Benicia council to send letter supporting safer rail measures
By Irma Widjojo, 04/08/15, 8:36 PM PDT
Benicia >> The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter in support of several rail safety recommendations to the Federal Office of Management and Budget.
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked the council to consider sending the letter as requested by the League of Cities, of which Benicia is a member.
The league has adopted 10 recommendation as official policy to “increase rail safety in the transport of hazardous materials.”
The recommendations include mandating speed limits and electronically controlled braking systems, increasing the federal funding for training and equipment purchases for first responders, regulating the parking and storage of tank cars and others.
Patterson on Tuesday said sending such a letter usually doesn’t require it to be presented in a city council meeting, however City Councilman Tom Campbell has voiced his concerns due to the pending Valero Crude by Rail project.
“I wanted the city attorney to give an opinion if we are going to run into an issue of possibly prejudicing ourselves,” Campbell said Tuesday.
The city is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report for the project.
City Attorney Heather McLaughlin said there would not be an issue of bias, since the letter only states that “we just want the oil transported safely.”
Though the council voted unanimously to send the letter, they opted for the version that was provided by the league, instead of the one that was slightly edited by Patterson.
“I would go along with the language of the league as provided for consistency,” Vice Mayor Mark Hughes said.
A Benicia resident and environmental activist spoke during the public comment period stating that the letter will not have any effect on the Valero project.
“The letter is not going to make much impact as much as I appreciate the spirit of it,” Marilyn Bardet said. “The rail will be built before any policy is put in place.”
Patterson has also has been an outspoken advocate of tougher crude-by-rail safety measures.
Christopher McKenzie, the LCC’s executive director, already has sent a letter March 6 on behalf of its board of directors to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx, asking that his department make LCC’s recommendations part of federal policy in governing rail safety.
“The continued increase in the transport of crude oil by rail, combined with recent rail rail accidents involving oil spills and resulting fires, have served to heighten concerns about rail safety among many of our member cities,” McKenzie wrote.
Rail safety, particularly in transport of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, has become a growing concern nationwide and elsewhere.
The California Environmental Protection Agency has been presenting a series of forums on the matter, one of which took place March 26 in Crockett, a meeting attended by several Benicia residents who oppose delivery of oil by train.
In another development this week, WesPac Midstream has dropped the crude-by-rail component of its intent to transform a Pacific Gas and Electric tank farm into a regional oil storage site.
In explaining the move Project Manager Art Diefenbach cited uncertainties about prospective changes in regulations of oil shipping by rail, a series of protests and falling crude prices that have made shipping by train less attractive. Should the project be completed, oil would arrive either by ship or pipeline, which Pittsburg Mayor Pete Longmire suggested would make the operation safer and less controversial.
In his letter, McKenzie cited incidents that prompted the LCC to express its own safety concerns and to offer recommendations that might reduce the potential for accidents.
“Specifically, two derailments accompanied by fires involving unit trains (100 or more tank cars) carrying crude oil in West Virginia and in Ontario, Canada, earlier this month have greatly increased public anxiety about what steps the relevant federal regulatory agencies are taking to improve rail safety and on what timetable,” he wrote.
He said the LCC wanted to make three points: First, that improvements that are required of participating industries should be mandates, not recommendations; second, that the mandates should have a hard deadline for implementation; and third, that the Department of Transportation should include the LCC’s recommendations in the final rule for Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Flammable Materials.
McKenzie wrote that the LCC wants all federal agencies involved in regulating crude-by-rail shipments to require electronically controlled braking systems on trains carrying the sweeter crude from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields, and to set a sooner date for phasing out or retrofitting the older DOT-111 tanks.
More federal money should be directed toward training and equipment for first responders who are sent to hazardous materials accidents, he wrote, and how the funding is to be distributed needs to be defined. In addition, trains should have maximum speed limits in all areas.
His letter said the LCC wants the number of tank cars that trigger a California Energy Commission and State Emergency Response Commission report lowered to 20 from 33, which in turn would lower the trigger point from shipments of 1.1 million gallons or more to those of 690,000 gallons or more.
Priority routes for positive train control, a technology that incorporates geopositioning tracking to slow or halt trains automatically to reduce collisions, should be identified, McKenzie wrote, and parking and storage of tank cards need regulating, too.
He further wrote that railroads should be forced to comply with their Individual Voluntary Agreements with the US-DOT, because currently there is no requirement for them to do so. Those pacts involve reducing speed limits for oil trains that use older tank cars and travel through urban areas; determining the safest rail route; increased track inspection; adding enhanced braking systems; improving emergency response plans and training; increasing track inspections; and working with cities and communities to address their concerns about oil transport by train.
“The League of California Cities understands that this area of regulation is largely preempted by federal law,” McKenzie wrote. “That is why we are urging specific and timely action by the federal agencies charged with regulatory oversight in this area. We do not expect that derailments and accidents will cease altogether, but we anticipate that stricter safety standards will reduce their numbers over time.”
The LCC also has supplied member cities with a sample letter patterned after McKenzie’s message, to customize before sending to Foxx.
In a report to Benicia City Council, City Manager Brad Kilger wrote, “The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rulemaking authority requesting that these measures be implemented.”
Since the preparation of the letter template, he wrote, the LCC has learned that any decisions on improved safety regulations would be made in the Office of Management and Budget.
“The mayor is requesting that the city send a letter on behalf of the Benicia City Council,” Kilger wrote.
Consideration of the letter won’t conflict with future consideration of a request by Valero Benicia Refinery to extend Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can substitute rail delivery for tanker ship delivery of crude oil, a highly contentious proposition that is currently undergoing environmental review.
“In that the city is currently processing the use permit and EIR (environmental Impact Report) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, I asked the city attorney to determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” Kilger wrote.
He said City Attorney Heather McLaughlin informed him there would be no conflict because the letter doesn’t take any position on the Valero project or the adequacy of the ongoing environmental review.
“The letter simply urges the adoption of more stringent federal standards for the transportation of crude by rail,” Kilger wrote.
If the Council agrees the letter should be sent to Foxx, it would be signed by Patterson as mayor, and copies would be sent to California’s two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, all members of California’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Solano County Board of Supervisors, the Solano Transportation Authority, Kilger, McLaughlin and members of the Council.
The Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 250 East L St.