Repost from Sierra Club – The Planet
Community Urges Benicia City Council to Deny Valero’s Dangerous Oil Train ProposalBy Elly Benson, staff attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, April 6, 2016
On April 4, scores of concerned Californians converged on Benicia City Hall to urge the city council to reject Valero’s plan to transport volatile crude to its Bay Area refinery in dangerous oil trains. In February, local planning commissioners unanimously rejected the proposal, which would send two 50-tanker oil trains through California communities each day. Valero appealed that decision to the city council. Given the intense public interest in the crude-by-rail project, the city council has scheduled four public hearing dates this month.
Before Monday’s city council hearing began, opponents of Valero’s dangerous plan held a rally in front of city hall. Rally speakers included Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín and Andres Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, as well as a local business owner and a senior scientist from Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice organization. Benicia residents were joined by members of “up-rail” communities (including Sacramento and Davis) who would be endangered by the oil trains rolling through their cities and towns on the way to the Valero refinery. Oil train derailments and explosions have skyrocketed in recent years — including the July 2013 derailment in Lac-Megantic, Canada that killed 47 people and obliterated several city blocks.
Inside the city council chambers, public comment began with testimony by a series of elected officials and agency representatives concerned by the risks posed by Valero’s oil train project. Speaking on behalf of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (which represents six counties and 22 cities), Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor urged the Benicia City Council to consider impacts on up-rail communities, including the 260,000 people in the Sacramento region who live within a quarter-mile of the railroad tracks. A representative from the Sacramento City Unified School District noted that 17 schools in the district are within the “blast zone” that would be put at risk by explosive oil trains on the railroad tracks. Other speakers included Berkeley Vice-Mayor Linda Maio and representatives testifying on behalf of up-rail air quality management districts, the City of Davis, and State Senator Lois Wolk.
In addition to urging the Benicia City Council to uphold the permit denial, many speakers urged the council to reject Valero’s request to delay the appeal process. At a city council meeting last month, Valero unexpectedly asked the council to put the appeal on hold while the company seeks a declaratory order from the federal Surface Transportation Board regarding the scope of the legal doctrine of preemption. Valero has insisted that federal regulation of railroads means that Benicia is prohibited from considering the project’s impacts on communities and sensitive environments along the rail line (including derailments, oil spills, and explosions).
At the Benicia Planning Commission hearings in February, attorneys from the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Stanford Law School clinic refuted this expansive interpretation of the preemption doctrine, and the commissioners ultimately rejected Valero’s interpretation as overly broad. Notably, the California Attorney General has previously weighed in on the shortcomings of the city’s environmental review, and specifically noted the failure to adequately analyze impacts to up-rail communities. Valero has not offered a compelling rationale for why the Attorney General would request that analysis if preemption renders those impacts irrelevant. The oil industry’s self-serving interpretation of preemption was also recently rejected by planning staff in San Luis Obispo County, who recommended denial of a similar oil train proposal at a Phillips 66 refinery due in large part to the environmental and health impacts along the rail line.
In a letter submitted to the Benicia City Council last week, the Sierra Club and our allies explained why federal law does not preempt Benicia from denying the permit for Valero’s project. The letter also reiterated that the project’s local impacts, especially increases in refinery pollution, require the city to deny the permit. For years, the Sierra Club and our partners have pushed back against Valero’s efforts to hide the true impacts of its oil train proposal — including submitting comments at each stage of the environmental review process. Our allies in these efforts include NRDC, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, Stand (formerly ForestEthics), Communities for a Better Environment, Center for Biological Diversity, SF Baykeeper, and Sunflower Alliance, among others.
Additional city council hearings are scheduled for April 6, 18, and 19, as needed for public comment and council action.
Media: Valero crude oil gets another shot at NorCal railways (KCRA Sacramento, 4/5/16)