Tag Archives: Communities for a Better Environment

‘Bomb trains’: A crude awakening for Richmond, Calif.

Repost from Aljazeera America

‘Bomb trains’: A crude awakening for Richmond, Calif.

Local activists try to halt the shipment of explosive Bakken crude oil through their neighborhoods

 

RICHMOND, Calif. — The streets are quiet in Lipo Chanthanasak’s neighborhood on the outer edge of this city’s downtown core. Each of the small houses is painted a variation of beige and separated from the road by a neatly kept lawn, as if to highlight the scene’s utter normalcy. But half a mile west are the BNSF Railway tracks and the Kinder Morgan rail facility, which quietly began receiving trains of Bakken crude last year.

Chanthanasak, who moved to Richmond from Laos 24 years ago, lives within the potential blast zone should an oil train derail, according to an online map created by the environmental-advocacy group ForestEthics. The 70-year-old retiree says he only learned that crude was being transported through his community because of his involvement with the nonprofit Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN. Many of his neighbors, he says, are unaware.

Since July 2013, when a train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing at least 42 people and flattening the town, major crude-by-rail accidents have occurred in Alabama, North Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado. ForestEthics says that 25 million Americans live within an oil-train-evacuation zone. An elementary school, a public-housing project and an affluent, elderly community fall within Richmond’s zone, according to the advocacy group.

train bombs Richmond California
Bakken crude has been arriving since last year at the Richmond, California, train depot, pictured here. Google

The transport of crude by rail is not a new phenomenon, but it has increased significantly over the past few years. In the first half of this year, 229,798 carloads of crude were transported by rail, up from 9,500 carloads in all of 2008. The increase is largely connected to the development of the Bakken shale, oil-rich rock formation that lies beneath parts of the northern United States and Canada.

Compared with traditional forms of crude oil, Bakken crude has been shown to be much more volatile and more likely to explode in the event of derailment. Hence the rail cars’ nickname among activists: “bomb trains.” But apart from a code on the side of the cars, nothing about their appearance indicates their origins. Smooth and cylindrical, the black cars would be adorable, if only their contents weren’t so dangerous. Richmond’s Kinder Morgan facility, a rail yard containing very little except several tracks, is just as unassuming. The trains (100 to 120 cars hitched together, all carrying the same product) arrive here, where they are lined up in several rows, each waiting for their content to be pumped into tanker trucks (three tankers are required to hold the contents of a single railcar). The tankers are then thought to travel another 25 miles northeast to a Tesoro Corporation refinery in Martinez.

Previously, the Kinder Morgan facility receiving ethanol by rail. But in September 2013, after securing the necessary air-quality permit granted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (without the knowledge of its board), the facility quietly switched over to handling crude. By the time the community found out, in March 2014, through an investigative story by the local CBS station, KPIX, it was already too late. The lawsuit that the nonprofit group Earthjustice filed (on behalf of APEN and others) to halt operations at the terminal was dismissed by the Superior Court of San Francisco in September, because it had been filed after the 180-day deadline.

“It’s a catch-22,” says Andres Soto, an organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, one of the co-plaintiffs in the suit. “How can you even comment unless you knew that something had been done? We would’ve had to be going through public records on a regular basis to discover when they’re making these kinds of decisions.”

Richmond’s case is not unique: In June, a NuStar terminal in Vancouver, Washington, also received an air-quality permit to begin storing crude without public notification. Community resistance has, however, encouraged the Vancouver City Council to adopt an emergency six-month moratorium on new or expanded crude-by-rail facilities.

“It’s very rarely been the case that local representatives or city councils have questioned these things without being encouraged to by local citizens or by being forced to by local action groups,” said Lorne Stockman, research director at Oil Change International and author of two recent reports on the rise of crude-by-rail in North America. “The only way [the projects] have been challenged are because vigilant citizens have questioned them.”

The secrecy that has characterized the projects has been aided by the fact that, in many cases, their introduction requires very little new construction — none at all in the case of Kinder Morgan. That makes the projects virtually invisible. This is also why crude by rail has been economically viable, despite being slightly more costly than transport via pipelines. In addition, pipeline projects normally require 20- to 30-year contracts to recoup their capital investments. Therefore, because the Bakken oil boom is not expected to last, constructing new pipelines to service it often doesn’t make economic sense. Meanwhile, the Bakken region is already connected to the West Coast by existing rail infrastructure. With crude prices higher in the West Coast than elsewhere in the country, and a growing Asian market for North American crude, the transportation of crude by rail to the West Coast is likely to increase unless community resistance proves successful.

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    Benicia Valero Crude-by-Rail comment period closes with a landslide of criticism

    By Roger Straw

    The Benicia Independent makes it easier for you to read comments of INDIVIDUAL state and regional agencies and organizations. See our updated Project Review page (or just see below).

    Something UNUSUAL happened in Benicia on September 15, the final day of the public comment period on the Draft EIR on Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal. I understand that opponents of a project will almost always wait until the last day to submit public comments. But not only did a remarkable NUMBER of critical comments arrive in the City of Benicia’s inbox on September 15 – there was a dramatic landslide of comments from significant governmental agencies and environmental organizations, including…

    Also highly significant on September 15 were written comments from four of Benicia’s Planning Commissioners: Steve Young, George Oakes, Susan Cohen Grossman and Belinda Smith.

    Prior to September 15, the City also received critical comments from the

    These documents are also downloadable from Project Review.

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      Diane Bailey: Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years

      Repost rom NRDC Switchboard, Diane Bailey’s Blog

      September 17, 2014

      Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years.

      Diane Bailey

      Actually, that’s kind of worrisome, especially considering that if you don’t experience that disaster yourself, your kids probably will.  This is one of the many absurd elements showing Valero’s cavalier attitude toward public safety in the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its proposed crude by rail project, for which public comments were due this week.  The hazard analysis in this report is also a serious underestimate, according to the State among many others: The California Public Utilities Commission notes the serious failure of Valero to address the “potential for tragic consequences of crude oil tank car ruptures” from its proposed Crude by Rail Project.

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      Valero’s Promise to Benicia: We’ll only have an environmental disaster once every 111 years

      This dangerous crude project is so riddled with problems that many communities up-rail are now voicing serious concern.  The City of Sacramento highlights the high concentration of people around the rail freight lines (“more than 147,000 City residents live within ½ mile”) serving the “Valero Benicia refinery [which] is one of two California refineries that are in the process of securing permits to build rail terminals to import Canadian tar sands and Bakken crude oils.” (emphasis added)  And the City of Davis suggests that the “highest levels of protection [be implemented] before disasters such as hazardous material releases and explosions occur [so that] we can avoid having such disasters in the first place.”

      Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community explain why the project is fatally flawed with 132 pages of concerns.  Valero’s crude by rail proposal is like so many other projects popping up all over the nation in a mad rush to access cheaper, extreme and dangerous crude oils, with little regard for public health or safety.  This project is a total disaster (based on NRDC, CBE and other comments) because it brings:

      • More Refinery Pollution: Bringing in extreme crudes like tar sands and fracked Bakken crude will only increase refinery pollution.  Valero’s Benicia refinery already releases 70 percent more toxic chemicals than the average for California.
      • Toxic Plumes Along Rail Lines: This thing called “crude shrinkage” happens during transport, where entrained gases escape, leading to a 0.5 to 3 percent loss of crude oil.  It’s a big problem for volatile crude oils like Bakken, and coupled with the high benzene levels found in some North American crudes (up to 7%), it creates a serious toxic plume around rail lines.  For instance, we estimate over 100 pounds per day of excess benzene emissions from the Valero proposal in the Bay Area (or 1800 times more than the draft EIR reports).
      • Extreme Crudes are Dangerous: Valero and other oil companies pretend that they can mix extreme crudes like tar sands and fracked Bakken into the ideal “Alaskan North Slope look-alike” crude, which sounds great, except that it doesn’t work that way in reality.  Both Bakken and tar sands carry their dangerous properties into any crude oil blend making it more volatile, toxic, and corrosive.
      • CBR Terminals at Refineries Amplify the Hazard: Valero proposes to site its crude by rail unloading facility within 150 feet of a number of very large refinery tanks that store highly flammable and potentially explosive material.  If a derailment occurred at the terminal, it could set off a chain reaction of fire and explosions at the refinery.  And there have been three derailments in Benicia outside the Valero refinery in the past year; luckily those trains were carrying petroleum coke, not crude oil.
      • Risk of Catastrophic Accidents All Along the Rail Route:  Valero’s “Barkan report” that estimates a release only every 111 years from the proposed 100 daily tank cars carrying crude is absurd for many reasons.  Most egregious is that it fails to consider recent data, like the six major crude oil train accidents over the past year that have resulted in massive fireballs and destruction, including 47 casualties in Lac Mégantic. The safety risks to tens of thousands of people living around these freight rail lines remains grave.

      The oil industry has been promoting “look-alike” crudes that attempt to mimic conventional crude by blending extreme bottom of the barrel crudes.  The mile-long trains laden with these extreme crudes are a Trojan horse that puts millions of Californians at risk and threatens to undo several decades of environmental progress.  We need a moratorium on all new crude by rail projects, including Valero-Benicia, until the state can assess the cumulative impacts of these projects, make sure environmental impacts are fully mitigated and assure communities that they will be safe.

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        Contra Costa Times: Judge tosses out suit seeking to stop crude oil shipments by rail

        Repost from The Contra Costa Times

        Richmond: Judge tosses out suit seeking to stop crude oil shipments by rail

        By Tom Lochner, Contra Costa Times, 09/05/2014

        SAN FRANCISCO — A lawsuit by environmental groups seeking to stop shipments of crude oil by rail to Richmond was tossed out by a judge Friday on the grounds that it was filed too late.

        Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in March. The suit involved a Feb. 3 permit issued to Kinder Morgan to receive crude oil by rail at its Richmond trans-loading facility along the BNSF Railway tracks off Garrard Boulevard, where the oil is transferred to trucks.

        Kinder Morgan Material Services LLC and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP were co-defendants.

        Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. The Bay Area’s five refineries have moved
        Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez, Calif. on Monday, May 6, 2013. The Bay Area’s five refineries have moved toward acquiring controversial Canadian tar sands crude through rail delivery. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

        The Feb. 3 permit amended a July 2013 permit that allowed Kinder Morgan to operate a denatured ethanol and crude oil bulk terminal. Ethanol is a volatile liquid derived from grain that is used as fuel or as a fuel additive, among other uses. The Feb. 3 amendments included modified testing procedures and standards for trucks. But the judge applied the 180-day statute of limitations to when the July 2013 permit was issued.

        Both permits were issued ministerially and without environmental review.

        Kinder Morgan has declined to say where the trucks are headed, citing confidentiality, but they are widely believed to be bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez. Tesoro was an intervenor in the lawsuit, which had sought a preliminary injunction against further crude oil operations at Kinder Morgan and suspension of the air district permit pending a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

        Earlier this year, a Tesoro spokeswoman confirmed the Martinez facility receives between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude, a light, flammable variety named after oil fields in North Dakota and adjacent areas. That amount is equivalent to about two to four trains per month, the spokeswoman said, and is received through a “third-party facility” that she did not identify.

        Air district counsel Brian Bunger hailed Friday’s decision as “a correct application of the law.”

        “We’re pleased with the outcome,” Bunger said.

        Air district spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said late Friday that “The Air District will continue to work with state legislators and policy makers regarding where and how crude oil is transported into the region for refining.”

        But Earthjustice blasted the dismissal, saying it allows Kinder Morgan and the air district to “get away with opening (Richmond) to crude oil transport by rail without public notice.”

        “This is just how the agencies and industry wins — hide the information, make the change under the cover of night, and hope people don’t notice while the clock winds down on any hope to stop these dangerous and callous developments,” Earthjustice attorney Suma Peesapati said in a news release. “What’s worse is this emboldens other companies to do the same thing and hide their switch to crude oil.”

        Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said his company is “satisfied with the outcome.”

        “It was a well-reasoned and thoughtful decision by the judge,” Wheatley said in an email Friday. “We look forward to continuing to serve our customers safely and reliably.”

        Tesoro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

        Responding by email Friday, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who sits on the air district board, said: “Despite this case’s dismissal, I remain concerned about the safety of transporting Bakken Crude and believe it’s important for the Federal Government to strengthen safety standards.”

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