Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle
Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastropheBy Jaxon Van Derbeken, October 23, 2014
A plan to bring tank-car trains filled with crude oil from Canada and North Dakota to a Benicia refinery is pitting the Solano County town against Northern California neighbors who say they will be burdened with the risk of environmental catastrophe.
Benicia officials must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on a $70million terminal at Valero Corp.’s refinery near Interstate 680, where two 50-car oil trains a day would deliver crude.
Supporters and the company say California consumers stand to benefit: With no major oil pipelines running to the West Coast and marine transport both costly and potentially hazardous, they say, rail is the best way to keep local gasoline prices low.
“Right now, that refinery relies on more expensive crude from Alaska,” said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero. “Rail is the quickest, most efficient and safest way of delivery.”
Benicia’s environmental study weighing the risks of the project, however, has done nothing to assuage critics who say the city is downplaying the dangers of delivering oil by rail.
Crude from North Dakota shale is extra-volatile, they say, and the city’s environmental report assessed only the chances of a spill along the 69 miles of track from the Sacramento suburbs to Benicia — not the chance of a catastrophic explosion, or the possibility of an accident of any kind along the more than 1,000 additional miles the trains would have to travel to reach the shores of the Carquinez Strait.
“This project is not in our region — it is outside of our region — but the impacts on the 2.3million people who live here we view as very significant, very troublesome, very disturbing,” said Don Saylor, chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 22 cities and six counties through which the oil trains could travel.
‘A street fight’
Benicia itself is divided by the proposed project. Some locals worry about the environmental risks and traffic problems, while others tout the benefits of low-cost crude to Valero — a company that accounts for a quarter of the city’s tax revenue.
“This is going to be a street fight,” said oil-train opponent Ed Ruszel, whose family woodworking business fronts the railroad tracks next to the refinery. “They have to come across my driveway every day — we’re at ground zero.”
The issue is so contentious that the city attorney recently told Mayor Elizabeth Patterson to stop sending out e-mail alerts about city meetings regarding the oil-train project. According to Patterson, the city attorney warned that her activism could open Benicia’s final decision to legal challenge.
Patterson said she has not taken a stand on the Valero terminal, but that “we need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”
She called City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin’s warning “a blatant effort to muzzle me.” Mc Laughlin did not respond to a request for comment.
For Ruszel and other critics of the project, the danger is real. They cite several recent oil-by-rail explosions, including the derailment of a 72-car train that killed 47 people and wiped out much of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec in July 2013.
The Valero-bound trains would pass through Sacramento, Davis and Fairfield, among other cities, en route to Benicia. Those cities have voiced concerns about the terminal, where trains would deliver a total of 2.9million gallons a day of shale oil and tar sands.
“We have lots of support here from our own local people,” said project critic Marilyn Bardet of Benicia, “but the real difference is that there are so many agencies and people from up rail looking at this problem. We feel exonerated — everybody has chimed in and agreed with us.”
Not everyone along the rail line is against the idea, however. State Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican who represents Rocklin (Placer County) and is running for state insurance commissioner, called the project “beneficial environmentally and economically.”
It “can be done safely given the prevention, preparedness and response measures in place by both Valero and Union Pacific Railroad,” Gaines said.
The Benicia battle will probably be a preview of numerous local fights over oil trains in California. Oil-by-rail shipments jumped from 1million barrels in 2012 to 6.3million barrels in 2013, according to government estimates. By 2016, the state could be awash with 150million rail-shipped barrels of crude a year.
What Benicia does could influence how future oil-train plans play out. Several cities have called on Benicia to require that all train tanker cars have reinforced walls and be better controlled by new, electronically activated braking systems, and that officials restrict what kind of oil can be shipped to Valero.
Such efforts, however, could run afoul of federal law that preempts states and local governments from setting standards on rail lines. Valero has already warned city officials that it may “invoke the full scope of federal preemption,” a thinly veiled threat to sue if Benicia imposes too many restrictions.
Much of the crude that would arrive via train at Valero is expected to come from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Federal transportation officials recently deemed Bakken crude to be an “imminent hazard” because it is far more easily ignitable than more stable grades of crude previously shipped by rail.
In issuing an alert in May, federal transportation officials warned that oil trains with more than 20 cars are at the highest risk because they are heavier than typical cargo and thus more difficult to control. The federal government is considering requiring additional reinforcement of tanker cars and more robust braking systems.
The federal alert about the danger of crude by rail comes as accidents have skyrocketed, with nine major explosions nationwide since the start of 2013. Last year alone, trains spilled more than 1million gallons of crude in the United States — 72 percent more than the entire amount spilled in the previous four decades combined, California officials say.
The consultants who wrote Benicia’s draft environmental impact study concluded that because the type of crude that would be brought to Valero is a trade secret, they could not factor it into their risk assessment. They calculated that a major spill on the 69 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and Benicia could be expected roughly once every 111 years.
Among those who think Benicia needs to take a harder look is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office wrote a letter challenging the environmental impact report this month.
Harris’ office says the report’s authors assumed that the safest rail cars available would be used, disregarded spills of fewer than 100 gallons in determining the likelihood of accidents and, in looking only as far as Roseville, ignored 125 miles of routes north and east of the Sierra foothills town.
Some possible routes go through treacherous mountain passes that historically have seen more accidents, say oil-train skeptics. While not specifically mentioning a legal challenge, Harris’ office called Benicia’s study deficient and said it ignored the “serious, potentially catastrophic, impacts” of an accident.
Not her call
Valero says Harris can voice all the objections she wants, but that she doesn’t get a say on whether the terminal will be built.
“This is really the city of Benicia’s decision,” said Day, the company spokesman. The attorney general and others, he said, are “free to file comments” on the environmental report.
He added that “all the crude oil that Valero ships will be in the newest rail cars, which meet or exceed rail safety specifications.”
“Rail companies have products moving on the rails every day that are flammable,” Day said. “The overwhelming majority of everything transported gets there safely, on time, with no incidents.”
Benicia’s City Council now has to decide whether to order to certify the draft study, order it revised or reject it entirely. When that decision comes, Benicia will be getting a lot of out-of-town attention.
“We have near-unanimity in our region to address the safety issues of the crude-oil shipments by rail,” said Saylor, the Yolo County supervisor. “For us, it has been strictly about public safety. It’s a high-risk operation — we have no choice but to take on this issue.”