Benicia Herald: Release date of Valero DEIR, background

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: Note in the concluding paragraphs: “Million said city staff and refinery employees have been in conversation as the review draft has been prepared….This is typical of any application…’We work with an applicant to get them on board.'”  This should not be news, nor surprising, but it underscores the impression among citizen-opponents of the project that our City is a willing partner with Valero.  It will be interesting to see what mitigations and conditions have been written into the DEIR so as not to stand as “deal breakers” for the “applicant.”  – RS]

Crude-by-Rail plan review to be released June 10

May 1, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman

The draft of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) being prepared for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project will be released by June 10, Principal Planner Amy Million announced Thursday.

The long-awaited document will be given a 45-day public review, during which people may submit their comments, she said.

That review period ends July 25.

“We have been notified that the City’s independent evaluation and Draft Environmental Impact Review (DEIR) of Valero’s Crude-by-Rail project will be available for public comment by June 10,” Chris Howe, Benicia Valero Refinery director of health, safety, environment and government affairs, said in an email Thursday.

Those interested will be able to read the draft EIR on the city’s website, www.ci.benicia.ca.us, by clicking on the Department of Community Development, Planning and Current Projects links under “City Departments.”

They also will be able to examine paper copies at the Community Development Department desk at City Hall and at Benicia Public Library, Million said.

Should a member of the public request it, she said, the city would make CD copies available as well.

The Planning Commission will accept public comment on the matter during a hearing at its July 12 meeting at City Hall, Million said. However, no vote will be cast that night, she said.

Once the comments are received, the city will prepare its response to those observations.

Those comments and any changes to the environmental review will be incorporated into the draft when the city produces the final version of the EIR. “There could be additional information,” Million said.

Should those comments and responses mean the draft needs to be “substantially modified,” the review would be rewritten and undergo a complete recirculation, she said.

Otherwise, if the comments and modifications aren’t considered substantial, the final version of the review would be sent to the Planning Commission for its review and vote as part of the refinery’s use permit request for its rail project.

The commission’s decision would be final, unless an appeal is filed, Million said. Should that happen, the City Council would hear the appeal and render a decision, she said.

The refinery applied for a use permit early in 2013 to extend Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks into Valero property so crude from North American sources can be brought into the plant.

Refinery officials in their application stated that the crude brought by train would not be in addition to the oil that arrives by tanker ships or pipelines, but would be substitutions. Up to 70,000 barrels would arrive daily by rail car, supplanting the same volume Valero currently receives by other methods.

Valero officials, declining to provide what they called proprietary information to competitors, have been reluctant to say where the crude is being drilled. Unlike some oil companies, Valero drills no wells of its own, but buys its crude.

Various company officials, speaking on multiple occasions, have stressed that the raw product would be similar to what it receives at its own local port.

Some opponents to the project, however, have warned that the rail cars would bring in Canadian tar sands, which is a heavier substance made “sour” by a larger percentage of sulfur. Others have suggested the source would be the North American Bakken oil fields, described as much lighter and sweeter.

Bakken crude also has a lower flash point than many oils, and has been associated with several explosions that have occurred after train car derailments.

The most recent accident happened Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, Va., after breaches apparently developed on some of the crude-carrying rail cars on a CSX train.

A fireball shot 200 feet into the air, according to some observers. Oil was reported leaking into the James River.

Though no injuries were reported initially, at least 300 people were evacuated and neighboring cities were told to switch to alternate water sources, according to reports describing the incident.

It was the latest in a series of fiery accidents on crude-carrying trains, though none is reported to involve Union Pacific, a company that, along with the Valero refinery, continues to stress its safety record. North American rail delivery of crude has increased dramatically in the last couple of years. In the third quarter of 2013 alone, trains delivered 66 million barrels of crude, much from the Bakken fields of North Dakota.

That amounts to approximately 900 percent of what was delivered during all of 2008.

Last July, 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, died when an unmanned parked oil tanker train came loose, derailed and caught fire. People were evacuated in Edmonton, Alberta, last October after another derailment.

Thousands of barrels of oil contaminated an Alabama marshland after an oil train spill last November. A month later, two trains in Casselton, N.D., collided. One carried soybeans; the other, a BNSF train, spilled about 400,000 gallons of crude when 18 tank cars  ruptured and caught fire.

In February, BNSF announced it was seeking vendors to deliver up to 5,000 tanker cars that are stronger than those currently in use. That’s an unusual move for a large carrier, which usually requires clients to buy or lease rail cars. The railroad said it would use the reinforced cars not only for crude but also for carrying ethanol.

At a March public meeting organized by its community advisory panel, Valero officials said the refinery also would use the stronger cars to bring crude to Benicia.

Unlike the U.S. Department of Transportation, Transport Canada announced April 23 that it would remove Department of Transportation-111 unpressurized tank cars from what it called “dangerous service,” saying they didn’t meet standards for carrying dangerous fuel.

In the United States, railroads are federally regulated, a fact that has worried some residents when they learn that state, county and city officials are limited in the controls they can impose on that industry.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that federal regulators upgrade requirements for oil-carrying cars, most of which are the DOT-111s.

The Association of American Railroads, freight carriers and Amtrak, has endorsed the upgrade. DOT officials have said they have met resistance to that change from those in the oil industry.

In the interim, the AAR and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have announced a series of voluntary operating practices for crude-by-rail shipments that began last February. By April, rail lines promised increased track inspections and upgraded braking systems on trains with 20 or more carloads of crude oil.

Railroads said by July they would be using the Rail Corridor Risk Management System to determine which routes would be safer for trains with 20 or more crude-carrying cars, reduce those trains’ speeds and install more wheel-bearing detectors, among other measures.

Originally, Valero employees had hoped the Crude-by-Rail Project would be wrapped up within a year of filing the application in February 2013.

But once the project was announced, City Hall received heavy public input.

Opponents that included both residents and parties outside the city expressed concern about hazards associated with rail delivery of crude, the trains’ impact on traffic near Interstate 680 and inside Benicia Industrial Park, dangers to nearby environmentally sensitive wetlands, the threat posed to Benicia’s neighbors from explosions and spills, and the cumulative impact of rail delivery of crude to other Bay Area refineries.

Proponents said the project would create construction jobs while it was being built, add jobs to Valero once it was complete and equip the local refinery to compete with industry rivals.

The project has received support from Valero’s neighbors, including AMPORTS, which operates the Port of Benicia, and members of the board of the Benicia Chamber of Commerce.

Residents and others packed several city meetings on the project, including a July 11, 2013, Planning Commission meeting at which 31 people spoke.

During such hearings, every chair in the Council chamber has been filled; people lined walls and sat on the floor, waiting to speak or to hear what others said.

Speakers usually were split, with about half speaking passionately in favor of the project and the same number just as determined in their opposition.

The city initially issued a notice of intent to adopt a mitigated negative declaration for the project, which launched a 30-day comment period that ended July 1, 2013. During that time, the city received 34 written comments, some of which were substantial in length. After the closing date, 27 more written comments arrived; comments continue to be sent to City Hall.

The Benicia-based Good Neighbor Steering Committee organized a meeting last year at which a variety of speakers opposed to the project, including Diane Bailey, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described hazards associated with the import of tar sands crude from Canada.

Because of the volume of comments, the city notified the Office of Planning and Research, Sacramento, Aug. 9, 2013, that it would prepare an Environmental Impact Report, a much lengthier examination than the mitigated negative declaration, to comply with California Environmental Protection Act requirements.

Valero officials said they concurred with the decision.

“We consulted with city staff and agreed to work with them to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Crude-by-Rail Project,” Sue Fisher Jones, Valero Benicia Refinery public affairs manager, said at the time.

Even after the city announced its intent to have the have the EIR written, proponents and opponents continued to have meetings about the project.

Bailey returned to Benicia last March for a meeting organized by the Steering Committee of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community. Joining her were Andres Soto, who has organized Communities for a Better Environment that opposes the increased delivery of crude by rail in the Bay Area; Damien Luzzo of Davis, who expressed worries about dangers to cities such rail cars would pass or go through; and, by video, Marilaine Savard, a resident of Lac-Megantic who described how the explosion devastated her home town.

At Valero’s own public meeting in March, speakers included refinery safety officers and environmental managers; Liisa Lawson Stark, director  Union Pacific public affairs; and Phillip Daum, an engineer who has participated in investigations of recent rail explosions, including the one at Lac-Megantic.

Valero Benicia Refinery officials won’t get to see the draft EIR any sooner than anyone else, Million said.

“We will receive the document at the same time it is available to the public,” Howe concurred. “We will have the same opportunity to provide comments as anyone else during the public comment period.”

He said his company anticipates arranging another public meeting once the draft EIR is released, and “the details for the meeting will be determined” then.

Million said city staff and refinery employes have been in conversation as the review draft has been prepared.

“They have been an integral part, because they have in-house expertise to answer technical questions,” she said. “They have a grasp of what the document says.”

This is typical of any application, she said, and Valero isn’t being treated differently from the way another individual or business that applies for a use permit or variance would be treated.

“We work with an applicant to get them on board,” she said of the way her department interacts with anyone filing an application.

Applicants also are given “a head’s up” about an environmental report’s developments, she said, adding that some applicants decide certain conditions are deal breakers.

The mitigations and conditions of approval for permits “are what the city feels is needed,” she said. “Ultimately, the comfort level is with the city.”

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