Tag Archives: Valero Crude by Rail

Oil Train derails, burns near home of environmental activist

[Editor: With help from neighbors near and far, including Stand.earth, we stopped our own Valero Benicia Refinery from bringing tar-sands oil trains across California in 2016!  – R.S.]

Train cars carrying crude oil derail, burn north of Seattle

San Francisco Chronicle, by Lisa Baumann, AP, Dec. 22, 2020
A firefighter sprays foam on a burning, derailed train car Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Custer, Wash. Officials say seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire north of Seattle and close to the Canadian border. Whatcom County officials said the derailment occurred in the downtown Custer area, where streets were closed and evacuations ordered during a large fire response.
A firefighter sprays foam on a burning, derailed train car Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Custer, Wash. Officials say seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire north of Seattle and close to the Canadian border. Whatcom County officials said the derailment occurred in the downtown Custer area, where streets were closed and evacuations ordered during a large fire response. Photo: Elaine Thompson, AP

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed Tuesday and five caught fire, sending a large black plume of smoke into the sky north of Seattle close to the Canadian border, authorities said.

The derailment in the downtown Custer area closed nearby streets and spurred evacuation orders during a large fire response, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed in the area in both directions.

Later Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fires were under control and the evacuation order had been lifted but roadblocks would remain in place. Fires at the site remained active, the Sheriff’s Office added, and residents were asked to stay inside once they returned home.

“Everyone’s in danger at a scene like this, but fortunately there were no injuries,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said at a news conference.

Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her shop and told The Seattle Times that while she is accustomed to train noises, “all of a sudden it was a really big noise, and everything was shaking.”

Black smoke obscured her view, emergency personnel arrived, and Reich said she was advised to evacuate her business. She grabbed her wallet, keys and dog and left.

Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail through the state each week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the state Department of Ecology.

The seven cars derailed at about 11:46 a.m. Tuesday, BNSF Railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace said at the news conference. She said two people were on board the 108-car train headed from North Dakota to the Ferndale Refinery, owned by Phillips 66.

“BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the railway said on Twitter. “The cause of the incident is under investigation.”

The state Department of Ecology said a command center had been set up at the scene with the railway and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns for the environmental group Stand.earth, is based in Bellingham near the derailment and told The Associated Press he could see the smoke. He said the incident was another example of how transporting crude oil by train – especially in large numbers of tankers — is “very, very dangerous.”

He cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River that caused people to evacuate.

Krogh said crude oil is volatile and there are often track maintenance concerns. Among other things, Krogh and his group would like to see a reduction in the number of tank cars allowed per shipment.

“I think we got lucky today,” he said, referring to the derailment in Custer.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said in a statement Tuesday he was concerned about the derailment. Larsen is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I worked closely with the Obama administration to create strong rules to make the transport of oil by rail safer,” Larsen said. “Clearly there may be more work to do.”

Custer, a small town of several hundred people, is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle.

Benicia cares – Oil Train derails and catches fire in Custer, Washington

[Editor: Thanks goodness we stopped our own Valero Benicia Refinery from all this in 2016!  See also coverage of this Washington story in the San Francisco Chronicle.  – R.S.]

Evacuations ordered as train carrying crude oil derails, burns near Custer

Bellingham Herald, by Denver Pratt, December 22, 2020

A train derailed and caught fire in the Custer area Tuesday morning and residents and visitors within a half-mile were being evacuated, according to Whatcom County Public Works, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and Washington State Patrol.

The northbound train carrying crude oil derailed around 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, in the Custer area, according to Courtney Wallace, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesperson, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. It is a BNSF train and track, Wallace said.

The train derailed near the 7500 block of Portal Way, according to the sheriff’s office on Twitter. The sheriff’s office evacuated people within a half-mile of the derailment. Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said on Twitter that the evacuation order was lifted for local residents of Custer. Once residents return home, they are asked to shelter in place and stay inside, the sheriff’s office said. Residents must show proof of residency in order to return home, the sheriff’s office said.

Roadblocks in the area will remain in place.

Seven railway cars derailed from the train and a fire started in two of the seven derailed cars, the sheriff’s office said. The fire was under control as of 3 p.m., but a few were still active as of 5 p.m., the sheriff’s office said.

There have been no reported injuries at this time, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management Deputy Director John Gargett told The Bellingham Herald about 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Gargett said it’s unclear at this time whether there was damage to nearby structures or buildings. While he didn’t know the exact number of people who were evacuated, he said evacuations were ordered within a half-mile around the center of Custer.

He said the train was carrying Bakken crude oil, so evacuations were ordered out of an abundance of caution. People are asked to avoid the incident site, as it’s not safe to approach, the sheriff’s office said.

BNSF has set up a claims hotline for people who have been impacted by the evacuation at 1-866-243-4784.

Wallace, with BNSF, said the first priority is safety issues and BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation.

She said the cause of the derailment is under investigation.

“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this incident,” BNSF said on Twitter.

Washington State Patrol Trooper Heather Axtman said there were still a few small pools of oil on fire as of 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday. Axtman said fire officials determined the fires would burn themselves out in a little while. Axtman said at this time it’s believed there was no damage to nearby structures from the derailment.

Kamala Harris sent 2 important letters to the City of Benicia

By Roger Straw, August 11, 2020

Future Vice President Kamala Harris remembered in Benicia for her strong support

Kamala Harris, former California Attorney General and current Vice Presidential running mate for Joe Biden

Joe Biden’s nominee for Vice President, California Senator Kamala Harris, has a remarkable connection for many of us here in Benicia.  Her support for a safe and healthy world was incredibly important in the 2016 defeat of Valero Benicia’s dirty and dangerous oil train proposal.  The story should be told now, to honor Harris’ candidacy and to encourage support for a Biden/Harris ticket among all who care about clean air, land and water.

During our 3½ year battle to defeat Valero Benicia’s Crude By Rail proposal, then California Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote two letters challenging Valero’s project and the City of Benicia’s environmental review.  Her support was critical in support of local organizing efforts by Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community and others far and wide.

Harris’ first letter came on October 2, 2014.  The letter is summarized and linked here:

CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL LETTER CRITICAL OF VALERO DEIR

OCTOBER 8, 2014, Summary, from p. 2: Unfortunately, the DEIR for this Project fails to properly account for many of the Project’s potentially significant impacts pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act(CEQA). Specifically, the DEIR: 1. … Continue reading California Attorney General letter critical of Valero DEIR→

Harris’ support added incalculable weight to the credibility of local and regional organizers, and caught the attention of news agencies across the country:

BLOOMBERG: CALIFORNIA AG REJECTS TRADE-SECRET CLAIMS FOR CRUDE-BY-RAIL

OCTOBER 22, 2014, Repost from Bloomberg News By Victoria Slind-Flor – California Attorney General Kamala Harris expressed reservations about the trade-secret provisions in a proposal for a crude-by-rail project in Benicia, California. In a letter to the city’s Community Development Department, she said the draft environmental impact report for … Continue reading Bloomberg: California AG Rejects Trade-Secret Claims for Crude-by-Rail→

RAILROADS FILE SUIT AGAINST STATE OF CALIFORNIA

OCTOBER 9, 2014, Repost from The Sacramento Bee – By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate – The battle over crude oil trains in California intensified this week, reaching into the legal sphere with potential national repercussions. The state’s … Continue reading Railroads file suit against state of California→

A year and a half later, on April 14, 2016, Harris sent a second letter asserting that Benicia’s Planning Commission and City Council have every right to deny a land use permit for Valero’s proposed Crude by Rail offloading rack.  I highlighted her convincing prosecutorial language in my headline:

CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: “FOR BENICIA TO TURN A BLIND EYE…”

APRIL 15, 2016, By Roger Straw – California Attorney General Kamala Harris: letter disagrees with City of Benicia staff, consultants and Valero Today the City of Benicia received a letter from California Attorney General Kamala Harris disagreeing with City staff, consultants and Valero Refinery. The letter asserts that Benicia’s Planning Commission and City Council have every right to deny a … Continue reading CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: “For Benicia to turn a blind eye…”→

And again, her challenge was picked up by media outlets far and wide.  A sampling:

EAST BAY EXPRESS: ATTORNEY GENERAL HARRIS: BENICIA HAS POWER TO REJECT OIL FACILITY

APRIL 15, 2016, By Jean Tepperman – In a strongly-worded letter sent Thursday to City of Benicia officials, California Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig wrote that Valero, the City of Benicia’s planning staff, and an outside attorney advising the … Continue reading EAST BAY EXPRESS: Attorney General Harris: Benicia Has Power to Reject Oil Facility→

SACRAMENTO BEE: CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL KAMALA HARRIS CHALLENGES BENICIA OIL PLAN

APRIL 14, 2016, By Tony Bizjak – HIGHLIGHTS: • Harris said Benicia has the right to say no, is not pre-empted by federal law • Two 50-car oil trains would travel daily through downtown Sacramento • Valero spokesman: ‘We remain confident … Continue reading SACRAMENTO BEE: California Attorney General Kamala Harris challenges Benicia oil plan→

Finally… Benicia wasn’t the only recipient of Harris’ environmental support during those days.  See also…

DIANE BAILEY: CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL LETTER, PROTESTS IN PITTSBURG 1/21/14

JANUARY 18, 2014, Repost from Diane Bailey’s blog, Switchboard, Natural Resources Defense Council California Attorney General Tells Major Oil Terminal Developer, WesPac, to Hold Up in Pittsburg Posted January 17, 2014 by Diane Bailey in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil The California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, sent a stark letter to the City of Pittsburg this week warning of … Continue reading Diane Bailey: California Attorney General Letter, Protests in Pittsburg 1/21/14→


For a trip down memory lane, see my permanent archive: The successful effort to STOP oil trains in Benicia, California

(beniciaindependent.com/crude-by-rail-archive/)

Roger Straw

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.