Garamendi praises Benicia City Council for crude-by-rail vote
By Ryan McCarthy, September 23, 2016
FAIRFIELD — Rep. John Garamendi is praising the Benicia City Council for its unanimous vote rejecting a proposed crude oil by rail facility that Valero corporation would have operated and Garamendi said would have led to dangerous railcars traveling through Fairfield, Suisun City, Dixon and Davis.
“The action by the Benicia City Council is a clear signal that shipping oil by rail presents a serious safety problem that must be addressed before our communities are faced with increased oil shipments,” Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said Thursday in a news release. “The council did the right thing by forcing a pause on oil by rail through our communities.”
The congressman, who represents the 3rd District that includes Fairfield and Suisun City, authored the Bakken Crude Stabilization Act to reduce the volatility of oil transported by rail and make it safer to transport, the release said.
The issue: Bay Area city can’t see past its own back yard on refinery project
The city of Benicia — the only entity capable of exerting any control over the crude-oil shipments set to arrive at a planned expansion of a Valero oil terminal — has shown in a draft environmental impact report that any impact the terminal has on communities farther up the train tracks is none of its business.
THE PROPOSED project would allow Valero to transport crude oil to its Benicia refinery on two 50-car freight trains daily on Union Pacific tracks that come right through Davis, Dixon, Fairfield and Suisun City on their way to Benicia. The rail shipments would replace up to 70,000 barrels per day of crude oil currently transported to the refinery by ship, according to city documents.
The original draft EIR, released in 2014, didn’t adequately address safety and environmental concerns. Local governments — including the city of Davis, Yolo County and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments — weighed in on the draft, urging Benicia to take a second look.
Benicia withdrew the draft and went back to work, and the new document acknowledges the risks of pollution, noise and, oh yes, catastrophic explosions from oil trains, the likes of which leveled Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
Disappointingly, having recognized the issues involved, the report simply says there’s no way to mitigate them and recommends moving ahead. With a bureaucratic shrug of the shoulders, the concerns of communities from Roseville to Suisun City are dismissed.
NATURALLY, SACOG disagrees, and so do we. While it’s true that there’s not a lot Benicia can do itself to mitigate the impact of its project, it can force Valero to do something about it.
SACOG urges a raft of measures that are within Valero’s control: advanced notification to local emergency personnel of all shipments, limits on storage of crude-oil tanks in urban areas, funding to train emergency responders, cars with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, money for rail-safety improvements, implementation of Positive Train Control protocols and, most importantly, a prohibition on shipments of unstabilized crude oil that hasn’t been stripped of the volatile elements that made Lac-Mégantic and other derailments so catastrophic.
Due to federal laws, cities along the railway lines have no ability to control what goes through. Only Benicia, now, while the project is still on the drawing board, has the authority to set reasonable limits and conditions on a project that puts millions of people along the railroad in harm’s way.
We urge the Benicia City Council to use its discretionary authority in this matter to protect those of us who have no say in the process.
Sacramento oil spills would be risky but rare, new report says
By Tony Bizjak, August 31, 2015
• Valero Refining Co. wants to send two 50-car oil trains daily through central Sacramento
• A report says project presents risks to humans and the environment, but says spills are rare
• Sacramento and NorCal leaders have called for more safety steps to reduce the spill and fire risks
Benicia city officials have concluded a proposal to transport large amounts of crude oil daily on trains through Sacramento and Northern California would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public, but say a spill is probably only a once every few decades occurrence.
In a revised environmental impact report issued Monday, officials in the Bay Area city contend spill risks are unavoidable and there is nothing that the city or the Valero Refining Co. can do to mitigate them, given that the federal government controls how rail shipments are handled. The report makes a point of saying that federal and state governments have taken recent steps to make crude oil rail transports safer.
Valero, which operates a major oil refinery in Benicia, is asking for city approval to ship two 50-car crude oil trains daily from north American fields through California to the Bay Area, replacing marine oil shipments.
Oil train shipments have come under the spotlight nationally after a handful of crashes that caused spectacular explosions and fires. One crash two years ago resulted in the deaths of 47 people in a Canadian town; others have forced evacuations and spilled oil into waterways.
Benicia officials conducted the latest analysis after critics, including Sacramento regional leaders, complained earlier risk assessments were inadequate. They have called on Benicia and Valero to take more safety steps.
Cities on the rail line include Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and Suisun City. The oil train route through rural Northern California remains uncertain. Trains could enter the state from Oregon and pass through the Dunsmuir area, or through the Feather River Canyon, or via Donner Summit.
Benicia’s initial environmental report, published last year, had said spill damage hazards are “less than significant.” The new report is based on a deeper analysis of an expanded geographic area.
The Benicia report cites federal data showing that less than 1 percent of train accidents cause releases of hazardous materials. But it also notes that trains to Benicia would have to travel through mountainous areas that have higher derailment rates. It projects that an oil spill of more than 100 gallons – described in the report as a small spill – might be expected to happen once every 20 to 27 years. A larger spill of 30,000 gallons is listed as a once-every-38-to-80-years event, but could cause injuries and deaths.
The release of the new report sets in place a 45-day public comment period. Benicia officials said they will respond to those comments, then set a Planning Commission review and vote on the project. The date for that hearing has not been set.
Valero officials, who have complained that Benicia’s vetting process has gone on too long, said in a brief email statement Monday that they are looking forward to participating in the Planning Commission discussion of their project. Officials with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional entity that has been monitoring the project, could not be reached for comment Monday.
A copy of the report can be found under “Revised Draft EIR” on the city of Benicia’s website.