City Council will review Valero Crude By Rail on Tuesday, March 15
Valero Benicia Refinery dropped off its appeal at City Hall this afternoon, Monday, February 29, 2016. The City posted the following announcement on its Valero Crude By Rail webpage today: “It is anticipated that the City Council will hear the appeal on March 15, 2016.” I’m told that this will only be a formal setting of dates for public hearings on the matter. Still, you may want to show up to send a signal. Sometime in late March or late April, the City Council will hold a series of hearings much like those recently held by the Planning Commission. Stay tuned for those dates and plan to attend.
The 1-page Formal Appeal was accompanied by a hard-hitting 11-page letter by Valero’s attorney, John Flynn of Nossaman LLP. The letter details Valero’s position, and is posted on the City’s website. The letter tears into Benicia’s Planning Commission for its unanimous Feb. 11 decision to deny the project.
It’s official – our work is not done! STOP CRUDE BY RAIL!
Inspector General Report: Rail Hazmat Safety Violations should be prosecuted
By Joan Lowy, Associated Press, February 28, 2016
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators are failing to refer serious safety violations involving freight rail shipments of crude oil and other hazardous cargo for criminal prosecution, and are going lightly on civil fines, according to a report released Friday by a government watchdog.
The Federal Railroad Administration routinely applies only modest civil penalties for hazardous materials safety violations, even though inspectors request penalties only for serious or repeated infractions, said the report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.
Instead, the agency’s attorneys have made it a priority to process penalties quickly and avoid legal challenges, the report said.
And, although the agency processes hundreds of safety violations each year, it appears that not a single case has ever been referred for criminal investigation, the report said. After examining a random sample of safety violations over five years, the inspector general’s office found 17 cases it said should have referred for criminal investigation.
Based on that sample, the inspector general’s office estimated 20 percent, or 227 out of 1,126 violations, may have warranted criminal referral. The agency’s attorneys told the watchdog that they didn’t make criminal referrals because they didn’t know the procedures for doing so, and they didn’t think it was part of their job.
“As a result, penalties have little deterrent effect, and criminal penalties aren’t being pursued,” wrote Mitchell Behm, assistant inspector general for surface transportation.
Concern about rail shipments of hazardous cargo has been heightened in recent years by a series of fiery oil train explosions in the U.S. and Canada, including one just across the border in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people. More than 400,000 tank cars of oil are shipped across the country annually.
Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the report confirms “that the federal government has failed to provide the necessary oversight to protect communities across the country from serious accidents involving the rail transportation of hazardous materials.”
One case the report said should have been referred for criminal investigation involved a company that produced tank car valves that hadn’t been put through a required design approval process. The valves subsequently leaked hazardous liquids. In another case, a company may have deliberately failed to disclose that a shipment included radioactive containers.
Matt Lehner, an FRA spokesman, said most of the inspector general’s recommendations are being implemented. He noted that the agency collected $15 million in fines for violations in the 2015 federal budget year, a 12 percent increase over the previous year and the most in the agency’s history
The inspector general’s office also found that the agency doesn’t have a complete understanding of the risks of hazardous cargo shipments because the agency makes safety assessments by looking narrowly at operations in specific regions, not the nation as a whole.
The regional evaluations also don’t include an assessment of the risks of transporting highly volatile and hazardous materials like crude oil near cities and major population centers, the report said.
Without an accurate national assessment, the railroad administration can’t be sure that all the appropriate risk factors are being considered when deciding which operations are most in need of inspections, the report said.
The inspector general also faulted the agency’s complex records system, saying it makes difficult for inspectors to access safety information on rail operations outside their region. As a result, the railroad administration and a sister agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, don’t share critical and up-to-date information with safety inspectors and investigators in different regions throughout the country.
Benicia’s own videographer, Dr. Constance Beutel, is reducing the 20 hours of Planning Commission hearings into watchable shorts. I understand that she has winnowed the 20 hours down to 4, and has produced these two beautiful outtakes. (If you only have time for one, I’d recommend you watch the first, “Oxygen and Crude By Rail.”)
Oxygen and Crude By Rail(Public comment by Phyllis Ingerson, longtime resident of Benicia)
Stop Crude By Rail!(“Oil Trains” by Andy Shaw, of Benicia, CA, Tune: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot)
FRA Launches Website for States and Municipalities to Request Bridge Inspection Reports
Agency also requests resources to double bridge safety staff, create national database of bridges
Friday, February 26, 2016
WASHINGTON – The Federal Railroad Administration today launched a new tool on its website that allows states and municipalities to request inspection reports for rail bridges in their communities. The tool is being launched following the passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and is one of the first provisions FRA has implemented. FRA also announced today that it has requested additional resources as part of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to double its bridge specialist staff and create a national bridge inventory database and website.
“Communities across the country will now have access to information on the condition of railroad bridges in their area,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These inspection reports will provide greater transparency between railroads and local leaders, which is an important cornerstone in our comprehensive safety efforts.”
A state or a political subdivision of a state, such as a city, county, town or municipality, can now use FRA’s website to request information from inspection reports for local bridges via https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0922. Once FRA receives the request, the railroad that owns the bridge will have 30 days to respond to the request. FRA plans to provide a copy of the report to the requester within 45 days of the original request.
According to the FAST Act, the following information about the bridge will be included in the report: the date of the last inspection; length of bridge; location of bridge; type of bridge (superstructure); type of structure (substructure); features crossed by the bridge; railroad contact information; and a general statement on the condition of the bridge.
“The Federal Railroad Administration has repeatedly urged railroads to be more responsive and more transparent with state and local leaders concerned about the condition of their local railroad bridges. State and local officials will now be able to get more information from railroads on the infrastructure in their communities,” FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said. “Providing inspection reports to local leaders is a great first step, but more can—and must—be done. We hope Congress will provide the resources to double our bridge safety staff and create a national database.”
The FAST Act addressed the issue after months of Administrator Feinberg repeatedly urging railroads to be more transparent and respond to communities when they have questions and concerns about the condition of rail bridges.
Last September, the Administrator sent a letter to all railroads saying, “When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response. I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.” While addressing, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee in November 2015, Administrator Feinberg again told railroads that, “When FRA is asked about bridge safety, it’s frequently because, again, the public or a member of Congress become concerned and has tried to get answers from a railroad, and they have been ignored or put off.”