Thompson introduces act addressing crude by railBy Irma Widjojo, 04/15/15, 8:06 PM PDT
Another bill concerning the transportation of crude oil by rail was introduced Wednesday, following at least two others in the past month. With a pending Valero Refinery crude-by-rail project in the works, concerned Benicians and activists said though they acknowledge the effort in the bill, they’d like to see more.
U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, coauthored the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act, which would “establish new, common sense federal safety standards for railcars transporting oil across the country,” according to a release from Thompson’s office.
The act would take on a number of factors, including maximum volatility standard for crude oil transported by rail, higher fines for violating volatility standards and hazmat transport standards. The act will also seek to remove 37,700 unsafe cars off the rail network and recommend other measures to increase the safety of crude by rail.
“Public safety is priority No. 1 when it comes to transporting highly volatile crude oil,” Thompson said in the release.
There have been four derailments of trains carrying crude oil in the United States and Canada in under a month earlier this year — in Illinois, West Virginia and twice in Ontario.
Thompson said he has been working on the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act for about a year. The proposed legislation was also authored by Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Nita Lowey, D-NY.
“Folks in the district had concerns,” he said. “Explosions have people worried.”
The bill will still have to go through its due process before it could get signed into law, and that could take some time.
Activists said these procedures won’t come in time before another possible disaster strikes.
Marilyn Bardet, a Benicia resident and environmental activist, said that even if the policy was put in place, it wouldn’t be done before the pending Valero’s Crude-by-Rail project is underway.
“That is a huge concern,” Bardet said. “Valero talks about their safety record, but they are talking about the safety of the refinery. This is really the project of the railroad.”
Benicia is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project. The Recirculated Draft EIR is anticipated to be released for public comment June 30. It will have a 45-day comment period. After the comment period closes, the city will complete the final version, which will include responses to all comments.
Bardet said she’s glad to see an effort from congress to address the Department of Transportation and the issue, but said from her initial perusing of the act she found that there were missing components to it.
A few of her concerns that are not mentioned in the proposed act are speed reduction, plans on dealing with explosions and derailment in remote areas and the safety of bridges.
“There are derailments on a regular basis, and historically they have not been shipping oil in hundreds and hundreds of (train) cars across the country,” Bardet said. “They are doing this at the risk of people’s safety and the environment.”
A spokesman for Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, an advocate group against the crude-by-rail project, agreed with Bardet’s sentiment.
“In general we’re glad to see our federal representatives are paying attention to the critical issue that impact communities around the country,” Andrés Soto said.
However, Soto is doubting the passage of the bill.
“I think that there’s going to be a major challenge to get this legislation passed,” he said, adding that he would like to see more transparency from the refineries and railroad companies.
Thompson said he doesn’t know if he’s going to be met with pushbacks on the proposed bill.
“I’m trying to do what’s right, and not what’s easy,” he said.
Soto said the only way to ensure the community’s safety before a policy is set is by having a national moratorium on the transportation of these crude oils, especially of more volatile kinds like Bakken shale oil.
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, an outspoken advocate of rail safety, calls the bill “a good start” and is “a comprehensive way to address rail safety.”
Speaking in a general context of the issue, Patterson said she is glad to see that “the dots have been connected between the issue of volatility of some of the products and transportation.”
She shared some of the few questions that the activists had, including waiting for a set of standards.
“What’s the rush?” Patterson said. “Why not take some time out and get our house in order in terms of federal regulations, and the response to accidents?”
She also said she would like to see funding in place for the response to accidents and training for local governments and public safety personnel.
“The response equipment doesn’t exist in most routes,” Patterson said. “The funding needs to be there.”
Paterson acknowledged that the bill is still in its early stages.
“I imagine there would be a lot of comments,” she said. “It’s a good first start, I wouldn’t want to see anything less. It shows that (Thompson) has been listening to the public, and he’s responded.”
To read the proposed act, visit mcdermott.house.gov/images/pdf/crudebyrailsafetyct.pdf.
A similar senate bill was also introduced last month by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Solano, also authored a legislation, H.R. 1679, in March, which would prohibit the transport of crude-by-rail unless authorities have reduced the volatile gases in the oil prior to transportation.