Benicia Herald’s biased coverage of Planning Commission hearing

By Roger Straw, Editor, The Benicia Independent, October 1, 2015

Our local print newspaper, the Benicia Herald, has undergone some dramatic changes following the loss of many key staff in early September.  Many readers have been extremely disappointed in the quality of reporting, content, layout and journalistic style.

On the front page of the October 1 edition, headline news above the fold presented a blatantly biased article, “Crowds jam City Hall to give comment on Valero’s Crude by Rail Project.”

  • Quotes:   The article quoted FOUR speakers in favor of crude by rail, and ZERO speakers against crude by rail.  The four quoted were:
    • Dan Broadwater, Business Manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 180
    • Don Cuffel, Manager of the Environmental Department of Valero
    • Joe Bateman, Valero Fire Chief, and
    • Chris Howe, Director of Health, Safety, Environment and Government Affairs, Valero
  • Local support – 16 speakers favored oil trains and the environmental report, while 31 speakers, mostly from Benicia, opposed.  The Herald’s brief report on opposing speakers began with, “Project opponents came from various Bay Area cities and discussed their concerns….”  Somehow (go figure) Valero management’s public accusation at the Hearing that local efforts are the doing of outside organizations appears as the opening line in the Herald’s coverage of opposition speakers.  Of the 31 speakers who opposed the project that night, only 4 were from out of town.  Three of the 16 persons who spoke in favor of the project were top Valero officials, and most of the others were current or past employees.
  • Column inches – news stories are measured by column inches.  This article gave 14.5 inches to pro-oil-train speakers (including quotes) and only 4.5 inches to anti-oil-train speakers.
  • Lack of a byline – there was no attribution as to who wrote the lead news article in the October 1 Benicia Herald.  The large photo was labeled “Courtesy photo.”  If someone OTHER THAN the Herald supplied the photo, is it possible that someone OTHER THAN the Herald attended the meeting and supplied the text?  We are left to wonder who wrote the article, and whether the slant was calculated or simply innocently biased.

Needless to say, I will not be posting this article on the Benicia Independent.  The Benicia Herald’s online presence has gone into hibernation since the staff turnover on September 13, so no link can be provided to this story.  If I find time, I may upload it to some obscure corner for you to verify my observations.

Roger Straw, Editor
The Benicia Independent

NOTE: A blog like The Benicia Independent is permitted and expected to present a strongly held perspective on select issues of the day.  A local print newspaper, on the other hand, has a journalistic responsibility to reserve such editorial judgment to its occasional editorials.  News should be news, and although pure objectivity is hard to come by, a local newspaper should make every effort in that regard.

 

    Public speaks on Valero project

    Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

    Public comments on Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed project

    By Irma Widjojo, 09/30/15, 6:14 PM PDT
    Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery’s lead environmental engineer, at the podium, delivers opening remarks at Tuesday’s Benicia Planning Commission meeting. The public comment hearing on the Revised Draft EIR for Valero’s Crude-by-Rail project drew a full-house crowd in the Benicia City Council Chambers. MIKE JORY — TIMES-HERALD
    Andrés Soto, spokesperson for Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, wears his sentiments on his T-shirt, as he speaks in opposition to a proposed Valero Crude-by-Rail project at a public comment hearing on the project’s Revised Draft EIR at a special Benicia Planning Commission meeting at City Hall. MIKE JORY — TIMES-HERALD

    Benicia >> In a special meeting that drew a large crowd Tuesday night, the Benicia Planning Commission received comments from concerned citizens on recently distributed documents on Valero’s proposed Crude-by-Rail project.

    Many of those supporting the project wore a sticker on their clothing indicating their approval, while some of those opposing the project wore pins, brought signs and sported a sunflower — a symbol of environmentalism — at the Benicia City Council Chambers at City Hall.

    The meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until about 10 p.m., was an opportunity for the public to submit verbal comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report, or RDEIR, of the project. Those who could not get a seat in the chambers, which has a 120-person capacity, were asked to wait for their turn to speak in an overflow room.

    The RDEIR concluded that the project would cause “significant and unavoidable” impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biological resources and hazards and hazardous materials. However, the report also adds “potential mitigation measures to reduce these new impacts would be preempted by federal law.”

    A few speakers who were concerned with the project took issue with the federal preemption mentioned in the report. Federal preemption means federal laws displace state or other local laws.

    “It has become a justification for the lack of mitigation,” Benicia resident Roger Straw said. Straw also is the editor of the online publication The Benicia Independent, which disseminates articles and information regarding crude-by-rail and Valero refinery.

    Another Benician, Judith Sullivan, said “preemption makes it sound like we don’t have any choices.

    “But grassroots efforts like this have been pushing the federal government to enact new environmental laws,” she said.

    Representatives from Valero Benicia Refinery and Union Pacific, which would operate the railroad used for the trains hauling crude if the project is approved, also spoke during the meeting.

    “This process has forged into a new territory and goes beyond what CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requires,” said Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery’s lead environmental engineer.

    An attorney working with Valero on the application called the process “out of control.”

    “We’ve lost sight of the city’s discretion,” said attorney John Flynn. The RDEIR, released Aug. 31, came after an outpouring of feedback from the public on the Draft Environmental Impact Report last year.

    Valero Benicia Refinery applied for the permit for the project in early 2013.

    If the project is approved, Valero will be allowed to transport crude oil through Benicia via two 50-tanker car trains, rather than shipping the crude oil by boat. It will not replace the crude that is transported by pipeline, officials said.

    Concerns voiced on Tuesday about the RDEIR included conflicting information, conclusions based on assumptions and lack of details, among others.

    Though the commission reminded the public that the comments should be limited to the redistributed report, instead of about the project in general, not everyone heeded the reminder.

    “Valero is a powerful oil company that provides most revenue to this town,” a speaker said. “Are you going to let them get richer on the expense of the health and well being of the residents?”

    Many supporting the project said Valero has “gone above and beyond” in the process to ensure the project’s safety, and called Valero a “good neighbor.”

    However, that was not good enough of a reason for those in opposition.

    “While Valero has been a good neighbor, we can’t be held hostage by what they have given generously to our city,” Anina Hutchinson said.

    They also brought up issues about increased greenhouse gas emission, chance of derailment while carrying volatile crude and destruction of the environment in the area of the railroad.

    Herbert Forthuber told the Times-Herald he supports the project because Valero is a major financial revenue for the city.

    “I’ve seen in the past that when it’s not economically viable anymore for (a refinery) to be in a city, they close down,” Forthuber said, adding that it would be a blow for the local employees and other local businesses that depend on the refinery.

    Forthuber is the vice president and general manager of a local business that repairs industrial machineries.

    “The RDEIR really hasn’t changed my mind,” he said. “I’m more economically minded, and I care about the impact it would have for people who work for me.”

    Valero officials have contended that the railroad addition would make the refinery more competitive by allowing it to process more discounted North American crude oil.

    All of those who were present Tuesday were given an opportunity to speak, and the remaining three special meetings for this purpose have been cancelled.

    Comments on the report may still be submitted in writing no later than 5 p.m. on Oct. 30.

    Written comments should be submitted to amillion@ci.benicia.ca.us or Principal Planner Amy Million at the Community Development Department. For further information about the revised environmental report, contact Million at 707-746-4280.

    The report can be reviewed at the Benicia Public Library, 150 E. L St.; the Community Development Department, 250 E. L St.; or online at bit.ly/1lBeeTt.

    Following the end of the comment period, a final Environmental Impact Report will be released to the public.

    During the meeting, Million said staff estimated Planning Commission hearings will be held in January for the commission to certify the report and whether to grant Valero the use permit for the project.