All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Benician Roger Straw: Growing opposition to Valero Crude by Rail

Repost from The Benicia Herald

For Benicia’s sake, stop Crude by Rail

March 27, 2014 – by Roger Straw

MANY THANKS TO THE BENICIA HERALD for its detailed coverage of Valero’s presentation earlier this week on its Crude-by-Rail Project. Donna Beth Weilenman’s lengthy report presented the very best in understanding Valero’s message.

I was somewhat disappointed, however. A small but growing segment of Benicia residents and business owners attended Valero’s meeting, offering a peaceful presence and an alternative view on crude by rail. Other news sources, including a nearby newspaper, two TV stations, two radio stations and a couple of blogs included references to the strong public opposition to Valero’s proposal at that meeting. Ms. Weilenman’s report virtually ignored the public’s input on that night.

Benicians need to hear Valero’s point of view, but a variety of voices made “news” at the actual event, and folks need to know about that as well.

The residents and businesses of Benicia have been waiting since last July for Valero to present its facts and to sell its proposal to bring North American crude oil by railroad tank car into our community. We can expect highly financed and professional messaging to promote their plan. Thanks to a recent paid ad in a local magazine and this week’s community meeting, we now know how Valero will focus our attention — and in some cases, misdirect our legitimate concerns.

We learned at this meeting, finally, that Valero clearly does not rule out importing train cars full of highly volatile Bakken crude oil and the world’s dirtiest crude from the tar sands of Canada.

After its presentation, when Valero opened the meeting for questions and answers, I must admit that I was surprised by the preponderance of questions expressing deep concern for the health and safety of Benicia. Well over 80 percent of the questions asked were cautiously skeptical and highly concerned about safety and the environment. I took notes on each of the approximately 24 questions asked, with the following results: Nine were about emergency spills and explosions, four were about the source and crude oil content of Valero’s rail shipments, two were about failure-prone DOT-111 tank cars, and one each concerned train routing, traffic in the Industrial Park and permitting of the proposed project.

Following each question, a panel member or representative of Valero or Union Pacific gave a brief answer. Many in attendance, including myself, felt that some of the answers were almost glib, and all were calculated to smooth over every public concern.

We were assured over and over again that Valero’s excellent safety record, thorough planning, and yet-to-be passed new federal and state regulations would protect us from a catastrophic spill or explosion. This in the face of recent news reports on the massive increase in crude-by-rail shipments and the inevitable skyrocketing numbers of horrific explosions and spills over the last year.

We were assured over and over again that no additional or adverse pollution would result, supposedly because trains give off fewer emissions than ships. This totally ignores easily available background on the environmentally destructive methods of crude oil extraction in the Bakken region of North Dakota and tar sands mining in Canada, and the excessive corrosive effects and additional toxic emissions when refining extreme crudes. No one asked Valero at this meeting to address the 100 connect-disconnect operations every day on tank cars as opposed to a single connect-disconnect of a docked ship once a week. How will these repetitive operations add to what are known as “fugitive emissions,” not to mention a massive increase in risk for spills and accidents?

I usually call myself a liberal. In this instance, I am a deeply conserving skeptic. Please, Valero — I know that you work for Texas executives who guide your actions here, but as you mentioned at your meeting this week, 50 percent of your management and more than 100 Valero employees live here in Benicia. You are our neighbors. Please help us protect our lives and our city, and stand with us on behalf of communities uprail and downwind of Benicia. Ask Valero’s Texas executives to rethink their strategies for the future of energy production. Valero could lead the way in the oil industry. Everyone knows that refining of crude oil is a dying enterprise. In the next 50 years Valero will need to retool to produce energy in cleaner and safer ways. There is no need to grasp at the last, most dirty and dangerous barrels of crude to make a quick buck.

Listen to concerned Benicians and folks from communities uprail and downwind of here — stop the Crude-by-Rail Project.

More information is available at and

Roger Straw is a Benicia resident [and editor of The Benicia Independent].

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Benicia’s Stan Houston: a host of safety concerns – preserving Valero’s future and Benicia’s

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Crude by rail: An opportunity to lead

March 26, 2014 by Stan Houston

THE VALERO REFINERY WANTS TO BRING IN A NEW FORM OF CRUDE OIL to process in their refinery here in Benicia. Union Pacific Railroad will be the transporter. There is a host of safety concerns, not the least of which is the volatility of this newer crude. Should a mishap in transportation cause any one of the tank cars to rupture, the resulting explosion and fire could destroy Benicia. The gravity of this situation and my personal experiences in the railroad industry demand I convey my assessment and participate in a conversation that may lead to a solution that works for everyone.

I was only 3 1/2 years old but can still remember my first steam-locomotive trip. My parents and I stood patiently at Southern Pacific’s Oakland terminal and watched the oil-fired locomotive billow out steam while the engineer reset the brakes and moved the engine forward a bit. It seemed an eternity before the conductor waved to my parents and we were allowed to board my grandfather’s private car on Southern Pacific’s Daylight train to Portland, Ore.

Ten years later I would find myself packaging freight car lubricant after school for one of my dad’s railroad customers. In another 20 years, I celebrated having worked at every roundhouse and rail yard in the United States, Canada and Australia. By the age of 37, I was a highly regarded plastics engineer whose father’s company was leading the railroad industry in replacing metal bearings and components with high-tech plastic materials. In the 40-plus years I spent “working on the railroad,” I was an invited guest speaker to the Association of American Railroads, a frequent presenter at the Facility for Accelerated Service Testing in Pueblo, Colo., a board member and keynote speaker of the Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association, and a recipient of the first Quality Assurance Award from General Electric under then-CEO Jack Welch.

I cut my teeth in the industry at the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific railroads. I spent most of my early years visiting SP’s Sacramento Locomotive Works, where I’d oversee the testing and installation of our new products. The shops had been home to my grandfather when he was master mechanic there in the 1940s and ’50s. And, it didn’t hurt that Southern Pacific’s vice president of research and development was my godfather; I was given a lot of access to the railroad many others only dreamed of. As I grew into my late 20s, I’d venture to the Midwest to visit the Union Pacific or Burlington Northern railroads, or I’d go back east and call on the C&O and B&O (CSX), or the Southern Railway System. I travelled almost every other week for the next 20 years, helping redesign parts on freight cars and locomotives. It was a busy time in my life and very rewarding. I learned how the locomotives and the freight cars and rails work together. And, suffice it to say, I know the people who make those freight cars, and build those locomotives, and lay those rails.

During the last half of the 20th century, railroads shifted from carrying almost everything we consumers bought to what is today a streamlined mix of industrial and consumer goods. The railroads are extremely agile in producing freight cars that look like they are designed to handle very specific products when, in fact, their agility and mechanical engineering prowess — along with the help of their supply industry — can quickly adapt a standard freight car into a specific commodity freight car with little alteration to its structural integrity. It wasn’t long ago that, as seasonal demand of grain cars oscillated wildly during harvest in the Midwest, standard box cars (the kind you see the homeless pictured riding in) were overnight turned into grain cars by inserting a cardboard barricade in the door openings and cutting a grain chute hole in the top. Not very space-age technology, but it worked extremely well.

Today the railroads are being tasked with carrying increasing amounts of oil in tank cars. In their heightened and predictable response to demand, they have rebuilt and built new tank cars at an unprecedented rate, yet still they have fallen short of what the growing demand requires. Because there are no government regulations requiring a specific type of tank car modification or a specifically designed car to address the newer types of crude now being carried, the railroads are carrying the newer materials in standard tank cars, some of them well over 50 years old. These cars are what the industry refers to as the DOT-111 class cars. Even the very newest modification to the DOT-111 class, made in 2011, does not adequately address the volatile nature of some of the newer crudes when under impact through derailment or collision. In addition, there has been no investigation into developing a far safer delivery system that employs tank car transport. It has been well documented that as a result of a derailment and collision, the subsequent breach of a tank car would cause an explosion of the newer crudes and destroy Benicia as we know it.

The Valero refinery has asked Benicians for their support to be able to bring these newer crudes to their Benicia refinery. It is irresponsible to close our eyes and NIMBY our way out of this predicament. It is in our best interest to do everything we can to insure the profitability and volume of output from Valero, as they provide a significant amount of money to our General Fund and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to needy Solano County enterprises. In fact, we should be encouraging Valero to make as much product as they can and working with them to facilitate an increase in their margins so that we reap sustainable benefits, too. Isn’t that what we already do for our other businesses? Isn’t that what tourism does for the First Street businesses and the Economic Development Board does for our other businesses? Shouldn’t we treat Valero the same as any other contributor to our welfare? Shouldn’t we insist that any threat to Valero’s ability to operate is hereby not acceptable?

In the absence of government mandates that would require a safer tank car or a safer delivery system for newer crude, it is up to Benicia to safeguard Valero’s cash flow to us so that our livelihoods continue. In our conversation with our benefactor, Valero, we must insist they deliver this message to the railroad industry: “This is not the time to fabricate a piece of cardboard and retrofit a boxcar. Rather, this is a time of great opportunity that will require the cooperation of the stakeholders of the Union Pacific Railroad and the tank car companies to look into the future and develop a brand new product and delivery system. Round up your best ME’s (mechanical engineers) and maintenance-of-way gurus and put together a delivery system that includes a modern, high-tech tank car with a robust safety factor and a delivery system that insures the continued operation of the Valero Refinery and the health and welfare of every township your system touches.

“And, until you can provide us with testing data that shows the newer car and newer delivery system is adequate, you can’t ship into Benicia anything that threatens the current cash flow of Valero funds to our stakeholders and the city of Benicia.”

Stan Houston lives and works in Benicia.

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Valero admits plan for tar sands and Bakken crude

Repost from Digital Journal

Valero admits plans for East Bay refinery to burn tar sands oil

By Nathan Salant, March 27, 2014

VrefBenicia –  Valero Energy Corp. could use a new rail terminal it plans to build at its San Francisco Bay Area refinery to process highly flammable Bakken crude from Montana.

Valero Energy Corp. could use a new rail terminal it plans to build at its San Francisco Bay Area refinery to process highly flammable Bakken crude from Montana.

Valero conceded that possibility for the first time Monday at a community meeting called by the city-sponsored Valero Community Advisory Panel, according to San Francisco television station KPIX.

“If Bakken crude is one of the crudes that’s available by rail, it’s possible that it could make its way to our plant,” Valero spokesman Chris Howe told KPIX reporter Christin Ayers at Monday’s meeting.

Valero had previous said only that it wanted to begin bringing in crude oil by train to add to the resources available to its refinery in Benicia, Calif., on the shore of Suisun Bay.

Valero’s Don Couffle also told KPIX that the refinery also could choose to bring in oil derived from Canadian tar sands, similar to the fuel that leveled a major part of a Canadian coastal town last year, killing 47 people.

“Crude oil that’s derived from tar sands may be a candidate if it fits our profile,” Couffle said.

The refinery already brings in more than 100,000 barrels of crude daily by ship and pipeline.

Valero proposed the rail facility last year but the city, which must decide whether to allow it, required the company to prepare an extensive environmental impact report before it could be approved.

In theory, the project still could be derailed it the report uncovers unanticipated negative environmental consequences.

But Valero’s proposal has stirred up considerable outrage in the small, historic community, where project opponents have organized meetings of their own and threatened protests.

Nearly 200 residents jammed Monday night’s meeting at a union hall less than a half-mile from the refinery.

Several attendees spoke in favor of the rail project, which has been projected to add 20 permanent jobs to the refinery’s workforce and as many as 100 temporary jobs while the facilities are constructed.

Company officials presented the project to the audience and then answered questions from attendees.

Valero said shipments of up to 100 tanks cars filled with crude oil every day would not affect air quality, and that all safety standards would be met.

The additional oil by rail would not increase refinery production, the company said, because it would merely replace crude currently brought by ship.

“It would not increase crude delivery, just make it more flexible,” said John Hill, the refinery’s vice president and general manager.

But many local residents and newly formed community groups complain that the rail shipments added an extra layer of danger to the community.

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community said Canadian tar sands oil was more polluting than other crudes.

“They’re just pushing through the project,” said the group’s Jan Cox-Golovich, a community activist and former city councilwoman.

“Have some respect for the community,” she said.

The draft environmental impact report is expected to be released next month, after which Valero plans to host another public meeting, KPIX said.

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