Benicia Planning Commission resolution to deny Valero permit

By Roger Straw, February 18, 2016

City of Benicia releases Planning Commission resolution: NO to Valero Crude by Rail

At 10:45am today, the City of Benicia sent an email notification and posted the highly anticipated resolution of the Planning Commission with negotiated wording to deny certification of the EIR and to deny a use permit for Valero’s Crude By Rail project.

After the Commission’s unanimous Feb. 11 vote to deny certification and the permit last week, the Commissioners noted that their position was in stark contrast to that of City staff, and insisted that the usual procedure of staff writing the resolution would not be adequate.  The Commission appointed Chair Don Dean to work with staff on the wording.

In comments before the vote last week, each Commissioner laid out their primary concerns and issues.  In my opinion, the resolution does a good job of summarizing their concerns and issues, and fairly represents the solid opposition of the Commission.

For instance, after the lengthy WHEREAS section, the resolution states, “Section 15270 of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines, CEQA does not apply to projects that a public agency disapproves, but the Planning Commission determined it was necessary to provide findings per CEQA Sections 15090 and 15091, and to deny certification of the EIR and identified the following deficiencies in the EIR.”

This is followed by 14 findings, beginning with “The EIR does not express the independent judgment of the City as required by CEQA” and followed by a strong critique of city staff’s interpretation of preemption.

Findings 3 and 4 add a critique of the intermingling of Valero’s and the City’s needs and objectives.

The remainder of the findings specify ways in which the EIR failed to adequately identify, analyze and/or lay out appropriate mitigations for significant and unavoidable environmental impacts.

The document goes on with a resolution to deny the project based on a single finding:  “That the proposed location of the conditional use and the proposed conditions under which it would be operated or maintained would not be consistent with the General Plan as it would be detrimental to the public health, safety, or welfare of persons residing or working in or adjacent to the neighborhood of the use, or to the general welfare of the city, as well as uprail communities.”

I find the brevity and singularity of this finding somewhat surprising, and yet perfectly aimed at the heart of the proposal and solidly grounded in what many refer to as the Constitution of our city, our “General Plan.”

The document concludes, “…the finding cannot be made for the Project due to the potential significant on- and off-site impacts associated with the project and the associated rail operations, the need for further evaluation of the environmental impacts, the economic purposes of the project and the conflicting interpretations of preemption.”


The City’s original can be found here.

Sacramento Bee Editorial: Oil train safety gets an important boost from area Planning Commissions

Repost from the Sacramento Bee

Oil train safety gets an important boost

By the Editorial Board, February 16, 2016 6:05 AM

• Sacramento-area officials say the risks of transporting oil should be weighed in refinery plans
• The planning commission in Benicia and planners in San Luis Obispo County have rejected refinery proposals
• If officials want to approve plans, they must justify why public safety is outweighed

Workers tend to the scene of a oil train derailment in Watertown, Wis., last Nov. 9. Communities across California and the country are concerned about the safety of trains carrying oil.
Workers tend to the scene of a oil train derailment in Watertown, Wis., last Nov. 9. Communities across California and the country are concerned about the safety of trains carrying oil. John Hart Associated Press

Officials in the Sacramento region have every right to raise safety concerns about oil trains rumbling through. Now they have key allies in their cause.

Last week, the city of Benicia’s planning commission unanimously rejected a plan by Valero Refining Co. to take deliveries twice a day from 50-tanker trains that would roll through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento and downtown Davis on their way to Benicia. As The Bee’s Tony Bizjak reports, planners in San Luis Obispo County have also recommended against a plan by Phillips 66 for about 150 trains a year to bring oil to its refinery.

While local residents and environmental groups objected, some Benicia planning commissioners said they also heard Sacramento-area residents and officials loud and clear. “I don’t want to be the planning commissioner in the one city that said ‘screw you’ to up-rail cities,” Commissioner Susan Cohen Grossman said.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, representing six counties and 22 cities, had argued that Benicia’s environmental review was inadequate because it didn’t look at how to protect cities along the route. That analysis concluded the trains could create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public from oil spills and fires, but only once every few decades.

Yet, as Don Saylor, a Yolo County supervisor and a former SACOG chairman, points out, depending where a derailment happened, heavily populated neighborhoods could be in the blast zone.

He told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board Tuesday that the best solution is for the oil to be stabilized at the source in the oil fields of North Dakota and elsewhere, and then transported in state-of-the-art rail cars. That, of course, would cut into oil and rail industry profits, and government regulators aren’t there yet.

Indeed, they have been trying to catch up to the boom in domestic oil production and rail transport. After more than two years of debate, the U.S. Department of Transportation last May issued new rules under which the oldest tank cars must be replaced by 2018 with thicker-shelled ones, and cars built since 2011 must be retrofitted or replaced by 2020.

Valero, which wants to build a rail spur and unloading station at its refinery, is expected to appeal to the Benicia City Council. The planning commission in San Luis Obispo is scheduled to vote in late March or April.

Officials could still overturn the recommendations and approve these trains. But at least now, they must justify why safety concerns are outweighed.

Fairfield Daily Republic: Valero faces deadline for filing appeal to Benicia council

Repost from the Fairfield Daily Republic

Valero faces deadline for filing appeal to Benicia council

By Kevin W. Green, February 17, 2016
The Valero refinery is shown in Benicia. The company has until Feb. 29 to appeal a decision by the Benicia Planning Commission to deny its crude by rail plan. (Steve Reczkowski/Daily Republic file)

FAIRFIELD — Valero faces a Feb. 29 deadline for filing an appeal after having its crude-by-rail project derailed last week by the Benicia Planning Commission.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to deny the controversial project after holding a public hearing last week that involved meetings over four consecutive days.

Valero has until the end of the month to decide if it wants to appeal the decision to the Benicia City Council, according to Amy Million, principal planner. City staff had recommended approval of the project.

The company has not indicated what it will do.

“We are disappointed that the Planning Commission did not agree with the staff recommendation to certify the project EIR and approve the use permit,” Valero said in a prepared statement after the commission vote.

“At this point we will evaluate our options for appeal with our management,” the statement said.

The project, which was before the city for three years, would have allowed Valero to transport crude oil to its Benicia refinery on two 50-car freight trains daily on Union Pacific tracks that traverse Solano County – passing through Fairfield, Suisun City and Dixon.

The rail shipments would have replaced up to 70,000 barrels per day of crude oil currently transported to the refinery by ship, according to the plan. The Valero refinery would have continued to also receive crude by pipeline, the plan said.

The project sparked plenty of reaction, with much of the concern focused on a need for increased safety and possible mitigation measures.

The city received 20 letters from government agencies with substantive comments on the draft environmental document, 11 letters from organizations, four letters from planning commissioners and 135 letters from individuals, according to the final report. In addition, comments were received orally at three Planning Commission meetings.

Of the approximately 1,800 substantive comments received on the draft environmental document, about 550 discussed hazards, 260 focused on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, 80 dealt with transportation, 60 discussed biological resources, 50 focused on hydrology and geology, and 40 discussed noise, the report said.

Positive Train Control, Critical Rail Safety Improvement, Delayed for Decades

Repost from DeSmog Blog

Positive Train Control, Critical Rail Safety Improvement, Delayed for Decades

By Justin Mikulka, February 16, 2016 – 03:58
Image credit: National Transportation Safety Board – Preliminary Report: Railroad ​DCA15MR010 (released June 2, 2015), Public Domain

In the recent New York Times article “The Wreck of Amtrak 188” Federal Railroad Administration leader Sarah Feinberg explained the advantages of the rail safety technology known as positive train control (PTC).

“I’ll describe it to you this way,” Feinberg said. “If a train is traveling in an area where P.T.C. isn’t in place and working as a backstop, you’ve got a situation where an engineer has to execute everything perfectly every hour, every day, every week. All the time. Because the slightest, smallest lapse can mean disaster.”

The general consensus is that the Amtrak 188 train crash — which caused eight fatalities — would have been avoided if positive train control was in place. The system would have slowed the train automatically so that it didn’t head into a hard curve going much too fast.

But despite the fact PTC was first recommended as a safety measure by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1970, the railroads have failed to install positive train control. So the smallest lapse can mean disaster.

In 2008, after decades of making no progress in getting the railroads to install PTC, Congress mandated that the rail industry implement positive train control by the end of 2015.

However, after having seven years to install PTC, the rail companies threatened to shut down at the end of 2015, claiming the mandated timeline was impossible. So Congress granted a three-year extension.

At the time, Sarah Feinberg made it clear that the Federal Railroad Administration intended to “aggressively enforce” the new deadline for installation of positive train control.

Despite this tough talk, only a couple of months later several rail companies have now asked for an additional two years to implement PTC. This coalition pushing for the status quo includes two major oil-by-rail shippers — CSX and Norfolk Southern.

In response, Feinberg stated that, “We remain concerned that several other freight and passenger railroads are aiming for 2020.”

So we have moved from “aggressive enforcement” to “concern” and more delays.

As reported by the Associated Press, Feinberg’s efforts are limited because “the industry’s allies responded by quietly slipping a provision into a transportation bill in November that limits her ability to deny waivers.”

So while Feinberg promised to aggressively enforce the three-year extension, “industry allies” in Congress took away that option.

Just as they used the same transportation bill to potentially remove the new regulations requiring oil trains to install modern braking systems by 2021.

This is just one more instance making it clear that regulators in Washington really aren’t the ones calling the shots. That helps explain why a safety technology first recommended in 1970 won’t be in place until 2020 at the earliest.

A recent report on rail safety by the Association of American Railroads comments on the status of positive train control:

“The additional time afforded by Congress is critical, because when it is up and running, PTC must operate flawlessly. If it does not, it has the potential to bring freight rail operations to a halt. At present, there is much work to do to iron out the kinks.”

Of course it mentions that there is the potential to shut down the railroads. This is the industry’s standard trump card when it wants to delay or deny responsibility for common-sense safety improvements.

Don’t be surprised to see the industry play this trump card again in 2018.

And how about those “kinks” that need to be ironed out?

This technology was first recommended almost 50 years ago. Shouldn’t the kinks have been addressed by now?

While it looks like we can forget about “aggressive enforcement” when it comes to rail safety, we all probably should “remain concerned.”

Especially as crude oil “bomb trains” continue to roll through communities and cities with inadequate safety measures in place to stop another Lac Megantic-scale disaster.