Tag Archives: Benicia Planning Commission

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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    SACRAMENTO BEE: Tom Steyer & Steve Young – Benicia should block oil trains

    Repost from the Sacramento Bee

    Benicia should block oil trains

    By Tom Steyer and Steve YoungSpecial to The Bee, March 14, 2016 9:30AM

    HIGHLIGHTS
    •  Valero wants to bring trains carrying crude through Sacramento region to Benicia refinery
    • Even without a catastrophe, oil trains pose a serious threat to public health and safety
    • With clean energy and efficiency, California doesn’t need to take the risk

    Railroad tracks lead to Valero’s refinery in Benicia. The company wants to ship oil there with two, 50-car trains a day.
    Railroad tracks lead to Valero’s refinery in Benicia. The company wants to ship oil there with two, 50-car trains a day. Manny Crisostomo Sacramento Bee file

    If approved, proposed new oil train terminals at refineries in California would turn our railways into crude oil superhighways. Mile-long oil trains would haul millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude through downtown Sacramento and dozens of other California cities and towns. An estimated 5 million Californians live in the one-mile evacuation zone along oil train routes.

    In Benicia, city officials are close to a final decision on the proposed Valero oil train terminal. It’s essential that City Council members, who hold a hearing on Tuesday, understand why oil trains are too dangerous for our communities. There is no sure way to protect public health while transporting crude oil by rail.

    Tom Steyer

    Valero wants to bring two 50-car trains carrying about 3 million gallons of oil to its Benicia refinery every day. The environmental review of the proposal cites the “potentially significant” hazard of a spill and fire.

    In 2013, the oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, demonstrated the danger. It killed 47 people, destroyed dozens of buildings and poisoned a local lake. Three years later, residents still live with fear and anxiety, and scientists have recorded an “unprecedented” spike of fish deformities.

    Steve_Young
    Steve Young

    But it doesn’t take a catastrophe for oil trains to pose a serious threat to public health and safety. They disrupt traffic, delay emergency response and bring more poisoned air and increased disease. That’s why six counties and 22 cities around Sacramento have already said no to these trains. But the safety of all Californians living in the blast zone lies in the hands of Benicia city officials who will decide whether to approve Valero’s permit.

    On Feb. 11, after days of testimony from experts and community members, the city Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the permit. Valero has appealed to the Benicia City Council, which will make the final decision.

    Something similar is happening in San Luis Obispo County, where the county staff and the California Coastal Commission recommended that the county reject the Phillips 66 oil train terminal proposal. The county Planning Commission must decide soon, but the final decision will rest with county supervisors.

    Last year, NextGen Climate, the Natural Resources Defense Council, ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment released a report on oil industry plans to ship dirty Canadian tar sands crude to West Coast refineries. The report found that heavy crude would increase carbon pollution by as much as 26 million metric tons – the equivalent of adding 5.5 million cars to the road.

    The good news is that we don’t have to live with these oil risks barreling through town. We can make our communities safer by transitioning to clean energy. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that improvements in fuel efficiency and energy technology could help us cut oil consumption in half by 2030.

    There’s no place for extreme tar sands or Bakken crude in California’s emerging clean energy economy – and there’s no place in our communities for dangerous, unnecessary crude oil trains.

    Tom Steyer is founder of NextGen Climate and can be contacted at info@nextgenclimate.org.  Steve Young is a Benicia planning commissioner and can be contacted at steveyoung94510@gmail.com.
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      LATEST: Valero Crude By Rail FINAL Environmental Impact Report likely to be released early January

      By Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent, December 18, 2015

      Latest: Valero Crude By Rail FINAL Environmental Impact Report likely to be released early January

      Benicia, California

      During staff comments at the conclusion of the December 10, 2015 meeting of the Benicia Planning Commission, Principal Planner Amy Million offered an update on the Valero Crude By Rail proposal.

      Currently, the City’s consultants are preparing the Final Draft of the Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), including responses to public comments.

      Ms. Million reported that staff had hoped the FEIR would be completed by end of this year, but that it looks like it will be another week or two into January before it is released.

      According to Million, “No date has been set for the FEIR/Use Permit,” but she confirms that there will NOT be public hearings on the project at the Commission’s January 14 meeting.

      That said, the law allows a MINIMUM of only 10 days between release of the document and a public hearing and decision.  Million is on record saying the City will provide “more than that.”

      At any rate, I am guessing that we should be ready for hearings in early February, March at the latest if there are no unexpected delays.

      For more information, see:

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        “Uprail” government agencies critical of Valero Benicia environmental report

        Repost from the Fairfield Daily Republic

        Safety still a primary concern with Valero rail transport plan

        By Kevin W. Green, November 07, 2015
        The Valero oil refinery operates, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Benicia.  (Steve Reczkowski/Daily Republic file)
        The Valero oil refinery operates, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in Benicia. (Steve Reczkowski/Daily Republic file)

        FAIRFIELD — Most of those who provided formal comments on the revised draft environmental impact report for the Valero crude-by-rail project in Benicia focused on a need for increased safety and possible mitigation measures.

        The city of Benicia Planning Department received plenty of input leading up to last week’s deadline for submitting written comments on the revised report.

        The proposed project would allow Valero to transport crude oil to its Benicia refinery on two 50-car freight trains daily on Union Pacific tracks that come right through downtown Davis on their way to Benicia. The trains also pass through Dixon, Fairfield and Suisun City.

        The rail shipments would replace up to 70,000 barrels per day of crude oil currently transported to the refinery by ship, according to city documents. The Valero refinery would continue to receive crude by pipeline, the city said.

        Among the written comments submitted on the revised impact report was an eight-page response from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. The agency responded on behalf of the 22 cities and six counties in its jurisdiction, including the city of Davis and Yolo County.

        “Our earlier letter expressed grave concern that the DEIR concluded that crude oil shipments by rail pose no ‘significant hazard’ to our communities, and we urged the city of Benicia to revise the DEIR to fully inform decision-makers and the public of the potential risks of the project,” SACOG said in its remarks.

        The agency’s response included a list of eight measures its board of directors indicated that, at a minimum, should be followed.

        Those directives include advance notification to county and city emergency operations offices of all crude oil shipments; limits on storage of crude oil tank cars in urbanized areas of any size; and appropriate security for all shipments.

        Other directives outlined need for support, including full-cost funding for training and outfitting emergency response crews; and use of freight cars with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, rollover protection and other features that mitigate what the agency believes are the risks associated with crude oil shipments.

        Finally, the agency calls for the implementation of Positive Train Control to prioritize areas with crude oil shipments.

        Solano County Resource Management Director Bill Emlen, a former Davis city manager, noted in his response that he had no specific comment on the revised report, but that the county stands behind its initial remarks about the original draft report.

        In those remarks, dated Sept. 8, 2014, Emlen said the county wanted more done to address potential derailments.

        The original draft EIR admitted the project “could pose significant hazard to the public or the environment,” but minimized the chances of that happening.

        “Although the consequences of such a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low,” the report said.

        Emlen disagreed that the accident risks associated with the crude-by-rail proposal are “less than significant” without mitigation.

        Valero plans to use a type of tank car designated as CPC-1232 to transport oil between Roseville and Benicia and there will be a 40 mph speed limit through federally designated “high-threat urban areas,” including cities along the route, according to the draft report.

        Emlen said it appears Valero’s use of the CPC-1232 tank cars is voluntary, rather than mandatory. He also pointed out that the federal designation for high-threat urban areas extends only 10 miles east of Vallejo and 10 miles west of Sacramento, which leaves out most of Solano County.

        Emlen cited a derailment and spill that took place in Virginia with a train using CPC-1232 tank cars and traveling 23 mph.

        “Therefore, the use of CPC-1232 tank cars at low speeds does not alone mitigate the potential impact from a train derailment,” he said.

        Other cities that submitted a written response on the revised draft included Davis, Albany, Gridley and Briggs. Other counties that responded included Yolo, Placer and Nevada counties.

        An original draft EIR was issued for the project in June 2014. Benicia said it issued the revised draft EIR in response to requests made in that original report. The city released the revised document Aug. 31 for a 45-day review period. It later extended the deadline for submitting written comments from Oct. 16 to Oct. 30.

        The Benicia Planning Commission also gathered public input on the revised document at a Sept. 29 meeting.

        The Valero project involves the installation of a new railcar unloading rack, rail track spurs, pumps, pipeline and associated infrastructure at the refinery, according to a city report. The crude would originate at sites in North America.

        Union Pacific Railroad would transport it using existing rail lines to Roseville, and from there to the refinery, the city said.

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