Public comments on Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed project
By Irma Widjojo, 09/30/15, 6:14 PM PDT
Benicia >> In a special meeting that drew a large crowd Tuesday night, the Benicia Planning Commission received comments from concerned citizens on recently distributed documents on Valero’s proposed Crude-by-Rail project.
Many of those supporting the project wore a sticker on their clothing indicating their approval, while some of those opposing the project wore pins, brought signs and sported a sunflower — a symbol of environmentalism — at the Benicia City Council Chambers at City Hall.
The meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted until about 10 p.m., was an opportunity for the public to submit verbal comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report, or RDEIR, of the project. Those who could not get a seat in the chambers, which has a 120-person capacity, were asked to wait for their turn to speak in an overflow room.
The RDEIR concluded that the project would cause “significant and unavoidable” impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biological resources and hazards and hazardous materials. However, the report also adds “potential mitigation measures to reduce these new impacts would be preempted by federal law.”
A few speakers who were concerned with the project took issue with the federal preemption mentioned in the report. Federal preemption means federal laws displace state or other local laws.
“It has become a justification for the lack of mitigation,” Benicia resident Roger Straw said. Straw also is the editor of the online publication The Benicia Independent, which disseminates articles and information regarding crude-by-rail and Valero refinery.
Another Benician, Judith Sullivan, said “preemption makes it sound like we don’t have any choices.
“But grassroots efforts like this have been pushing the federal government to enact new environmental laws,” she said.
Representatives from Valero Benicia Refinery and Union Pacific, which would operate the railroad used for the trains hauling crude if the project is approved, also spoke during the meeting.
“This process has forged into a new territory and goes beyond what CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requires,” said Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery’s lead environmental engineer.
An attorney working with Valero on the application called the process “out of control.”
“We’ve lost sight of the city’s discretion,” said attorney John Flynn. The RDEIR, released Aug. 31, came after an outpouring of feedback from the public on the Draft Environmental Impact Report last year.
Valero Benicia Refinery applied for the permit for the project in early 2013.
If the project is approved, Valero will be allowed to transport crude oil through Benicia via two 50-tanker car trains, rather than shipping the crude oil by boat. It will not replace the crude that is transported by pipeline, officials said.
Concerns voiced on Tuesday about the RDEIR included conflicting information, conclusions based on assumptions and lack of details, among others.
Though the commission reminded the public that the comments should be limited to the redistributed report, instead of about the project in general, not everyone heeded the reminder.
“Valero is a powerful oil company that provides most revenue to this town,” a speaker said. “Are you going to let them get richer on the expense of the health and well being of the residents?”
Many supporting the project said Valero has “gone above and beyond” in the process to ensure the project’s safety, and called Valero a “good neighbor.”
However, that was not good enough of a reason for those in opposition.
“While Valero has been a good neighbor, we can’t be held hostage by what they have given generously to our city,” Anina Hutchinson said.
They also brought up issues about increased greenhouse gas emission, chance of derailment while carrying volatile crude and destruction of the environment in the area of the railroad.
Herbert Forthuber told the Times-Herald he supports the project because Valero is a major financial revenue for the city.
“I’ve seen in the past that when it’s not economically viable anymore for (a refinery) to be in a city, they close down,” Forthuber said, adding that it would be a blow for the local employees and other local businesses that depend on the refinery.
Forthuber is the vice president and general manager of a local business that repairs industrial machineries.
“The RDEIR really hasn’t changed my mind,” he said. “I’m more economically minded, and I care about the impact it would have for people who work for me.”
Valero officials have contended that the railroad addition would make the refinery more competitive by allowing it to process more discounted North American crude oil.
All of those who were present Tuesday were given an opportunity to speak, and the remaining three special meetings for this purpose have been cancelled.
Comments on the report may still be submitted in writing no later than 5 p.m. on Oct. 30.
Written comments should be submitted to email@example.com or Principal Planner Amy Million at the Community Development Department. For further information about the revised environmental report, contact Million at 707-746-4280.
The report can be reviewed at the Benicia Public Library, 150 E. L St.; the Community Development Department, 250 E. L St.; or online at bit.ly/1lBeeTt.
Following the end of the comment period, a final Environmental Impact Report will be released to the public.
During the meeting, Million said staff estimated Planning Commission hearings will be held in January for the commission to certify the report and whether to grant Valero the use permit for the project.
Repost from The Benicia Herald [Editor: Winning the award for most ridiculous comment was Larry Fullington: “For the past 45 years, Fullington said, the refinery has not experienced any overturned oil tanker car.” His unskilled use of statistics rises almost to the level of expertise of the Illinois consultant, who came up with the once-in-111-years spill estimate, based on PAST experience and neglecting to account for the massive increase in rail traffic if Valero’s proposal goes forward. – RS]
Rail plan hearing goes long again
Donna Beth Weilenman, August 15, 2014 (appearing in the Sunday, August 17 print edition)
■ Capacity crowd offers pro, con views in commission meeting that is continued 2nd time
The Planning Commission’s ongoing public hearing on the Valero Crude-By-Rail Project draft environmental impact report resumed Thursday. It lasted until 12:30 a.m. Friday and it still wasn’t long enough.
After hearing hours of comments and testimony from the proposed project’s supporters and detractors, the Planning Commission decided to continue the hearing a second time, to its Sept. 11 meeting, to give more people — including commission members — a chance to weigh in on the environmental document.
As they did when the hearing first was opened July 11, members of the public filled the Council Chamber at City Hall, which has a capacity of 120, including the commission, staff members and those handling the recording and broadcast of the meeting.
Between 20 and 30 were seated in the Commission Room and another dozen or more were in a City Hall conference room, where they could watch the proceedings on a screen. Nearly 20 more sat in the City Hall courtyard, where they could hear an audio broadcast. More than 70 chose to spoke Thursday.
Unlike the practices at past meetings, city staff kept the Council Chamber doors locked until about 6:15 p.m. while additional sound equipment was put in place. Once the room was filled, those attending the hearing were directed to side rooms.
Despite the packed City Hall, several speakers said Thursday that people in Benicia remained unfamiliar with the project, and many didn’t even know it had been proposed.
The project initially was proposed after Valero wrote its land use permit application December 2012. The Benicia Department of Community Development has been taking public comment since May 30, 2013.
Public comment on the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) will be taken until the close of business on Sept. 15.
The project would add 8,880 feet of rail and would modify or expand some of the refinery’s infrastructure. Once completed, it would enable the refinery to accept up to 100 tank cars of crude oil a day in two 50-car trains entering refinery property on an existing rail spur that crosses Park Road.
The crude would be pumped to existing crude oil storage tanks by a new offloading pipeline that would be connected to existing piping within the property.
Using photographs, maps and some animation, Ed Ruszel, who owns a business near the proposed construction site, showed how railroad tracks in the city’s industrial area have been reduced, changing from loops that circulated trains around the area to cul de sacs.
He said the project would impact trafic more significantly than described in the DEIR, especially along commercial driveways and along Interstate 680 and major Industrial Park roads, such as Bayshore Road.
He criticized the contention that the twice-a-day trains that would arrive and depart the refinery would have little or no impact on traffic, saying Union Pacific Railroad won’t agree to limits on volume of product it ships or frequency, routing or configuration of its shipments.
In general, railroads are governed under federal law, not by state or local agencies or regulations.
Ruszel said the DEIR presumes the railroad and refinery will operate flawlessly as the oil cars are brought in, unloaded and depart. “The notion that longer trains and increased train traffic will reduce auto traffic is absurd and intentionally misleading.”
Marilyn Bardet, speaking briefly for Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, one of the organizations that opposes delivery of crude by rail, said some issues were “obscured” in the DEIR, especially those affecting railside cities besides Benicia.
“The local and regional impacts spiral out,” she said.
Bardet was one of several who told the commission that the state had little regulatory authority over locomotives or how many would be used. “Union Pacific is not part of the application,” she said. “Union Pacific logistics and performance is pivotal.”
Because trains and railroads are regulated at the federal level as interstate commerce, she said, Valero would have little control over Union Pacific, the railroad the refinery would hire to deliver the crude.
“This cast doubts on the DEIR,” she said, adding that “the report didn’t discuss the threat of derailment and of flammable liquid in the Industrial Park.”
Bardet called the project a “local, undesirable land use,” or “LULU.”
Roger Straw, publisher of an online website dedicated to opposing the Crude-by-Rail Project and members of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, challenged the DEIR’s statistics about the likelihood of derailments and spills, calling those numbers “an insult.”
Straw also questioned the safety of the reinforced tanker cars the refinery has promised to use instead of those currently in use. He urged putting the process on hold until only new tank cars and stronger federal rail regulations are in place.
Bibbi Rubenstein, also with Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, disagreed with project supporters that allowing Valero to bring in crude by train would provide any significant jobs, either during construction or once the operation started.
More supporters of the project spoke than detractors. Among them was attorney John Flynn, who said he has been helping Valero Benicia Refinery during the environmental review process. Flynn reminded the commission that the DEIR applies to elements over which the city has control — not those it doesn’t. “Context is essential to any fair discussion,” he said.
In answer to those who sought to delay the project until new federal guidelines are adopted to improve the safety of rail delivery of crude oil, he said rule changes “can’t be the reason to delay,” because Benicia can’t control the federal government.
“Does that mean … that you don’t have a voice?” he said. “No.” But people need to express those concerns to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in Washington, rather than to a city panel.
“The city has drafted a DEIR it can be proud of,” he said.
Don Cuffel, the refinery’s environmental engineer, repeated several residents’ frustration that some of the DEIR’s findings were that some air quality impacts were “significant and unavoidable.”
“It sounds ominous,” he said; however, he explained that phrase is a California Environmental Quality Act term to note that certain thresholds would be exceeded by the project.
And those thresholds differ by county, he said, and numbers that might indicate no impact in Placer County could be considered “significant” in Yolo County.
The air quality differences caused by the project in those areas would be the equivalent of 10 round trips from Benicia to Tahoe in a diesel recreational vehicle, Cuffel said.
“That doesn’t seem quite so fearsome,” he said.
Another term that bothered some residents was “unavoidable,” used in the DEIR to describe some of the impacts.
Cuffel said that word meant no mitigation was available to Benicia or Valero because the situation is governed at the federal level, not the state or city level.
“I hope this brings peace of mind,” he said.
The volatility of crude oil brought in from the Bakken fields of North Dakota also worried some who spoke Thursday. But Cuffel said Valero Benicia Refinery has been shipping more volatile chemicals than the light, sweet Bakken crude.
Even before Valero bought the original Humble refinery, he said, the plant had been shipping butane and propane, “which are more volatile than any crude.”
Some speakers were not reassured.
Ramón Castellblanch joined others who were skeptical of the information provided by the refinery to ESA, the city’s consultant that composed the DEIR.
While some contended the consultant had started with a desired goal and found statistics to match, or accused the refinery of manipulating numbers, Castellblanch pointed out that Valero Energy, the local refinery’s owner, had paid millions to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 for air pollution violations, and that in 2008 and 2009 the Benicia refinery was cited for 23 violations.
Such characterizations were countered by other speakers, such as Larry Fullington, who described the Benicia refinery’s history that dates to 1969, when Humble built the plant.
For the past 45 years, Fullington said, the refinery has not experienced any overturned oil tanker car.
“Valero is one of the safest in the nation,” he said, joining those who pointed out the refinery is the only one of two in California — the other also belongs to Valero — to be certified by the California Occupational and Safety Act as an approved Voluntary Protection Program Star site. Valero Benicia Refinery has been earning that designation since 2006.
“They truly care about safety,” Fullington said.
Union Pacific Railroad, the company that would be transporting crude oil should the project be approved, “is one of the most prestigious firms,” he said.
Fullington noted that some critics had expressed fears that the project could lead to an event similar to the 2013 Lac-Megantic tragedy, in which an unmanned runaway train derailed as it sped along the tracks and killed 47 people in Quebec, Canada.
But circumstances in Benicia “aren’t even close,” he said.
Several speakers had described the July 6, 2013, Lac-Megantic incident in which a crude-carrying, 74-car train had been left unmanned but with one locomotive running to provide power to air brakes.
Emergency responders had responded to reports of smoke and fire. The locomotive was shut off, and the train again was left unattended. Without the air brakes, the train began rolling down the hill and picked up speed as it approached Lac-Megantic.
The train derailed and exploded.
At least five of the 47 who died were thought to be incinerated; 30 buildings were destroyed and water lines were severed and couldn’t be repaired until December of last year.
On Thursday, Giovanna Sensi Isolani called crude-carrying trains “rail bombs” as she spoke against the project, and Alan C. Miller demanded the refinery build a rail bypass that would set rail traffic back from heavily populated areas.
But Fullington explained how Benicia’s circumstances were different.
“Valero is on level land,” he said, and trains going in and out of the refinery would travel at 10 mph or less. At that speed, he said, a car that derailed simply would sit on the road bed.
Nor, he said, would a train be left alone, as it was in Lac-Megantic: At several public meetings, refinery officials have said no train would be left unattended.
Fullington said the refinery also had stated it would use the reinforced tank cars that are sturdier than the current Department of Transportation-111 model. The reinforced types are numbered 1232, and he said the ones Valero would use would be manufactured by reputable companies.
And by bringing North American crude to Benicia, he said, the company would help the nation reduce its dependence on oil from other countries.
James Bolds, a rail car specialist who had traveled from Montgomery, Texas, to speak, said he had been hired by Valero to develop specifications, review drawings and review the cars it would use for its project. He described the 1232 car as being made from high-strength steel, with reclosing valves, head shields and other features that make it stronger than the DOT-111 car.
Others remained unconvinced, saying the DEIR didn’t delve deeply enough into possible seismic disturbances; into who would be responsible for the cleanup and liability of any accident; whether train safety could be assured along the Feather River and other places California has considered high risk for derailment; or why the city was considering the project before new federal regulations for tanker cars, rail inspection and automatic systems were in place.
They weren’t swayed by supporters’ reminders that Valero annually contributes about a quarter of the city’s General Fund revenues, and that it had donated more than $13 million to area charities in 10 years; that the refinery employs 450 people, contracts for another 250 and supports 3,900 others; or that the project would provide temporary jobs to 120 construction workers and create 20 permanent jobs at the refinery.
But to those who spoke out against “big oil,” Art Gray, a shift supervisor at Valero, said, “The refinery is made up of people like me. My front yard is 150 yards from the refinery fence line.”
Explaining that the DEIR “finds this to have a positive effect,” he asked the commission, “Let us compete against other refineries.”
Rather than wrapping up the hearing as it kept going until early Friday, the commission unanimously decided to continue the opportunity to take public comment at its Sept. 11 meeting, at which commissioners also would be given a chance to speak.