Petitioners seek more support at final farmer’s market
Opponents of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project say they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the refinery’s application and plan to return Thursday to the Benicia Certified Farmers Market in hopes of gathering more names.
Pat Toth-Smith, a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said the organization has been staffing a table at the market since it opened in spring, and members will be doing the same thing Thursday that they have all season long.
“More people are finding out about this issue, and people want more information,” she said.
Toth-Smith said the organization’s petition “is basic.”
She said it asks that the undersigned be counted as opposing the shipment either of sweet Bakken shale crude or sour Canadian tar sands oil by train into Benicia, the Bay Area or communities along rail lines both before and after Benicia.
She said the petition also cites as concerns derailments, fires and explosions associated with increased crude oil rail traffic.
Project supporters have been collecting signatures of their own, too, and have delivered them, 100 or more at a time, during city public meetings. Requests to contribute to this story weren’t answered by press time.
Valero Benicia Refinery applied early in 2013 to extend existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks into its property, in addition to other infrastructure changes, so the refinery could substitute delivery of crude oil by train for the equivalent of oil currently brought in by transoceanic tanker ship.
The refinery has said in statements supported by a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) that bringing the oil by rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area because any emissions released by trains would be more than compensated by reduction in emissions from those ships.
But opponents worry that gases emitted uprail of Benicia wouldn’t have the offsetting benefits, and have cited explosions and fires associated with derailments as more crude is delivered from North American sources by rail.
The city agreed last year with those who said a mitigated negative declaration would be an insufficient environmental document under the California Environmental Quality Act, and ordered the more extensive analysis, the Environmental Impact Report. A draft of that report was issued in June and has been circulated for public evaluation.
The city Planning Commission had three lengthy hearings during which more public comment was accepted, and after the panel extended the deadline for comments California Attorney General Kamala Harris also weighed in, criticizing the DEIR.
Responses to public comments are being written before the city releases the final environmental report for a vote on its certification as well as the refinery’s use permit request.
Despite coverage of several Bay Area marches against crude-by-rail projects, public meetings by proponents and opponents and Benicia’s own hearings on the project, Toth-Smith said at each farmers market day someone has approached members of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community to say they hadn’t heard of the proposal.
However, she said, more residents are noticing both pro and con yard signs.
“People in Benicia are very smart and well-educated, and they know what they want to do,” she said. “Some people are cautious. They peruse everything they can. People take the process seriously, and I’m thrilled. It’s important people explore everything. People love Benicia and want it to stay like it is. That’s the main worry.”
She insisted that objections to the project didn’t mean opponents don’t like Valero.
“It’s about the transportation,” she said. “Valero is a good neighbor.”
Andres Soto, another member of the local organization, agreed that transport by rail is the main concern. But he also said there are problems with the DEIR.
“Some are demanding recirculation (of the document),” he said. “They must see their ship is on the rocks.”
He said the group’s table at the farmers market has been important for reaching out to Benicians, who make up the bulk of the signatures the petition has gathered. He said he sees the petition “as a barometer of sentiment of the Benicia community.”
Soto said his organization is distributing yard signs and keeping a tally of those he said were stolen by project supporters — more than 35 so far.
He noted that the Planning Commission hearings on the DEIR drew so many people that the Council Chamber at City Hall was full, and overflow seating had to be arranged in the building’s outdoor patio, Commission Room and conference rooms.
If 300 show up at one of those meetings, “that’s a lot of people,” he said. But 300 is a tenth of a percent of the city’s nearly 30,000 residents.
Soto said there are some residents “who don’t know; they’re not really plugged in.” That’s one of the reasons his organization will keep up its petition campaign after the farmers market concludes its season. Thursday’s market is the last until spring.
“What’s important to Benicia people is if there is a catastrophic event, who is on the hook for the toxic cleanup?” he said. They also want to know who would be responsible for the economic impact of an explosive derailment, or how it would affect the value of their homes.
High school students also have signed the petition, telling him they’re concerned about global warming and the environmental impact of production of both Bakken and tar sands crude.
He said he objects to those who are trying to use “scare tactics” such as suggesting the refinery might leave if the project isn’t approved, “especially after Attorney General Kamala Harris’s letter” in which she pointed out what she considers deficiencies in the document.
“People who wrote the draft EIR did a shabby, shabby job,” Soto said.