Tag Archives: Columbia River

COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE: Refinery Town decision may have huge ramifications for nation’s energy infrastructure

Repost from Courthouse News Service

Refinery Town Says No to Valero’s Oil-by-Rail Plan

By Matthew Renda, Friday, September 23, 2016 5:14 PM PT
Courthouse News Service

Courthouse News Service

BENICIA, Calif. (CN) — The City Council of a small city of 27,000 in California’s San Francisco Bay Area made a decision this week that may have huge ramifications for the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The five-person Benicia City Council voted unanimously to reject the Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project — a substantial setback for an oil and gas industry that operates several refineries nearby and setting an interesting precedent for local government’s assertion of jurisdiction over oil and gas routes.

The Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project would have allowed the oil company, which operates a large refinery in Benicia, to bring in crude oil by rail rather than exclusively by ship as the current arrangement dictates.

However, Benicia City Council ended a divisive community fight over the issue by finding the project is too dangerous for the community. The potential for contamination of the Sulphur Springs Creek and other watersheds in the event of a derailment proved too much for the council members to brook.

“I have seen stories piled on top of the other about what wasn’t working and what is particularly troubling is the lack of financial resources provided in the case of a catastrophic event,” Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said during deliberation on Wednesday night. “The money comes in too late, people have to go out of business and people have to move away.”

Leading up to the decision, several questions about whether the City Council even had jurisdiction hovered over the matter, with project proponents asserting that the federal government regulates rail and any decision made by the city government is preempted.

However, the Surface Transportation Board wrote the city on Wednesday before the meeting saying while the federal government does regulate interstate commerce and the railroad, the proposed $70 million rail depot was within the regulatory purview of the city.

While many local residents applauded the decision, environmental groups talked about its reverberations.

“This is a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects,” Ethan Buckner with the group Stand — formerly ForestEthics — said. “The federal government has said once and for all that there is nothing in federal law that prevents cities from denying these oil companies’ dangerous rail projects.”

In the series of meetings leading up to the decision, Valero touted its safety record and said the train project carried minimal risk and would bring jobs and economic activity to the region.

“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,” Valero said in a statement. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

Valero is the largest employer in the city, according to a recent comprehensive financial report compiled by the city’s finance team.

However, Patterson said the city’s general plan calls for a more diversified economy that relies heavily on small businesses, many of which would be hampered by the crude oil by rail project, particularly if something went wrong.

“We have to be less dependent on the refinery as we pivot into an era of attracting different kinds of businesses,” she said.

In 2014, trains transporting crude oil spilled about 57,000 gallons of the environmentally hazardous substance, more than any other year since the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track in 1975.

The Columbia River, one of America’s most scenic rivers as it carves out the border between Oregon and Washington state, was spoiled by 42,000 gallons of oil when a train derailed due to a defective bolt on the track.

While many celebrated the possibly precedent-setting decision undertaken by the small city body, Councilman Mark Hughes resigned himself to certain litigation and its associated expense.

“Regardless of the decision tonight, I believe a lawsuit will be filed,” Hughes said.

So whether Benicia’s decision will be the first in an onslaught of local entities attempting to regulate elements of the oil and gas industry out of their communities or whether that will be left to federal and state authorities may be a matter for the courts to decide.

There are five major refineries in the Bay Area including the Valero refinery in Benicia: Chevron in Richmond, Tesoro outside of Concord, Phillips 66 in Rodeo and Shell in Martinez also operate and contribute significantly to both the local economy and air pollution.

The five refineries process about 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day and along with other oil and gas companies generate about $4.3 billion in local tax revenue, according to a 2014 study performed by Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation and commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.

But Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Courthouse News recently that the refineries are responsible for anywhere from 4 to 41 percent of the pollutants in the area, depending on which pollutant is identified.

Please share!

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.
Please share!

Mosier groundwater contaminated after derailment spill

Repost from the Hood River News

Mosier groundwater contaminated after derailment spill

By Patrick Mulvihill, July 22, 2016
TREATMENT PLANT in Mosier came back online in mid-June. The city had been trucking sewage to Hood River for treatment while their system was shut down following the train wreck.

TREATMENT PLANT in Mosier came back online in mid-June. The city had been trucking sewage to Hood River for treatment while their system was shut down following the train wreck. Photo by Patrick Mulvihill

Regulators have found contaminated groundwater at the site of the June 3 fiery oil train derailment in Mosier.

There’s no current threat to drinking water or beach users, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), but concerns have surfaced for wildlife health in the Rock Creek wetland near the Columbia River.

“It really isn’t a significant issue of harming human health; however, there is a wetland (nearby) and we’re mainly concerned for animals (living there),” said Bob Schwarz, DEQ project manager.

DEQ staff found high levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds in one of four test wells crews installed north of the Union Pacific train tracks in Mosier shortly after the train wreck.

Schwarz described the contaminant levels discovered at the east-most site as roughly 10 times higher than the safe amount for animal populations — 1,800 parts of benzene per billion, compared to the ecological risk level of 130 parts.

The wetland ecosystem includes various amphibians and insects, he said.

DEQ has ruled the local drinking water safe because Mosier’s municipal water supply is located about a mile away from the spill area, uphill.

Beach access at Mosier — a popular watersports access spot — has been deemed safe. Booms laid out on the river following the derailment (to catch a small sheen of oil) have since been removed.

Mosier’s wastewater system is also back in action. While heavy green sewage tanks and pump trucks were a common sight during early June, the town no longer trucks sewage to Hood River for treatment.

In the derailment, 16 cars of a 96-car Union Pacific train bearing Bakken crude oil left the tracks in what U.P. ruled an accident due to faulty rail bolts. At least three cars caught fire. Crews extinguished the blaze by early morning the next day.

About 47,000 gallons of oil escaped from four rail cars.

During the wreck, one of the railcars tore off the lid of a sanitary sewer manhole, allowing roughly 13,000 gallons of oil to flow into the nearby Mosier wastewater treatment plant. That system was shut down as crews worked to pump out oil and clean the piping network.

As a temporary fix, workers trucked sewage from Mosier to Hood River for treatment at the municipal plant on Riverside Drive. By June 16, the plant was restored, and shortly after Mosier’s system was fully functional.

A small sheen of oil leaked into the Columbia River through the wastewater system at some point following the wreck, DEQ reported.

Crews cast out absorbing booms into the river to contain the sheen. The exact amount is “unknown but low in volume,” according to a DEQ fact sheet, but it quickly dissipated.

Surface water samples in the river didn’t show any significant contamination from the spill, Schwarz said. He expects the booms will be replaced in September, before autumn rains, in case new rain flushes any oil from the ground into the river.

Agencies reported that the rest of the oil was burned off or absorbed into the soil. Excavation workers disposed of about 29,600 tons of earth that had been contaminated with petroleum.

Oil remaining in the derailed cars was transferred by truck to The Dalles, then hauled by rail to Tacoma, Wash., its original destination. The emptied railcars were taken by truck to Portland for salvage.

Following the derailment, DEQ oversaw the installation of six wells near the train tracks — two extraction wells and four monitoring wells. At the fourth monitoring site, staff found high petroleum levels and other compounds.

Now, DEQ is working with the railroad’s consultant to design an underground system that will treat the contamination, Schwarz said.

The “biosparge” system will include vertical pipes where air will be injected into the ground water. That oxygen will spur growth of naturally occurring microbes that will break down the oil.

“We are still waiting for groundwater flow direction information from CH2M, the consultant for Union Pacific Railroad,” Schwarz said in a July 6 memo.

Local conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper raised concerns about U.P.’s role in the high pollutant levels and called for a third party to steer the cleanup.

“It’s very concerning that we have such high levels of toxic pollutants so close to the river,” Riverkeeper staff attorney Lauren Goldberg said.

She asserted that the public needs to hold state officials accountable so that “U.P. is not at the wheel of this cleanup.”

Schwarz expects a small drill rig and a half dozen or so workers will be on scene in Mosier to implement the treatment system.

For more information, go to deq.state.or.us/lq/ecsi/ecsi.htm .

Please share!