Tag Archives: Environmental review

Letter from the Mayor of Oroville opposes Valero-Benicia oil trains

By Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent, December 18, 2015

City of Oroville, California – and others – oppose Valero Crude By Rail

Late this afternoon, the City of Benicia posted yet another batch of letters opposing Valero Crude By Rail.

The first letter in this document is significant: it comes from the mayor of the City of Oroville, CA, which is located near the Feather River Canyon and at the head of the California State Water Project.  The letter concludes with

The Oroville City Council and the citizens of the City of Oroville ask Valero to reconsider their proposal to deliver North American crude oil by railcar “uprail” from the Nevada border and down through Roseville to the Benicia refinery due to the potential devastation of California wildlife, water resources, and air quality.

The remaining 12 letters are CREDO Action letters from individuals all over California, also opposing Valero CBR. (These 12 can be added to the previous 2,062 similar letters sent by CREDO supporters.)  I don’t have an exact count, but there were also a LOT of letters generated by the Center for Biological Diversity and by ForestEthics.  We aren’t alone here in Benicia!

For these letters and many others, see our Project Review page.

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Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh…this sounds SO familiar….  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  – RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

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Northridge neighbors fight a second railroad track

Repost from the Los Angeles Daily News

Northridge neighbors fight a second railroad track

By Dana Bartholomew, 11/18/15, 8:12 PM PST
Residents against a proposed changing of a single railroad track in to a double that runs through their Northridge neighborhood, Wednesday, November 11, 2015. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

NORTHRIDGE >> When dozens of freight and passenger trains whoosh each day past homes in Northridge, curtains are sucked through open windows and nail heads sometimes lifted from floors, residents say.

And that happens from just one railroad track.

Now residents along the San Fernando Valley railroad are rattled by plans for a second track running from Van Nuys to Chatsworth. They say the double track would move the trains much closer to their backyards, diminishing property values while increasing noise, vibration and the chance of a dangerous derailment or toxic spill.

“There’s already a good chance of derailment, because of cars running through our cul de sac,” Briana Guardino, 47, of Northridge, whose home on White Oak Avenue abuts the railroad right of way and lies 60 feet from the track, said during a recent streetside protest. “If they put a new track in here, my family’s dead. If a train tips over, it’s coming straight into our bedroom.”

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has long planned to lay a second track across the northwest San Fernando Valley rail corridor. But momentum on the project, which had been scheduled to break ground next year, was slowed when newly appointed Metro CEO Phillip Washington said he would seek more community input and the results of a noise and vibration study requested by residents.

The Raymer to Bernson Double Track Project, formally proposed in 2011, would add 6.4 miles of new rails between Woodley and De Soto avenues, allowing Metrolink, Amtrak and Union Pacific trains to share a continuous rail corridor across Los Angeles County and beyond.

The $104 million project, to be paid for by voter-approved Measure R and Proposition 1B transit funds, would include upgrades to traffic controls, grade crossings and roads and bridges along the rail route, while rebuilding the Northridge Metrolink Station to serve an expected boost in passengers.

By adding a second track, Metro officials say, freight and passenger trains that now sit with their engines idling waiting for trains to pass would operate more efficiently, creating less smog. They say a double track would also promote rail safety, reliability and on-time performance.

“We would never do anything that was not safe, that we know to be unsafe,” said Paul Gonzales, a spokesman for Metro. “Nothing will be approved, built or operated unless we’re satisfied that it’s safe.”

Residents’ concerns

This summer, however, residents of Sherwood Forest caught wind of the double-track plan they say double-crossed the thousands who live along the route by speeding ahead without community input or any state or federal environmental impact reviews.

Instead, transit officials had won a federal “categorical exclusion,” or environmental study workaround, by claiming “the public has been informed of the project and is in complete support.”

It wasn’t.

While public officials and some neighborhood councils were brought up to date, residents living by the railroad tracks were not, they say. So meetings with Metro were called over the summer, with hundreds turning out in opposition. A Citizens Against Double Track Steering Committee coalition was formed.

More than 1,000 residents have signed a petition to spike the project.

A protest by the Northridge track last week drew nearly 20 red-clad residents who brandished signs from “Too close to homes = unsafe” to “Destroy property values.” They said the number of trains has grown from up to eight each day 30 years ago to up to three dozen, with more capacity expected with a double track. Three trains, including a 95-car freight, passed within an hour during the protest.

“Very simply: We all moved in knowing there was a train behind us,” said Stefan Mayer, 59, of Northridge, a contractor who now regularly checks his wood floor for raised nail heads. “What I do have a problem with is the possibility of more trains, more noise, more (danger) and the destruction of our property.”

Support for residents

Meanwhile, elected officials from Los Angeles to Washington have voiced support for residents’ opposition. In August, Councilman Mitch Englander called on Metro to explain its reasons for a new track, urging the agency to address local concerns about the environmental review process.

County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a Metro board member whose district includes the proposed double track, has joined residents with questions about public safety.

“I have some concerns regarding double tracking in residential areas,” she said last week in a statement. “If Metro decides to move forward with (a) second phase, I will request a full environmental review.

“I am concerned that the issues the community has raised be addressed and that there be adequate mitigation.”

Congressman Brad Sherman has also weighed in, saying he shares the concerns of Kuehl and residents affected by trains passing more closely to their homes.

He said the federal National Environmental Policy Act requires a formal environmental review if the proposed rail project could result in a change in “noise sources” within homes, schools and parks. Metro is now conducting a preliminary noise study.

“Furthermore, I understand that Metro and Metrolink are considering a proposal which accomplishes the project goals of operational reliability and safety without double-tracking the one-mile stretch of the project which lies adjacent to homes,” Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that their efforts to find a solution to the concerns of the affected community prove successful.”

A Metro town hall meeting that was scheduled to take place today to answer more than a hundred questions from residents was pushed back to mid-December, a Metro spokesman said, or early January to accommodate for the holidays.

Gonzales, the Metro spokesman, admitted the agency had “fallen down on the job” on community outreach but would make it right.

“The decision will be made according to what’s right, for not only the local community, but the transportation system as a whole,” he said. “Their needs, desires will be taken into account.

“We have listened — and continue to listen — to people in that neighborhood, and are taking their issues into account.”

One known incident

Residents said the only known incident along the line was a derailment during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and that seismic safety precludes a second track.

They questioned the need for a second track when Metrolink ridership has dropped more than 9 percent since 2008 — from 45,443 daily boardings to 41,248, according to a recent study — with some passenger cars nearly empty.

They questioned a “track shift” they said would force trains to cross over from a new double track north of the current rails to new rails laid to the south, creating another hazard. But there will be no track switch, Metro officials say.

They also questioned the safety of moving rails closer to their homes that carry explosive crude oil trains. Two years ago, an oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, with a resulting explosion that killed 47 and burned 30 buildings. Last summer, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion urging a San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to block a proposed Phillips 66 refinery expansion that could send five 1.4-mile-long oil trains a week into Los Angeles through the San Fernando Valley.

If a crude-bearing train were to derail in the highly populated Valley, a blast ratio of 1,000 feet could kill 3,000 people, residents say.

“When they started this (double track), they essentially cheated our neighborhood out of an environmental impact report,” said Michael Rissi, co-chairman of the steering committee to fight a second track. “We want an EIR.

“But we really don’t want a double track. The single track has been here for 102 years without an accident, and we want it to stay that way.”

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