Phillips 66 seeks six-month delay in rail spur hearing
By Chris McGuinness, August 18, 2016
The oil company proposing one of SLO County’s most controversial projects is asking the SLO County Planning Commission to wait six months before taking up the issue again.
After months of lengthy hearings, Phillips 66 requested that a planned commission meeting on its proposed rail spur extension project scheduled for Sept. 22 be pushed back until March 2017.
The move comes as the company waits for a decision by federal regulators on another controversial proposal also involving oil-carrying trains in the Northern California city of Benicia.
Hearings for Phillips 66’s project, which would allow the company to bring in crude oil by train to its Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, began in February. In a July 10 letter to county planning staff, the company said it wanted to wait until the Federal Surface Transportation Board ruled on a petition involving an oil train-related project in Benicia. The company in charge of that project, Valero, is seeking declaratory relief from the three-person federal board after the oil company’s proposal to transport 50 trains per-day carrying crude oil through the city was denied by the Benicia Planning Commission and appealed to its City Council.
At the heart of the Benicia case is the issue of pre-emption, or the extent of a local government’s authority over interstate rail transportation, which is the purview of federal government.
The same issue is at play in SLO. The hearings on the Phillips 66 project featured discussions over the county’s ability to set limits or conditions on the project.
“In the interest of efficiency of the commission as well as the planning staff, we believe it would be prudent to further continue the hearing on Phillips 66’s Rail Spur Extension Project until March 2017, so that all parties can benefit from the direction expected from the Surface Transportation Board,” the letter from Phillips read.
Andres Soto is a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, an organization of residents who oppose Valero’s proposed project. Soto told New Times he was concerned that the impact of a decision that favored Valero would have far-reaching consequences.
“It would gut local land-use authority across the country,” he said.
Whether Phillips 66 gets the delay will be up to the SLO County Planning Commission. The commission will take up the request at the Sept. 22 meeting.
Public comments on Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed project
By Irma Widjojo, 09/30/15, 6:14 PM PDT
Benicia >> In a special meeting that drew a large crowd Tuesday night, the Benicia Planning Commission received comments from concerned citizens on recently distributed documents on Valero’s proposed Crude-by-Rail project.
Many of those supporting the project wore a sticker on their clothing indicating their approval, while some of those opposing the project wore pins, brought signs and sported a sunflower — a symbol of environmentalism — at the Benicia City Council Chambers at City Hall.
The meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until about 10 p.m., was an opportunity for the public to submit verbal comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report, or RDEIR, of the project. Those who could not get a seat in the chambers, which has a 120-person capacity, were asked to wait for their turn to speak in an overflow room.
The RDEIR concluded that the project would cause “significant and unavoidable” impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biological resources and hazards and hazardous materials. However, the report also adds “potential mitigation measures to reduce these new impacts would be preempted by federal law.”
A few speakers who were concerned with the project took issue with the federal preemption mentioned in the report. Federal preemption means federal laws displace state or other local laws.
“It has become a justification for the lack of mitigation,” Benicia resident Roger Straw said. Straw also is the editor of the online publication The Benicia Independent, which disseminates articles and information regarding crude-by-rail and Valero refinery.
Another Benician, Judith Sullivan, said “preemption makes it sound like we don’t have any choices.
“But grassroots efforts like this have been pushing the federal government to enact new environmental laws,” she said.
Representatives from Valero Benicia Refinery and Union Pacific, which would operate the railroad used for the trains hauling crude if the project is approved, also spoke during the meeting.
“This process has forged into a new territory and goes beyond what CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requires,” said Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery’s lead environmental engineer.
An attorney working with Valero on the application called the process “out of control.”
“We’ve lost sight of the city’s discretion,” said attorney John Flynn. The RDEIR, released Aug. 31, came after an outpouring of feedback from the public on the Draft Environmental Impact Report last year.
Valero Benicia Refinery applied for the permit for the project in early 2013.
If the project is approved, Valero will be allowed to transport crude oil through Benicia via two 50-tanker car trains, rather than shipping the crude oil by boat. It will not replace the crude that is transported by pipeline, officials said.
Concerns voiced on Tuesday about the RDEIR included conflicting information, conclusions based on assumptions and lack of details, among others.
Though the commission reminded the public that the comments should be limited to the redistributed report, instead of about the project in general, not everyone heeded the reminder.
“Valero is a powerful oil company that provides most revenue to this town,” a speaker said. “Are you going to let them get richer on the expense of the health and well being of the residents?”
Many supporting the project said Valero has “gone above and beyond” in the process to ensure the project’s safety, and called Valero a “good neighbor.”
However, that was not good enough of a reason for those in opposition.
“While Valero has been a good neighbor, we can’t be held hostage by what they have given generously to our city,” Anina Hutchinson said.
They also brought up issues about increased greenhouse gas emission, chance of derailment while carrying volatile crude and destruction of the environment in the area of the railroad.
Herbert Forthuber told the Times-Herald he supports the project because Valero is a major financial revenue for the city.
“I’ve seen in the past that when it’s not economically viable anymore for (a refinery) to be in a city, they close down,” Forthuber said, adding that it would be a blow for the local employees and other local businesses that depend on the refinery.
Forthuber is the vice president and general manager of a local business that repairs industrial machineries.
“The RDEIR really hasn’t changed my mind,” he said. “I’m more economically minded, and I care about the impact it would have for people who work for me.”
Valero officials have contended that the railroad addition would make the refinery more competitive by allowing it to process more discounted North American crude oil.
All of those who were present Tuesday were given an opportunity to speak, and the remaining three special meetings for this purpose have been cancelled.
Comments on the report may still be submitted in writing no later than 5 p.m. on Oct. 30.
Written comments should be submitted to email@example.com or Principal Planner Amy Million at the Community Development Department. For further information about the revised environmental report, contact Million at 707-746-4280.
The report can be reviewed at the Benicia Public Library, 150 E. L St.; the Community Development Department, 250 E. L St.; or online at bit.ly/1lBeeTt.
Following the end of the comment period, a final Environmental Impact Report will be released to the public.
During the meeting, Million said staff estimated Planning Commission hearings will be held in January for the commission to certify the report and whether to grant Valero the use permit for the project.
Long-awaited reissue cites ‘significant’ environmental impacts; public given 45 days to comment
By Nick Sestanovich, September 1, 2015
“Because no reasonable, feasible mitigation measures are available that would, if implemented, reduce the significance below the established threshold, this secondary hazards- and hazardous materials-related impact would be significant and unavoidable.” – The Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report on Valero’s Crude-by-Rail Project
The long-awaited revision of the draft Valero Crude-by-Rail Project Environmental Impact Report was released Monday, almost a full year after California’s attorney general and others publicly challenged the scope and accuracy of the document.
The new report cited additional negative environmental effects of the project pertaining to air quality, greenhouse gases, protected species and more, expanding its scope to cover impacts for more “uprail” communities — and finding “significant and unavoidable” effects that would result from approval of the project.
The “recirculated” report (RDEIR) is just the latest development in Valero’s three-year battle to bring crude oil deliveries to its Benicia refinery by train. The proposal for a use permit to extend Union Pacific Railroad lines into its property so crude oil could be delivered by rail car, initially submitted to Benicia Planning Commission in late 2012, triggered an uproar over environmental and safety concerns, which prompted the drafting of an Environmental Impact Report.
The document, released in 2014, was criticized by many, including Attorney General Kamala Harris and state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who felt the report’s focus on the 69 miles of rail between Benicia and Roseville didn’t adequately convey the scope of the project’s potentially negative impacts.
The RDEIR addressed these concerns by expanding the range of its focus beyond Roseville to three new routes: the Oregon state line to Roseville; the Nevada state line to northern Roseville; and the Nevada state line to southern Roseville.
In the process, the report uncovered more significant environmental impacts.
The refinery has said it expected 50 to 100 additional rail cars to arrive up to twice a day, brought in at a time of day when there would be little impact on traffic. The trains would carry 70,000 barrels of North American crude each day, replacing shipped barrels from foreign sources, the refinery said in its use permit application.
The DEIR had initially noted that greenhouse gas emissions generated by the Crude-by-Rail Project would be “less than significant.” The RDEIR updated the risk level of direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions to “significant and unavoidable,” specifically if trains used the line from Oregon to Roseville, which would travel a round-trip distance of 594 miles per day.
Additionally, the RDEIR found that the project would conflict with Executive Order S-3-05, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
The revised report also found that nitrogen-oxide levels would increase in the Yolo-Solano region, among other areas, and that nitrogen emissions in Placer County “would exceed the cumulative 10-pounds-per-day significance threshold.”
Biological resources are another area of concern. According to the report, crude-by-rail trains could have “potential impacts to biological resources along any southern route,” that “could include collision-related injury and mortality to protected wildlife and migratory bird species.”
Finally, the RDEIR said, other hazards exist: If a train were to crash and result in a small oil spill, there would be a 100-percent chance of 100 gallons or more being released. Similarly, should a train crash in a high fire danger area, the risks would be inevitable.
As the report notes, “Because no reasonable, feasible mitigation measures are available that would, if implemented, reduce the significance below the established threshold, this secondary hazards- and hazardous materials-related impact would be significant and unavoidable.”
Conversely, other areas of concern such as noise pollution and earthquakes, were found to have little or no significant impact.
“Valero’s effort to rush through their dangerous project and their long record of constant violations and fines of Bay Area Air Quality Management District emissions rules give many of us pause to reflect on the many risks associated with this project,” said Andres Soto, a Benicia resident and member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, a group formed to opposed the Crude-by-Rail Project.
“It is only due to the volume and detail of scope of all of the public comments received on the original Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) that Benicia chose to recirculate a seriously flawed DEIR. California Attorney General Kamala Harris and many uprail communities, as well as many Benicians, including BSHC, identified many critical shortcomings with the original DEIR.
“Valero has shown nothing but intransigence and misinformation in the face of this opposition to its flawed proposal, thus we do not expect much to have changed in the RDEIR from the DEIR that would convince us that Valero and Union Pacific Railroad can make this project safe enough for Benicia. The risk of catastrophic explosions along the rail line and in Benicia, and the plan to process dirtier extreme crude oils strip-mined from Canadian tar sands and fracked in the Bakken shale formation is just too dangerous for our safety and our environment.
“We hope that after thoroughly reviewing the RDEIR, our Planning Commission and City Council will have the wisdom to deny this project for the good of Benicia, our neighboring communities and the good of our planet.”
A Valero representative was asked to comment on the newly released report but did not respond by press time Monday.
Copies of the RDEIR are available at Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St.; at the Community Development Department at Benicia City Hall, 250 East L St.; and as a PDF download on the city’s website, www.ci.benicia.ca.us.
Public comments on the RDEIR will be accepted by the city until Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. Comments may be submitted in writing to Amy Million, principal planner of the Community Development Department, 250 East L St., Benicia, CA 94510; or they may be given at formal public hearings on the project by Benicia Planning Commission, the first of which will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at City Hall.
Additional Planning Commission meetings to receive comments on the RDEIR are scheduled for Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and Oct. 8.