Tag Archives: San Francisco Chronicle

BENICIA HERALD LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Dr. James Egan: Deny Valero’s application

From The Benicia Herald (Benicia Herald letters appear only in the print edition)
[Editor:  Dr. Egan’s letter is a welcome contribution, expressing the growing conviction of many throughout North America, that crude-by-rail is simply unsafe under current conditions, and should be not be permitted at this time.  See also Dr. Egan’s 9/14/14 comments addressing the Valero Crude By Rail Draft EIR.  – RS]

Timely decision on crude by rail warranted: Deny Valero’s application

By James Egan, M.D., Benicia, March 10, 2015

The headline in the Feb. 5, 2015 edition of The Herald, “Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year,” signals sympathy toward the Valero Benicia Refinery as regards its Crude by Rail (CBR) Use Permit Application, currently before the Planning Commission.  While it is difficult working up crocodile tears for a multi-billion-dollar international oil corporation, the energy and expense invested in forwarding this project bear acknowledgement, and a timely decision on the application should be made out of fairness to the applicant.  To that end, I would like to suggest that the Planning Commission and the City Council have enough information available to take action at any time.  The application should be denied on the basis of rail safety.

On Feb. 17 of this year a crude oil train derailed and exploded in Mount Carbon, W.Va.  Three million gallons of Bakken crude spilled from 26 ruptured tank cars, forcing the evacuation of two nearby towns.  Two days prior, another oil train derailed and caught fire in Ontario, Canada.  Last Thursday, March 5, 21 cars carrying Bakken crude derailed, split and exploded near Galena, Ill.  Another of the dozens of oil- or ethanol-train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant fuel spill reported in the U.S. or Canada since 2006 was the Lynchburg, Va. derailment and fire in April 2014.

The significance of this particular series of railway disasters to the citizens of Benicia is that they all involved CPC-1232 tank cars, the same cars that Valero would use for the transportation of crude to its facility in Benicia, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Report.

In a Feb. 23 editorial titled, “Get rid of exploding tank cars,” the San Francisco Chronicle states that “Valero Energy Co. has agreed to haul Bakken crude to its Benicia bayside refinery in the newer CPC-1232 cars as part of its city permit application to revamp its facilities to receive crude by rail rather than by oceangoing tanker.  But that promise now appears inadequate to protect the safety of those in Benicia as well as in other communities – Roseville, Sacramento, Davis – along the line.”

The same edition of the Chronicle details a report from the Department of Transportation predicting that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail 15 times in 2015 and average 10 times yearly over the next two decades, causing $4.5 billion in damage with potential fatalities of more than 200 people in a given accident.  This may actually be an underestimate based on recent major derailment rates.

Friends and foes of CBR alike agree that the transportation of crude oil by rail involves inherent risk.  Can’t we also agree that the risk should be reduced to the greatest extent possible before inviting these potentially explosive trains to Benicia?  Lowering the risk of tank car derailment, rupture and explosion now should translate into saved human lives and prevention of environmental disasters in the future.

The danger can, in fact, be mitigated.  The crude can be stabilized prior to its transportation by extraction of its most volatile components.  North Dakota has implemented standards making this mandatory for Bakken crude, but many feel that their new guidelines are overly lax.  New federal regulations due to be released in May could further address this, as would rail safety measures such as Positive Train Control and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.  New, safer tank cars designed specifically to carry this type of crude have been designed and are in production.

Unfortunately, the new federal guidelines will likely require years for full enforcement, and complete phaseout of the existing, unreliable tank car fleet by newer, stronger cars, such as the Greenbrier HM-251, will also require years of effort.

Accordingly, if we agree that the risks of transportation of crude by rail should be absolutely minimized prior to approving the CRB project, we have to acknowledge that this is currently beyond Valero’s reach and the Use Permit Application should be denied.

Those who would roll the dice and approve the current application should consider how comfortable they will feel with that decision once they find themselves in a front row seat at the Park/Bayshore railroad crossing watching fifty tank cars containing 1,470,000 gallons of potentially explosive crude rumble by on the same spur line that has seen derailment of five train cars since Nov. 4, 2013 (in addition to the two locomotives that derailed on Sept. 7, 2014 near the port).

Kudos to Planning Commission members for the time and energy spent on fairly evaluating this project.  It would seem that as time has passed the correct path forward has become much clearer.  At this point, the ongoing health and well-being of all Benicians should hold foremost importance in the decision-making process.  Their protection is the least we can expect from our city government.

James Egan, M.D.


    The Fight to Stop a Boom in California’s Crude by Rail

    Repost from The Huffington Post
    [Editor: Our friend here in Benicia, Ed Ruszel, has been featured in numerous online blogs and news outlets in this story by Tara Lohan.  This is an abbreviated version.  The article mistakenly gives a link to The Benicia Independent rather than Benicians for a Safe and Healthy CommunityBSHC can be found at SafeBenicia.org.  – RS]

    The Fight to Stop a Boom in California’s Crude by Rail

    By Tara Lohan, 01/08/2015

    Ed Ruszel’s workday is a soundtrack of whirling, banging, screeching — the percussion of wood being cut, sanded and finished. He’s the facility manager for the family business, Ruszel Woodworks. But one sound each day roars above the cacophony of the woodshop: the blast of the train horn as cars cough down the Union Pacific rail line that runs just a few feet from the front of his shop in an industrial park in Benicia, California.

    Most days the train cargo is beer, cars, steel, propane or petroleum coke. But soon, two trains of 50 cars each may pass by every day carrying crude oil to a refinery owned by neighboring Valero Energy, which is hoping to build a new rail terminal at the refinery that would bring 70,000 barrels a day by train — or nearly 3 million gallons.

    And it’s a sign of the times.

    Crude-by-rail has increased 4,000 percent across the country since 2008 and California is feeling the effects. By 2016 the amount of crude by rail entering the state is expected to increase by a factor of 25. That’s assuming the industry gets its way in creating more crude-by-rail stations at refineries and oil terminals. And that’s no longer looking like a sure thing.

    Valero’s proposed project in Benicia is just one of many in the area underway or under consideration. All the projects are now facing public pushback–and not just from individuals in communities, but from a united front spanning hundreds of miles. Benicia sits on the Carquinez Strait in the northeastern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, about 20 miles south of Napa’s wine country and 40 miles north of San Francisco, the oil industry may have found a considerable foe.


    Photo by Sarah Craig

    A recent boom in “unconventional fuels” has triggered an increase in North American sources in the last few years. This has meant more fracked crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale and diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands.

    Unit trains are becoming a favored way to help move this cargo. These are trains in which the entire cargo — every single car — is one product. And in this case that product happens to be highly flammable.

    This is one of the things that has Ed Ruszel concerned. He doesn’t think the tank cars are safe enough to transport crude oil in the advent of a serious derailment. If a derailment occurs on a train and every single car (up to 100 cars long) is carrying volatile crude, the dangers increase exponentially. In 2013, more crude was spilled in train derailments than in the prior three decades combined, and there were four fiery explosions in North America in a year’s span, the worst being the derailment that killed 47 people and incinerated half the downtown in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July 2013.

    Public Comments

    In Benicia, a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) regarding the Valero project was released in June 2014 and promptly slammed by everyone from the state’s Attorney General Kamala Harris to the local group Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community because it left out crucial information and failed to address the full scope of the project.

    One of the biggest omissions in Valero’s DEIR was Union Pacific not being named as an official partner in the project. With the trains arriving via its rail lines, all logistics will come down to the railroad. Not only that, but the federal power granted to railroad companies preempts local and regional authority.This preemption is one of the biggest hurdles for communities that don’t want to see crude-by-rail come through their neighborhoods or want better safeguards.

    The DEIR also doesn’t identify exactly what kind of North American crude would be arriving and from where. Different kinds of crude have different health and safety risks. Diluted bitumen can be nearly impossible to clean up in the event of a spill and Bakken crude has proved more explosive than other crude because of its chemical composition. It’s likely that some of the crude coming to Valero’s refinery would be from either or both sources.

    Public comments on the DEIR closed on Sept. 15, and now all eyes are on the planning department to see what happens next in Benicia.

    But the Valero project is just the tip of the iceberg in California.

    In nearby Pittsburgh, 20 miles east of Benicia, residents pushed back against plans from WestPac Energy. The company had planned to lease land from BNSF Railway and build a new terminal to bring in a 100-car unit train of crude each day. The project is currently stalled.

    But Phillips 66 has plans for a new rail unloading facility at a refinery in Nipomo, 200 miles south of the Bay Area in San Luis Obispo County, that would bring in five unit trains of crude a week, with 50,000 barrels per train.

    Further south in Kern County in the heart of oil country, Plains All American just opened a crude by rail terminal that is permitted for a 100-car unit train each day. Another nearby project, Alon USA, received permission from the county for twice as much but is being challenged by lawsuits from environmental groups.

    Closer to home, unit trains of Bakken crude are already arriving to a rail terminal owned by Kinder Morgan in Richmond. Kinder Morgan had been transporting ethanol, but the Bay Area Air Quality Management District allowed Kinder Morgan to offload unit trains of Bakken crude into tanker trucks.


    Photo by Sarah Craig

    With all this crude-by-rail activity, some big picture thinking would be helpful. As Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote about the Benicia project, “There’s no consideration of cumulative impacts that could affect public safety and the environment by the proliferation of crude-by-rail projects proposed in California.”

    A longer version of this story appeared on Faces of Fracking.


      San Francisco Chronicle: How crude-by-rail — and other debates — are censored

      Repost from SFGate, Opinion Shop

      How crude-by-rail — and other debates — are censored

      By Lois Kazakoff, January 2, 2015
      Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car trains a day of crude oil.
      How the crude-by-rail debate is censored… Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car trains a day of crude oil. Photo By The Chronicle

      When I wrote in November about how the mayor of Benicia was effectively muzzled from speaking about a pending city decision with nationwide importance, I thought the debate was over climate change. Now I learn the real concern is over democracy itself.

      My Nov. 18 blog post concerned the City Council’s decision to make public an opinion on whether the mayor should be allowed to speak freely with voters about Valero’s application to convert its Benicia refinery to receive crude from the Baaken Oil Shale by rail. The decision is huge because fracking the crude is only profitable if the oil can reach refineries and the global market. Benicia’s refinery and port are key components to success.

      Locally, Benicians and Californians living along the rail lines are fearful of train cars filled with the highly volatile crude rumbling through their communities twice a day. It’s a highly charged dispute that has drawn in Attorney General Kamala Harris, who chastised the city for only studying the effects on Benicia and not the effects along the entire rail line through California.

      When the City Council voted to make public the opinion, written by an attorney hired by the city attorney, the decision was Mayor Elizabeth Patterson had overstepped her bounds.

      Why? Because local politicians can advocate for new laws, but when they are holding a public hearing or ruling on a permit — acting more like judges than legislators — the permit applicant’s right to appear before an unbiased body trumps the legislator’s right to freely express an opinion.

      Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, writes in Sunday’s Insight section that this growing practice of advising City Council members to censor themselves is deleterious not just to political debate over important and engaging local issues but to democracy. By giving City Councils this dual role and then advising them to censor their own speech, we discourage civic participation  on the concerns constituents care about most.