Garamendi praises Benicia City Council for crude-by-rail vote
By Ryan McCarthy, September 23, 2016
FAIRFIELD — Rep. John Garamendi is praising the Benicia City Council for its unanimous vote rejecting a proposed crude oil by rail facility that Valero corporation would have operated and Garamendi said would have led to dangerous railcars traveling through Fairfield, Suisun City, Dixon and Davis.
“The action by the Benicia City Council is a clear signal that shipping oil by rail presents a serious safety problem that must be addressed before our communities are faced with increased oil shipments,” Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said Thursday in a news release. “The council did the right thing by forcing a pause on oil by rail through our communities.”
The congressman, who represents the 3rd District that includes Fairfield and Suisun City, authored the Bakken Crude Stabilization Act to reduce the volatility of oil transported by rail and make it safer to transport, the release said.
Northern California towns lack resources to handle oil train fires, spills
By Jane Braxton Little, April 23, 2016 7:49 AM
• Lassen County town has no reliable water supply for firefighting
• Crude oil transport by rail grew 1,700 percent in 2015
• Federal government providing hands-on response training
WESTWOOD – BNSF Railway trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials rumble through this Lassen County community every day – past homes, churches and a scant block from the downtown commercial center.
If a tank car were to derail and explode, Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen would take the only action he’s equipped for: Evacuation. Of all 1,000 residents.
Westwood has no consistent source of water, and the closest trailers with enough foam to extinguish a large blaze are a full four hours away, he said: “We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.”
Rural officials like Duerksen have been worried for decades about the chlorine, ammonia, propane and crude oil transported through their northern California communities by BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad. But a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported a 1,700 percent increase in crude oil transportation by rail.
That’s slowed significantly in the last year, a change generally attributed to a drop in the price of oil. But emergency responders worry that the volume will swell again when crude oil prices rise. In recent weeks, many have observed an increase in the number of tank cars on trains running south toward Sacramento and San Francisco.
That could be a precursor to the half-mile long oil trains planned for travel through Northern California to Benicia. Valero Refining Co. has proposed building a rail loading station that would allow importing oil on two 50-car trains a day to the city 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas.
WE’D JUST HAVE TO GET EVERYBODY OUT AND GO FROM THERE.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen
On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council postponed until September a decision on Valero’s appeal of a February planning commission recommendation that unanimously rejected the proposal.
Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.
No one was hurt in 2014, when 11 cars derailed on Union Pacific tracks in the Feather River Canyon, spilling corn down a hillside above the river that supplies drinking water to millions of people as far south as Los Angeles. The cars could easily have been carrying crude oil, with substantial environmental consequences far beyond the Feather River, said Jerry Sipe, director of Plumas County’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We were lucky,” he said.
In 2015 there were 574 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Of these, 114 were in California, and three in Roseville, site of a large rail yard. Most were minor, and none involved fatalities.
Officials in California’s up-rail cities, including Sacramento, have raised objections to plans to expand oil train traffic, saying not enough attention is being given to safety concerns. But these large urban jurisdictions are far better equipped to respond to incidents than their counterparts in rural Northern California, where train tracks pass through some of the state’s roughest terrain.
In these rural areas, the people responding first to oil spills and accidents are generally local fire departments like Duerksen’s, one of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire organizations. Among the small rural communities along BNSF’s tracks through Northern California, the Westwood Fire Department is one of the better equipped for a hazardous materials accident.
Duerksen took advantage of a BNSF program at the railroad industry’s training and research center in Pueblo, Colo. That gave him hands-on experience in using water and foam on a burning railcar, and taught him advanced techniques for containing spills.
Increase in crude oil transportation by rail in 2015
Since then, several volunteer firefighters from Westwood and communities along the BNSF line have attended the training. Quincy and other fire departments along the Union Pacific line have also sent volunteers to Pueblo.
Plumas County was recently awarded a grant to acquire an oil spill trailer with firefighting foam and 1,200 feet of “hard booms,” which can contain large quantities of hazardous materials. Sipe said it will be positioned along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon, where aging trestles and sharp curves make it among the most accident-prone rail lines in the state.
“We’re better protected now than a year ago,” Sipe said.
Despite the improvements, many fire departments remain untrained and poorly equipped. In Greenville, where the BNSF line passes directly through residential and commercial areas, none of the 25 volunteers has been to the oil-spill training in Pueblo, said Chris Gallagher, general manager of the Indian Valley Community Services District, which oversees the fire department. Four of the department’s 10 pieces of equipment have been deemed inoperable by the California Highway Patrol, he said.
“We definitely need some help,” said Gallagher.
That could come through an innovative program taking the Pueblo emergency response training on the road. Rail safety experts will travel to communities around the country providing hands-on accident preparedness to firefighters. Funded by a $2.4 million award from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the mobile training program is expected to train about 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities in 2016.
The award is part of a $5.9 million grant to provide hazardous materials training for volunteer or remote emergency responders. Plumas County has already requested the mobile training, Sipe said.
BNSF strongly supports these programs, said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. Last year alone it trained 10,000 first responders, 1,500 of them in California.
Duerksen, the Westwood fire chief, said he feels much safer than he did two years ago, when the increase in oil-train traffic had emergency responders on edge. “We’re better trained and better prepared now,” he said.
But not everyone is content with the increased training and beefed-up emergency response equipment. Larry Bradshaw, a retired therapist and community activist in Westwood, is advocating for additional safety requirements for BNSF. He wants to see a high-risk rail designation extended from Greenville to Westwood, imposing a 45 mph maximum speed and increasing the number of inspections.
“We’re not prepared at all. There’s no way we can respond to a spill. The only thing we can do is evacuate,” Bradshaw said.
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.
Sacramento oil spills would be risky but rare, new report says
By Tony Bizjak, August 31, 2015
• Valero Refining Co. wants to send two 50-car oil trains daily through central Sacramento
• A report says project presents risks to humans and the environment, but says spills are rare
• Sacramento and NorCal leaders have called for more safety steps to reduce the spill and fire risks
Benicia city officials have concluded a proposal to transport large amounts of crude oil daily on trains through Sacramento and Northern California would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public, but say a spill is probably only a once every few decades occurrence.
In a revised environmental impact report issued Monday, officials in the Bay Area city contend spill risks are unavoidable and there is nothing that the city or the Valero Refining Co. can do to mitigate them, given that the federal government controls how rail shipments are handled. The report makes a point of saying that federal and state governments have taken recent steps to make crude oil rail transports safer.
Valero, which operates a major oil refinery in Benicia, is asking for city approval to ship two 50-car crude oil trains daily from north American fields through California to the Bay Area, replacing marine oil shipments.
Oil train shipments have come under the spotlight nationally after a handful of crashes that caused spectacular explosions and fires. One crash two years ago resulted in the deaths of 47 people in a Canadian town; others have forced evacuations and spilled oil into waterways.
Benicia officials conducted the latest analysis after critics, including Sacramento regional leaders, complained earlier risk assessments were inadequate. They have called on Benicia and Valero to take more safety steps.
Cities on the rail line include Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and Suisun City. The oil train route through rural Northern California remains uncertain. Trains could enter the state from Oregon and pass through the Dunsmuir area, or through the Feather River Canyon, or via Donner Summit.
Benicia’s initial environmental report, published last year, had said spill damage hazards are “less than significant.” The new report is based on a deeper analysis of an expanded geographic area.
The Benicia report cites federal data showing that less than 1 percent of train accidents cause releases of hazardous materials. But it also notes that trains to Benicia would have to travel through mountainous areas that have higher derailment rates. It projects that an oil spill of more than 100 gallons – described in the report as a small spill – might be expected to happen once every 20 to 27 years. A larger spill of 30,000 gallons is listed as a once-every-38-to-80-years event, but could cause injuries and deaths.
The release of the new report sets in place a 45-day public comment period. Benicia officials said they will respond to those comments, then set a Planning Commission review and vote on the project. The date for that hearing has not been set.
Valero officials, who have complained that Benicia’s vetting process has gone on too long, said in a brief email statement Monday that they are looking forward to participating in the Planning Commission discussion of their project. Officials with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional entity that has been monitoring the project, could not be reached for comment Monday.
A copy of the report can be found under “Revised Draft EIR” on the city of Benicia’s website.