Take action: Protect California’s communities from explosive oil trains
Last month, decision-makers voted unanimously to reject a proposed crude-by-rail project at the Valero oil refinery in Benicia because it “would be detrimental to the public health, safety, or welfare” of Benicians and communities along the oil train routes. It was the right decision — projects like these, which put more than five million Californians within the blast zones of explosive oil trains, are not worth the risk.
But the oil company behind this project is appealing this decision to the Benicia City Council — so we need to speak out to protect communities like Benicia, Truckee, Davis, and Sacramento, that would be put at risk if this project moves forward.
Repost from the East Bay Express [Editor: I am posting this excellent review by Jean Tepperman belatedly, with thanks for East Bay Express’ regional coverage of a Benicia story with huge regional and national implications. I’ve not read a better review of the Feb. 8-11 Benicia Planning Commission hearings. – RS]
Benicia Blocks Oil-By-Rail Plan
By Jean Tepperman, February 12, 2016
The little town of Benicia is looking to become the next link in the chain barring crude oil from traveling by rail to the West Coast. After four evenings of contentious hearings, the Benicia Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously rejected Valero refinery’s proposal to build a rail spur that would allow it to import up to 70,000 barrels a day of “North American crude oil” — meaning extra-polluting crude from Canada’s tar sands and the highly explosive crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields. Both fossil fuels have been involved in numerous derailments, explosions, and fires, including a 2013 fire and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec that killed 47 people.
Starting on Monday, planning commissioners, led by Commissioner Steve Young, grilled staff members about their decision to recommend approval of the Valero project, identifying inconsistencies and pointing to problems that the project would create, from blocking traffic to increasing pollution to potential oil spills and other emergencies that the city would not be able to cope with. The central issue that emerged, however, was whether the city had the authority to make decisions about the project.
The staff report actually said the benefits of the project did not outweigh the potential harm. Shipping crude oil by rail, the staff found, would have “significant and unavoidable” impacts on air quality, biological resources, and greenhouse gas emissions. These impacts would conflict with air quality planning goals and state goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the city can’t prevent any of this, the staff report said, because only the federal government has the authority to regulate railroads.
Bradley Hogin, a lawyer whom the city hired on contract to advise on this project, said federal law prevents local governments from interfering with railroads, a principle referred to as “preemption.” According to the interpretation of “preemption” described by Hogin and city staff, local governments are not permitted to take actions that “have the effect of governing or managing rail transport,” even indirectly. And they are not allowed to make decisions about a project based on impacts of rail shipping connected with that project.
“Hogin is making a case that would affect cities across the nation dealing with crude by rail,” said environmental activist Marilyn Bardet in an interview. “They were going to create a legal precedent on preemption here.”
Bardet reported that public testimony by representatives of environmental organizations and “two young women from the Stanford-Mills Law Project made it clear that “there are many people who would disagree with Hogin’s interpretation.”
Roger Lin, lawyer with Communities for a Better Environment, said in an email that, contrary to Hogin’s claims, the California Environmental Quality Act actually requires local governments to consider “indirect or secondary effects that are reasonably foreseeable and caused by a project, but occur at a different time or place.” Valero is not a railroad, he said, so the “preemption” doctrine does not bar the city from using its land-use power to reject the project.
However “preemption” is interpreted, Bardet said, “the commissioners seemed uncomfortable with being told they would have to approve the project based on considerations they couldn’t accept.” Late in the hearing process, commission chair Donald Dean said, “I understand the preemption issue on a theoretical legal level, but I can’t understand this on a human level.”
Bardet expressed appreciation for the commissioners’ concern. “My sense was that these guys are real human beings,” she said. “They all listened carefully. None of them was asleep.”
Project opponents packed the hearing room for four straight nights, filling two overflow rooms on the first night. People came from “uprail” communities, including Davis and Sacramento, as well as allies from across the Bay Area, Bardet said.
Opposition to the project has been led by a community group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, formed in 2013 when the city seemed ready to approve the project without requiring any environmental impact study. “We joined with other refinery communities in the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition” and in a coalition working to persuade the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to pass tough new regulations on refinery pollution, Bardet said. She said support from the National Resources Defense Council and Communities for a Better Environment was also important. “The grassroots came alive together,” she said.
Many of these organizations, like the Benicia group, are concerned, not only about the hazards of shipping crude by rail, but by the impact of refining the extra-polluting crude oil from Canada’s tar sands, Bardet said. She noted that the city’s environmental review of the project made no mention of this issue, although it is well established that refining dirty crude oil, like oil from tar sands, emits more health-harming pollution as well as more greenhouse gases.
Valero is expected to appeal the planning commission decision to the city council, which could meet to decide on the issue as early as mid-March. “The city council is going to be hard-pressed to reject the views of their own planning commission,” Bardet said.
She emphasized the significance of this decision for the national and international issue of shipping crude oil by rail. “The whole world is watching,” she said. “I just got a message from a guy in New Jersey congratulating us.”
The issue: Bay Area city can’t see past its own back yard on refinery project
The city of Benicia — the only entity capable of exerting any control over the crude-oil shipments set to arrive at a planned expansion of a Valero oil terminal — has shown in a draft environmental impact report that any impact the terminal has on communities farther up the train tracks is none of its business.
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 Davis, Dixon, Fairfield and Suisun City on their way to Benicia. 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 original draft EIR, released in 2014, didn’t adequately address safety and environmental concerns. Local governments — including the city of Davis, Yolo County and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments — weighed in on the draft, urging Benicia to take a second look.
Benicia withdrew the draft and went back to work, and the new document acknowledges the risks of pollution, noise and, oh yes, catastrophic explosions from oil trains, the likes of which leveled Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
Disappointingly, having recognized the issues involved, the report simply says there’s no way to mitigate them and recommends moving ahead. With a bureaucratic shrug of the shoulders, the concerns of communities from Roseville to Suisun City are dismissed.
NATURALLY, SACOG disagrees, and so do we. While it’s true that there’s not a lot Benicia can do itself to mitigate the impact of its project, it can force Valero to do something about it.
SACOG urges a raft of measures that are within Valero’s control: advanced notification to local emergency personnel of all shipments, limits on storage of crude-oil tanks in urban areas, funding to train emergency responders, cars with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, money for rail-safety improvements, implementation of Positive Train Control protocols and, most importantly, a prohibition on shipments of unstabilized crude oil that hasn’t been stripped of the volatile elements that made Lac-Mégantic and other derailments so catastrophic.
Due to federal laws, cities along the railway lines have no ability to control what goes through. Only Benicia, now, while the project is still on the drawing board, has the authority to set reasonable limits and conditions on a project that puts millions of people along the railroad in harm’s way.
We urge the Benicia City Council to use its discretionary authority in this matter to protect those of us who have no say in the process.
Safety still a primary concern with Valero rail transport plan
By Kevin W. Green, November 07, 2015
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.