Pittsburg: Suit claims EPA failed to investigate complaints of environmental discrimination
By Bay City News Service, 07/21/2015 09:43:40 AM PDT
PITTSBURG – A consortium of environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to investigate complaints of discrimination in the placement of power plants or hazardous waste dumps in various locations across the country, including two power plants in Pittsburg.
The EPA has 180 days to respond to the complaints, but according to the suit, which was filed on July 15, the federal regulator has not responded to the complaints in 10 to 20 years in some cases.
The suit includes allegations about facilities in Michigan, Texas, New Mexico, Alabama and California.
In Pittsburg, the suit alleges that the local regulatory agencies — the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Energy Commission — discriminated against residents by locating two power plants in an already environmentally over-burdened area, according to Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer with Earthjustice, which is representing the plaintiffs.
“This is in a community where people have high rates of asthma or cancer and they were concerned that these plants would add to that,” Engelman Lado said.
Californians for Renewable Energy, or CARE, filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights in April 2000 charging the local agencies discriminated against the predominantly nonwhite and low-income residents by failing to consider the additional environmental burden of the two new plants, the complaint alleges.
Permitting for the plants, the Los Medanos Energy Center LLC and Delta Energy Center, continued and the plants were approved and went online in 2001 and 2002, respectively, according to the complaint. The EPA accepted the complaint in December 2001 but has yet to conduct an investigation into the allegations, despite attempts in 2006 and 2009 by CARE to prompt the federal agency to respond, the complaint alleges.
In June 2002, the EPA classified Los Medanos Energy Center as being in “significant violation” of the Clean Air Act and over the last five years the facility has had to pay over $3,000 in fines for violating the act, according to the complaint.
In the meantime, residents have been suffering the consequences, Engelman Lado said.
“The plants are still standing and they’re polluting,” she said. “They’re emitting toxins and the community is living with that everyday.”
Engelman Lado said it’s clear the EPA has violated the law, and she’s hoping the lawsuit will result in the EPA completing their investigation.
Engelman Lado added she’s confident that when the EPA does complete the investigation, it will make findings of discrimination.
“We would hope, whether through a court order or by sitting down at the table, we could bring resources to bear to say, ‘What can we do to help these communities who are suffering from a lack of infrastructure or resources,'” she said.
That could take the form of more monitoring, infrastructure to mitigate some of the negative impacts of the power plants, or more extensive buffers between the community and the plants.
A representative from the EPA did not return a request for comment.
Repost from Bloomberg Business News [Editor: A local resident observed that the photo below was taken at the docks here in Benicia, California — home of Valero Benicia Refinery. The Bloomberg story says that the contaminated oil originated with Chevron and was stored at Plains All American in Martinez. But maybe there’s more to the story? Maybe Valero was an additional source or storage facility for the ship’s contents? My source says that the tanker Hellespont Protector has been seen about twice over the last few months, and is a new one around here. (Background on current efforts of the oil industry to overturn the 1975 U.S. crude-export ban.) – RS]
Contaminated Oil That No One Wants Is Heading to Asia
By Lynn Doan and Dan Murtaugh, April 26, 2015 4:00 PM PDT
One million barrels of oil. Enough to fill more than 60 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And there it sat in tanks outside San Francisco — for three years — despite crude prices that topped $100 a barrel.
This isn’t the prized “light, sweet” kind of crude that is pumped out of the ground in Texas, or even the thick, sticky stuff from Alberta’s tar sands. Rather, it’s what’s known as “orphaned oil” that is so contaminated with organic chlorides that it can corrode the insides of even the biggest refineries.
Now, it’s on the move — and guessing exactly where is turning into a sort of parlor game for some in the oil market. All that is known is that Chevron Corp., which flushed the oil from a pipeline in September 2012 and has seen its value drop by $50 million since then, is loading it onto two tankers bound for Asia.
“It’s really kind of a bizarre incident,” said Gordon Schremp, a senior fuels specialist at the California Energy Commission who was notified by industry representatives of the planned exports.
It’s a rare shipment, considering most crude is barred from leaving U.S. borders. It just so happens that an exemption has been in place since 1992 allowing limited amounts of California oil to leave the country.
The only reason exports don’t happen very often is because California’s refiners keep almost all the state’s oil for themselves.
The saga began on Sept. 17, 2012, when Chevron told shippers that its pipeline delivering California crude to San Francisco-area refiners was contaminated. Chevron ended up pushing an estimated 1 million barrels through the pipe to get rid of the chlorides.
And so the tainted oil sat in tanks at a Plains All American Pipeline LP terminal in Martinez until this month, when all the red tape, including getting an export license from the Commerce Department, was finally cut, Schremp said.
When the contamination was discovered, heavy crude from California’s San Joaquin Valley cost $97 a barrel. It’s now $46. The difference, multiplied by 1 million barrels, is more than $50 million. And that’s not counting the cost of storing the oil for more than two years, which could add millions more.
West Texas Intermediate futures, the benchmark for U.S. crude, rose 9 cents to $57.24 a barrel at 11:53 a.m. local time on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices dropped about 44 percent in the past year.
Kent Robertson, a spokesman for Chevron, declined to comment on the exports. Brad Leone and Meredith Hartley, spokesmen for Plains, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Oil tanker Hellespont Protector, one of the two vessels chartered to carry the crude, was anchored in the San Francisco Bay on Friday, shipping data compiled by Bloomberg show. The other, Energy Champion, is headed for Qingdao, China, a place with no refineries. It may be a stopover, or it may not be headed to a refinery at all.
Schremp, who wasn’t told where the outcast barrels are headed, said they could be used as fuel for large ships or burned in a power plant.
If refiners know about the contamination ahead of time, they can blend in additives as a cure, but it’s an expensive solution that erodes the value of the crude, said David Hackett, president of energy consultant Stillwell Associates LLC in Irvine, California.
Wherever it lands, chances are it’ll be the first and last California oil that Asia sees for a while. California crude prices have been getting stronger and refiners across the Pacific have been flooded with supplies from much closer by.
Asked whether the rare cargoes are a bellwether for future exports of California oil, Schremp said, “It’s not like it makes perfect economic sense to move barrels that way into the world market — this was an export of circumstance.”
Christopher McKenzie, the LCC’s executive director, already has sent a letter March 6 on behalf of its board of directors to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx, asking that his department make LCC’s recommendations part of federal policy in governing rail safety.
“The continued increase in the transport of crude oil by rail, combined with recent rail rail accidents involving oil spills and resulting fires, have served to heighten concerns about rail safety among many of our member cities,” McKenzie wrote.
Rail safety, particularly in transport of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, has become a growing concern nationwide and elsewhere.
The California Environmental Protection Agency has been presenting a series of forums on the matter, one of which took place March 26 in Crockett, a meeting attended by several Benicia residents who oppose delivery of oil by train.
In another development this week, WesPac Midstream has dropped the crude-by-rail component of its intent to transform a Pacific Gas and Electric tank farm into a regional oil storage site.
In explaining the move Project Manager Art Diefenbach cited uncertainties about prospective changes in regulations of oil shipping by rail, a series of protests and falling crude prices that have made shipping by train less attractive. Should the project be completed, oil would arrive either by ship or pipeline, which Pittsburg Mayor Pete Longmire suggested would make the operation safer and less controversial.
In his letter, McKenzie cited incidents that prompted the LCC to express its own safety concerns and to offer recommendations that might reduce the potential for accidents.
“Specifically, two derailments accompanied by fires involving unit trains (100 or more tank cars) carrying crude oil in West Virginia and in Ontario, Canada, earlier this month have greatly increased public anxiety about what steps the relevant federal regulatory agencies are taking to improve rail safety and on what timetable,” he wrote.
He said the LCC wanted to make three points: First, that improvements that are required of participating industries should be mandates, not recommendations; second, that the mandates should have a hard deadline for implementation; and third, that the Department of Transportation should include the LCC’s recommendations in the final rule for Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Flammable Materials.
McKenzie wrote that the LCC wants all federal agencies involved in regulating crude-by-rail shipments to require electronically controlled braking systems on trains carrying the sweeter crude from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields, and to set a sooner date for phasing out or retrofitting the older DOT-111 tanks.
More federal money should be directed toward training and equipment for first responders who are sent to hazardous materials accidents, he wrote, and how the funding is to be distributed needs to be defined. In addition, trains should have maximum speed limits in all areas.
His letter said the LCC wants the number of tank cars that trigger a California Energy Commission and State Emergency Response Commission report lowered to 20 from 33, which in turn would lower the trigger point from shipments of 1.1 million gallons or more to those of 690,000 gallons or more.
Priority routes for positive train control, a technology that incorporates geopositioning tracking to slow or halt trains automatically to reduce collisions, should be identified, McKenzie wrote, and parking and storage of tank cards need regulating, too.
He further wrote that railroads should be forced to comply with their Individual Voluntary Agreements with the US-DOT, because currently there is no requirement for them to do so. Those pacts involve reducing speed limits for oil trains that use older tank cars and travel through urban areas; determining the safest rail route; increased track inspection; adding enhanced braking systems; improving emergency response plans and training; increasing track inspections; and working with cities and communities to address their concerns about oil transport by train.
“The League of California Cities understands that this area of regulation is largely preempted by federal law,” McKenzie wrote. “That is why we are urging specific and timely action by the federal agencies charged with regulatory oversight in this area. We do not expect that derailments and accidents will cease altogether, but we anticipate that stricter safety standards will reduce their numbers over time.”
The LCC also has supplied member cities with a sample letter patterned after McKenzie’s message, to customize before sending to Foxx.
In a report to Benicia City Council, City Manager Brad Kilger wrote, “The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rulemaking authority requesting that these measures be implemented.”
Since the preparation of the letter template, he wrote, the LCC has learned that any decisions on improved safety regulations would be made in the Office of Management and Budget.
“The mayor is requesting that the city send a letter on behalf of the Benicia City Council,” Kilger wrote.
Consideration of the letter won’t conflict with future consideration of a request by Valero Benicia Refinery to extend Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can substitute rail delivery for tanker ship delivery of crude oil, a highly contentious proposition that is currently undergoing environmental review.
“In that the city is currently processing the use permit and EIR (environmental Impact Report) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, I asked the city attorney to determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” Kilger wrote.
He said City Attorney Heather McLaughlin informed him there would be no conflict because the letter doesn’t take any position on the Valero project or the adequacy of the ongoing environmental review.
“The letter simply urges the adoption of more stringent federal standards for the transportation of crude by rail,” Kilger wrote.
If the Council agrees the letter should be sent to Foxx, it would be signed by Patterson as mayor, and copies would be sent to California’s two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, all members of California’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Solano County Board of Supervisors, the Solano Transportation Authority, Kilger, McLaughlin and members of the Council.
The Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 250 East L St.
Contra Costa residents pushing for more information on crude by rail
By Karina Ioffee, Bay Area News Group, 03/27/2015 05:22:01 PM PDT
CROCKETT — With plans in the works to transport crude oil by rail through Contra Costa County cities to a Central California refinery, local residents say they want assurances that state and federal agencies are doing everything they can to keep them safe.
Less than 1 percent of crude that California refineries received in 2014 came by rail, but the negative perception of transporting oil by train has grown sharply because of highly publicized accidents. A derailment in Quebec in 2013 killed 47 people and destroyed parts of a town; another in West Virginia contaminated local water sources and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
If the Phillips 66 plans are approved, an estimated five trains a week, each hauling 80 tank cars, could travel through Contra Costa cities, then Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose along the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, before arriving at the refinery in Santa Maria.
At a community meeting here Thursday, residents peppered a representative from the California Energy Commission about what kind of emergency plans were in place should a train derail and explode, what timelines the federal government had for new and improved tanker cars, and whether railroad companies have enough insurance in case of a catastrophic event.
Many came away unsatisfied with what they heard, saying they were terrified by the prospect of rail cars filled with Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is lighter and more combustible than most types of petroleum.
“The oil companies are getting all the benefits and the communities who live near them are taking all the risk,” said Nancy Rieser, who lives in Crockett and is a member of Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, a community organization.
Her group is pushing the railroad industry to release its risk-assessment information, required for insurance purposes, to better understand what kind of plans companies have in an event of an emergency and whether their insurance policies would cover a large incident. Railroad companies have so far declined to release the information.
“You need to have hospitals at the ready, you need to have first responders, so if you keep it a secret, it’s as if the plan didn’t exist,” Rieser said. “You can’t be coy with the communities.”
Regulations about rail safety are written and enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration, and the California Public Utilities Commission focuses on enforcement in the state, employing inspectors to make sure railroads comply with the law. There is also an alphabet soup of state agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR).
But to what extent the agencies are working together to prepare for crude-by-rail transports and how they’re sharing information remains unclear. Last year, an Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, put together by Gov. Jerry Brown, produced a report recommending that additional inspectors be hired to evaluate tracks, rail cars and bridges; more training for local emergency responders; and real-time shipment information to local firefighters when a train is passing through a community. According to the report, incidents statewide involving oil by rail increased from three in 2011 to 25 in 2013.
Many at Thursday’s meeting said the only way to prevent future accidents was to ban the transport of crude by rail completely, until all rail cars and tracks had been inspected.
“These trains are really scary because we live so close to them and we feel the effects deeply through emissions and air pollution,” said Aimee Durfee, a Martinez resident. Statewide, Californians use more than 40 million gallons of gasoline each day, according to the California Energy Commission.
Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said railroad companies are already shifting to new cars — outfitted with heat shields, thicker tank material and pressure-relief devices — although the process is gradual because of the sheer volume of the fleet, estimated at more than 25,000. New rulings specifying tanker car standards and timelines about phasing in updated technology are also expected this May.
“No human activity is completely risk-free,” Weinstein said, adding that the spill rate for trains transporting crude was roughly four times higher than accidents involving pipelines.
“Communities are resistant to crude by rail and they are against pipelines, but they also want to go to the pump and be able to fill up their car.”