Open letter from Davis to Benicia: Stop crude by rail

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote an Op-Ed for The Benicia Herald titled, “Valero crude-by-rail: ‘Down-wind’ and ‘up-rail’.”  A few months later, I was contacted by Milton Kalish and Lynne Nittler of Davis, and we’ve stayed in touch.  They – and their wonderful group of activist friends in Cool Davis, Yolano Climate Action and 350 Sacramento – have continued their CBR organizing efforts with great energy and creativity.  This open letter by Lynne serves as a detailed primer of all the reasons why CBR must be stopped.  A must-read.  – RS]

Open letter to Benicia: Stop crude by rail

July 10, 2014 by Lynne Nittler

IN RESPONSE TO JIM LESSENGER’S OPED OF JULY 4, “Open letter to the City Council: Support CBR,” I write today urging Benicia to deny the proposed Valero Refinery Crude-by-Rail Project until all safety measures listed below are in place.

I have been carefully following the proposed Benicia project, reading articles from a wide variety of sources including many reports and, most recently, the Draft Environmental Impact Report.

I follow a number of environmental topics closely, particularly those related to climate change. I am on the board of Cool Davis, a nonprofit organization that helps the city of Davis implement its Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

I have an “uprail” perspective that is important to add to the conversation on the Valero proposal, as the impact of the daily trains would be significant in my community.

I have six reasons Benicia should deny the CBR project. They are as follows:

1. The project is far from contained within Benicia’s 3,000-acre Industrial Park.

Benicia is fortunate to have a buffer area of industries and vacant land around Valero Benicia Refinery. Valero has even promised that the oil trains will not cross city streets during Benicia’s rush hours (though neither Valero nor the city of Benicia can enforce that promise).

Davis and other uprail communities are not so fortunate. The trains will pass through downtown Davis, including residential neighborhoods, the center of downtown, university housing and the entire Mondavi Performing Arts Complex and Conference Center.

Train travel through Davis is made more dangerous because there is a curve with a 10-mph left-handed cross-over between the main tracks several hundred feet east of the Amtrak station, right downtown. All other crossovers on the line are rated for 45 mph. This 10-mph spot in particular is an accident waiting to happen.

While the trains would hopefully avoid rush hour in Benicia, that will surely not be the case for all uprail communities.

2. Valero owns the property but should not be allowed to set profits ahead of public health and safety.

No corporation operates in a vacuum. Valero’s decision to import North American crude has profound effects beyond its own improvement that cannot be ignored.

Valero’s change to crude by rail from crude by ship would allow it to import both Canadian tar sands and Bakken crude, and would add additional dangerous trains to the tracks all the way back to their points of origin, most likely in North Dakota or Alberta, Canada. That means the trains endanger and disrupt towns and cities across our country on their way to Benicia. These tracks are already impacted by oil trains taking precedence over trains transporting grain and other local crops and commuter trains. More importantly, people are endangered by the highly volatile Bakken crude — there have been 12 significant derailments since May 2013, with six explosions — and our precious marshes and waterways are threatened by the possibility of toxic spills of tar sands bitumen, which quickly sinks to the bottom and cannot be removed. The Kalamazoo River, Mich. cleanup of 1 million gallons of leaked tar sands dilbit is still unsuccessful after four years and $1 billion.

In California, the trains would come over the Sierra Nevada Mountains or wind through the Feather River Canyon (rated as a “rail high-hazard area” by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services), or possibly even come from Oregon down through Redding and Dunsmuir, site of a 1991 derailment of a fertilizer tank car that killed fish for 40 miles. In any of these routes, major rivers would be crossed where an accident could contaminate much-needed drinking and irrigation water.

3. The project will clearly affect the environment.

A wider view of “environment” raises serious concerns. California considers the cradle-to-grave lifecycle of products. Extracting, refining and burning heavy, sour crude is a nasty job, start to finish.  That’s why tar sands is called a “dirty” fossil fuel, noted for its energy-intensive carbon footprint. This deserves a full discussion which is beyond the scope of this letter. The recently completed Valero Improvement Project was intended to allow the refinery to handle refining the heavy, sour crude as efficiently as possible, which is laudable, but that is not to say it is a clean process. Setting aside the forests destroyed and the unlined toxic tailing ponds leaking into the waterways in Canada at the point of extraction, we must note that processing tar sands bitumen will produce more of the byproduct petcoke that is so polluting it cannot be burned in the U.S. (It can be sold abroad and burned for energy there. Ironically, when it is burned in China, some of the smog blows back across the ocean to Southern California.)

The heavy crude is high in sulfur and toxic metals, which corrode refinery pipes. The Richmond refinery fire in 2010 was traced partly to corrosion from refining tar sands. Emissions must be carefully monitored to ensure toxic fumes do not escape to neighborhoods or endanger workers.

The 2003 “improvement” project enabling Valero to refine heavy crude opened the door for California to refine more of the world’s dirtiest bitumen, running contrary to our state goals under AB 32 to conserve energy and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by moving to renewable energy sources. In fact, according to California Energy Commission figures, California reduced its total consumption of oil from 700 million to 600 million barrels in the last year, primarily through conservation — i.e., adopting lower-emissions vehicles and Energy Star appliances, changing transportation habits to walk-bike-public transport, and making our buildings more energy efficient. We are moving away from our dependence on oil by reducing our consumption of it.

4. The project will be safer, but not safe.

The outgoing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has some strong words for the rail industry and the way certain hazardous liquid is transported.

Deborah Hersman’s strong remarks are tied to older-model rail tank cars known as DOT-111s, which carry crude oil and ethanol through cities across the U.S. and Canada. Hersman told an audience that DOT-111 tank cars are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids — in fact, she said her agency issued recommendations several years ago. “We said they either need to remove or retrofit these cars if they’re going to continue to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said on April 22, 2014.

Right now, four California legislators are urging the Department of Transportation to take action on critical safety measures. After a hearing of the joint houses of the Legislature on June 19 chaired by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, Congressmembers John Garamendi, D-Davis, Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and George Miller, D-Martinez, sent a letter to Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, stating that “we cannot allow communities to be in danger when viable solutions are available.”

The summary of their requests, dated July 1, 2014, is as follows:

• Provide a report on the level of compliance by the railroad and petroleum industry to the May 7 Emergency Order.

• Issue rulemaking that requires stripping out the most volatile elements from Bakken crude before it is loaded onto rail cars.

• Expedite the issuance of a final rulemaking to require the full implementation of the Positive Train Control (PTC) technology for all railroads transporting lighter crude, and provide a status report on the progress of PTC implementation to date.

• Expedite the issuance of rulemaking that requires phasing out old rail cars for newer, retrofitted cars.

The Benicia decision comes at a critical moment. Benicia’s approval of the Valero proposal before DOT takes action would undercut what our legislators are trying to do to protect not just Benicia citizens, but all uprail citizens all across the U.S. Regulating that the volatility of crude be reduced will force the industry to build small processing towers — aptly called stabilizers — that remove natural gas liquids (a product that can be saved and sold) from the crude before it is loaded, as they do in other parts of the country (Eagle Ford shale reserves in Texas, for example).

Obviously, creating this necessary infrastructure will increase the cost of Bakken crude. The industry will no doubt balk at the additional expense, as will the refineries. On the other hand, it’s immoral to expose many millions to explosive trains of Bakken crude when there is a remedy! One Lac-Mégantic tragedy is enough.

The trains rumbling into Benicia are the first trains to pass daily through our region to the Bay Area, but others will follow. The approval of this project cannot be viewed in isolation. This fall the DEIR will be available for review for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Rail Spur Project that would bring another daily train through my community in Davis, through yours in Benicia, across the aging Benicia rail bridge, along the beautiful Carquinez Strait, through the East Bay and on down the Capitol Corridor to San Luis Obispo County. Based on California Energy Commission data, the Sacramento Bee says we can expect five to six trains daily in the next few years as California receives 25 percent of its crude by rail.

We put ourselves at grave risk to proceed with any rail projects now until we firmly lock in place the safety measures requested by our U.S. congressmembers. In this country, protection for the public must come first.

5. The CBR proposal makes no economic sense for Benicia and for the nation.

We live in a WORLD economy. Rather than destined for domestic purposes, the refined oil from all five Bay Area refineries is sold on the world market for greatest profit. That’s why gasoline rates at the pumps have not decreased during this oil boom.

Considered from the perspective of the weather of our planet, which will become a pivotal concern in the coming years, it makes no sense, financial or otherwise, to extract another drop of fossil fuel from the Earth. We need to put all our attention on renewables and conservation, and cut back drastically on our oil consumption. Realistically, this means refineries will need to produce far fewer products, and the oil extraction frenzy will die down.

6. The Valero refinery cannot befriend Benicia and then turn around and foul the air, risking the health and safety of our children.

Valero may mean well when it makes charitable contributions, but its intentions mean little if it then creates unsafe conditions for those who are in receipt of its generosity. It is not surprising that salaried employees, wage earners and grant recipients would stand up in favor of most anything proposed by the “friendly giant.” But it is incumbent on us all to look at the big picture — and a big picture that contains oil trains is not a pretty one.

In summary, I recommend a “no” vote on the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project until all safety measures requested by our four local congressmembers in Washington are firmly in place, and enough new tank cars are designed and produced to safely convey the crude oil from its source to Benicia, ensuring that no communities or waterways are in danger.

This “no” vote would send a strong message to DOT that their work is urgent, and that the regulations they make will be closely monitored. A “yes” vote, however, would undercut the important work our legislators are doing on our behalf.

Lynne Nittler lives uprail from Benicia in Davis. She devotes much of her time to Cool Davis, a nonprofit that focuses on helping Davis reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to a changing climate and improve the quality of life for all. She has followed the oil train issue closely since last September.

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