Is “Crude by Rail” Good for Benicia?By Craig Snider, September 23, 2015
[A version of this letter appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald on 10/5/15.]
I’d like to share a few thoughts about Valero’s “Crude by Rail” project.
To recap, the proposal consists of constructing a depot at the Valero refinery to offload crude oil. The crude would come from fracking of shale in South Dakota or from the mining of tar sands in Canada. The shale oil is especially flammable and prone to explosion if derailed. The tar sand oil is extremely toxic. According US Department of transportation regulations, such trains are referred to as “High Hazard Flammable Trains” or HHFT’s. Two trains (100 tank cars total) per day would pass through a portion of the Benicia Industrial Park en route to the new depot. A decision is needed by the City of Benicia whether to allow construction of the depot at the proposed refinery site, or require that the depot be built outside the city and piped into the refinery, or deny the project altogether.
According to the City Manager, the industrial park is the “engine of Benicia” and the best way to generate additional revenue is to “diversify.” In fact, according to Benicia Strategic Plan, Issue #3 – “Strengthening Economic and Fiscal Conditions,” strategies include “Strengthen Industrial Park Competitiveness” and “Retain and Attract Business.” Yet businesses are already leaving the industrial park for sites that better meet their needs. I ask: If you wanted to locate your business in an Industrial Park, are you more likely to choose one clogged with 100 tank cars of High Hazard Flammable crude each day, or one without it? Would your customers be comfortable in the presence of such a hazard or would they take their business elsewhere? Remember, this is the same type of crude that caught fire in 2013, exploded (leaving a .62 mile radius blast zone), and killed 47 people and destroyed the entire downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec. Most areas of the industrial park and the NE corner of Waters End subdivision would be at risk from a similar blast zone. Would you be more, or less likely to buy a home in a community with the daily presence of HHFTs?
Valero claims that despite chronic violations of air quality, they place a high value on safety. But remember, Valero’s responsibility and control of the HHFT’s begins and ends at the refinery gate. Valero has repeatedly attempted to distance itself from any responsibility for rail shipments of crude. They have cited state and federal law in an effort to wash their hands of any responsibility for accidents that occur beyond their gates. (See Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) appendix H). Yet, the freight railroad business remains virtually unregulated and their safety practices are largely secret. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t know how many rail bridges there are because there is no public inventory of them. Railroads inspect and maintain their own tracks and determine what condition to keep them in, but keep that information secret. And, when state or local emergency managers get information from railroads about oil trains, the railroads ask the government agencies to promise to keep the information from the public. Why would we want 100 tank cars of highly flammable (and explosive) crude oil rolling through our town each day with no analysis or transparency regarding the safety systems employed by the railroad?
I understand that Valero contributes a major portion of the tax base for our community. Many of our citizens depend on income from Valero. But isn’t it time for all of us to begin weaning ourselves from our fossil fuel addiction? Many of us were sickened by the specter of ISIS militants shelling ancient temples and other World Heritage sites. Yet these acts pale in comparison to the tar sand mining destruction in Canada, which will supply some or all of Valero’s crude by rail. Tar sand mining destroys Boreal forests, leaving a wasteland of toxic chemicals and groundwater pollution that seeps into rivers and streams. Why decry the ISIS destruction, but ignore the vast destruction of natural systems associated with crude by rail? How can an activity that is so destructive to our world be considered “Good for Benicia”? How can unchecked greenhouse gas production, global warming, and the ruin of our planet for future generations be “Good for Benicia”? How can putting the future of our industrial park and our livelihoods at risk be “Good for Benicia”? And finally, what does it say about a community that is willing to profit from such destruction?
Maybe it’s inevitable that the city will approve the project. Shame on us if we do. But if it must be done, the best solution is Alternative 3: Offsite Unloading Terminal. Alternative 3 keeps HHFTs out of Benicia, while allowing Valero to get their crude by rail. We need to diversify the Industrial Park and make it more (not less) attractive to other businesses. We want an inviting community, not one whose safety is compromised by ill-conceived means of procuring crude oil. It’s one thing to live in the shadow of an oil refinery with it’s own inherent hazards and pollutants. Why up the ante when we don’t have to?
If you would like to voice your concerns about Valero’s Crude by Rail project, attend the Planning Commission meeting scheduled for September 29 at 6:30 pm at the City Council Chambers or send in comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report before October 16th. For more information contact Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community at safebenicia.org.