crude oil resources and rail has played a role in getting those resources to the right markets.”

Both Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific move commodities through Yuba-Sutter ranging from fruits and vegetables to sulfuric acid, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine and crude oil.

U.P. does not currently move crude oil in California originating from the Bakken region, Hunt said. But the rail company does move crude from other areas through this region.

The quantity is hard to pin down as Union Pacific isn’t releasing figures, but Bill Fuller, chairman of the Region 3 local emergency planning commission, which includes 13 Northern California counties and falls under the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, was told by the Union Pacific that as many as 200-300 tank cars carrying crude oil could be moving through Yuba-Sutter on a given day.

Well-traveled lines

Lt. Aaron Easton, deputy chief of the Marysville Police Department, said the two Union Pacific rail lines that pass through Marysville are well traveled.

“Amtrak’s passenger lines come through twice each day in the pre-dawn hours,” Easton said. “The cargo lines pass numerous times at all hours of the day and night,” he said. “Cargo includes large volumes of fuels, chemicals, and a variety of other potentially hazardous types of cargo.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered the railroad carriers to notify the State Emergency Response Commission when a single train is transporting more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil into their state.

Railroad companies including Union Pacific support more stringent standards for tank cars, which are used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil.

Tank cars are owned or leased by the companies shipping products, not by the railroad companies.

The Association of America of Railroads has standards for tank cars that currently exceed the federal requirements and have been pressing the Department of Transportation to upgrade.

Existing tank cars would need to be retrofitted or phased out, Hunt said.

“The new standard requires a thicker, more puncture-resistant shell, jacket, and thermal protection,” Hunt said. “It also requires extra-protective head shields at both ends of the tank car and additional protection for top fittings.”

Y-S ready in case of emergency

The stories are scary and run the gamut.

In April, a fire erupted after more than a dozen tanker cars carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured.

But last July, 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, were killed when a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and erupted in flames that destroyed part of the downtown area.

Though a derailment and fire of that magnitude isn’t likely in Yuba-Sutter, emergency procedures are in place in case of a train derailment.

The Yuba-Sutter Hazmat Response Team, which was formed in 2012, is made up of six fire agencies — Marysville, Linda, Olivehurst, Wheatland, Yuba City and Sutter County.

Many of its members are hazardous materials technicians or specialists and have received training on rail car emergencies including leaks, spills and derailments.

“The concept was to pool the resources of local hazardous materials response teams for better protection of Yuba and Sutter Counties,” said Sutter County Fire Chief Dan Yager. “A large-scale incident involving any release of known or unknown substances would trigger the activation of this team.”

The six agencies agreed that their immediate course of action would be to determine the scope of the incident, call for mutual aid and help those in need.

“Our mission is to protect life, the environment and property, in that order,” Yager said.

If a large-scale evacuation is necessary, Yuba County Undersheriff Jerry Read said his department and the California Highway Patrol have worked together to create routes based on the scenario.

A unified command structure would be established with fire, law enforcement, county office of emergency services and railroad representatives working together, said Linda Fire Chief Richard Webb.

“Continued training and planning are the mechanisms we will continue to use in an effort to mitigate the risks associated with a derailment,” Webb said. “The projection is for Bakken crude oil shipments by rail to spike up dramatically over the next several years, which would increase the risk of a derailment possibilities.”

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Valero slurps up grant money that was recommended for smaller non-profits; City Council approves

From Benicia Independent reader Judi Sullivan of Benicia
[Editor: Note that the City Council was definitely NOT unanimous in its approval of the money grab by Valero.  Councilmember Schwartzman proposed the deal.  He, along with Councilmembers Hughes and Strawbridge voted in favor; Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell opposed.  - RS]

Letter to the Editor

By Judi Sullivan, 6/27/14

It’s important for us, as citizens, to be aware of what our city staff and council members are doing, as they are the rule makers for our town.  After attending last week’s June 17th   City Council Meeting, I became concerned with how the annual grant proposals introduced by the Community Sustainability Commission were addressed by this governing body.

The Agenda for the evening was to go over the grant proposals that had been submitted to the CSC which then made recommendations for granting seven of the 13 proposals.  They presented the Council with three well-delineated tiers of charted options, noting the ones they felt most qualified to be awarded with the monies available, although stated all that were submitted had their merits.

Financial backing for these yearly distributed grants comes from a large legal settlement made between The Good Neighbor Steering Committee, a small group of volunteers from the Benicia citizenry, and the Valero Refinery.  It was amended in 2010 to include the City of Benicia as a third party in the settlement agreement.   Members from the GNSC initiated the CSC, which is currently an advisory committee to the City Council and as such, was the overseer of the grant funding process.

The CSC’s vision for the purpose of these grants was to create a ripple effect throughout the community by promoting programs that offer alternatives in how to be more individually and community-wise sustainable in line with The City of Benicia’s Climate Action Plan.  Special emphasis was placed on proposals dealing with reducing water/energy/green house gases.  This included projects that would educate the public on these issues. The groups chosen for funding by CSC were typically grassroots non profits and small businesses that met the above criteria, giving top priority to those seeking funding who did not have an adequate source of financial assistance available to bring their worthy proposals to fruition.

One grant stood out from the rest.  It was from Valero.  Their proposal asked for around $857,000 to install a water-reducing boiler unit.  To accept this proposal would have taken the entire amount of money set aside for grants this year.   Although Valero has the right to apply for a grant, one might ponder why Valero, the 4th largest oil company in the US, would be in competition with small grassroots non-profits and smaller businesses for one of these grants?  Especially considering that the monies available for these grants comes from the settlement with Valero.  Apparently, as part of the settlement agreement, they have a right to compete with the other grants presented, yet they are not to be given special privilege for receiving one.   As it turned out, most of the council session was focused on issues surrounding their request, in lieu of most of the other grants, which got little or no floor time.

If Valero’s boiler unit is built, it would cause a major reduction in water usage for the refinery.  That easily fits the water reduction aspect of the grant criteria.  Since the refinery uses fifty percent of our city’s raw water supply, and our city received no water allotment from the state this year, there is a pressing need for all of us to reduce requirements for our city’s water.  For the first time in our history, we are relying upon stored water.

The issue concerning offering Valero a city-funded grant to install a new boiler stems from the fact that Valero has ample funds to complete this desired project on their own.   It has been revealed that making this change to their facility would pay for itself in a year’s time with a million dollar water cost savings to the refinery.  When one contemplates the short and long term benefits to Valero, and consequently, to our city, one is led to wonder why the decision to make this change didn’t happen long before now as part of a cost effective business plan?

As a city, do we want to set a precedent for having our grant funds disproportionately doled out to highly profitable corporations who don’t need our financial assistance to make the needed difference in lieu of giving attention to our other grant proposals which are deemed valuable but are unable to operate without grant approval? Are we missing the point of providing these grants?  Are we dishonoring the intrinsic value of the other grants because they can’t possibly compete with what a large corporation can do?  Is it really necessary to make a “deal” with Valero in order to get our other programs funded?

The proposed “deal” brokered by Councilman Schwartzman with Valero General Manager, John Hill during the session was certainly handled in an unorthodox manner.  Since this situation was written up in the June 19th edition of the “Benicia Herald” about the City Council Meeting, details of that discussion won’t be repeated here, although it might be fair to say it would appear that this “deal” may have been discussed privately by those promoting it prior to the meeting without the full knowledge of others who would normally be part of such negotiations.  One of those excluded parties was GNSC, who was not informed of this plan, nor was their perspective welcomed.   This was highly irregular since they are the originators of the settlement agreement that has provided the funds being debated.  They are still involved, by law, with carrying out all aspects of the settlement along with the city and Valero.

Supposedly, the delayed decisions on approval of grants will be taken up once again at the next City Council Meeting in July.  If you have a vested interest in grants up for approval this year, you might want to pay closer attention to what is happening.

As we know, The City Council has the power of the vote, but we as citizens have the right to voice our opinions on such matters.

Judi Sullivan

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Civil disobedience train protest in Maine: “competing harms defense” fails in court ruling

Repost from The Lewiston-Auburn Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

Judge denies competing harms defense to couple charged in Auburn train protest

Christopher Williams, Lewiston-Auburn |Saturday, June 28, 2014

AUBURN — Two protesters who said they sat on railroad tracks last year in an effort to stop an approaching train carrying dangerous crude oil won’t be allowed to argue at trial that their actions were justified because those actions would have prevented a more serious harm from occurring.

Justice Joyce Wheeler wrote in a nine-page decision this week that Jessie Dowling of Unity and Douglas Bowen Jr. of Porter are barred from using a so-called “competing harms” defense.

The two had argued at a May hearing in Androscoggin County Superior Court that they considered the act of criminal trespass to be of lesser harm than allowing a train hauling explosive cargo to pass through an urban area.

County prosecutors had filed a motion aimed at blocking that defense tactic.

Wheeler wrote that the defendants failed to show the four elements needed to successfully argue that defense at trial.

The defendants had testified that they feared another explosion in Auburn similar to that which occurred at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013. They said they didn’t have time to pursue legal avenues to stop the train from passing through Auburn.

Although they believed that would create a risk of harm to people there, the two defendants were required to show “as fact that such physical harm is imminently threatened,” Wheeler wrote in her court order.

They were unable to show that because “their action was weeks in planning and they had no idea whether the train was even in Maine at the time of their action,” Wheeler wrote.

Bowen had testified that had he “actually believed there was an imminent threat, he would have gone to police and rescue, which he did not do, thereby undermining his claim of an imminent threat,” Wheeler wrote.

Dowling had said in court that she believed there was a high probability that the train would explode that day, but she didn’t call police or rescue, “undermining her concern of catastrophic danger,” Wheeler wrote.

The two defendants “failed to demonstrate that there were no other alternatives” to sitting on the railroad tracks, Wheeler wrote.

The case is expected to be put on the next trial list.

Roughly 70 protesters demonstrated outside the Androscoggin County Courthouse last month before and during the hearing.

Dowling and Bowen were arrested Aug. 28, 2013, by local police when they refused to leave the railroad tracks on which they sat.

With the competing harms defense no longer an option, prosecutors will be tasked at trial with proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants trespassed criminally.

Bowen had testified that he had been told the train was traveling through Auburn on its way to Canada from the Midwest and his group had exhausted all legal means to stop it.

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