Category Archives: Benicia CA

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor:  It’s sad that some would try to silence Mayor Patterson since she has carefully avoided coming out publicly or privately against Valero’s project.  The good news here (lemons to lemonade) … the City Attorney’s challenge, once denied, should open the door to EVERY Council member to speak more freely in addressing important issues outside of Council chambers and prior to decisive votes.  More public debate on the part of all on the Council and various Commissions, boards and committees will be good for Benicia.  – RS]

Benicia: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked to recuse herself from Valero crude-by-rail decision

Elizabeth Patterson rejects city’s advice, hires attorney
By Tony Burchyns, 10/13/2014

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

BENICIA>>Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is claiming that the city is trying to muzzle her on public policy questions related to plans to increase crude oil train deliveries to the Valero refinery.

Patterson revealed to the Times-Herald the city attorney has advised her not to participate “in any way in any city decisions” relating to Valero’s pending permit decision. Patterson also said the city has asked her to refrain from sending out “e-alerts” about the project and related crude-by-rail issues and to not engage in public discussion of the matter.

“I feel the city is trying to muzzle me on my questions and alerting the public on major public policy issues of crude-by-rail, fossil fuels, public safety and environmental air, water and habitat hazards,” Patterson said in an email. She said she has rejected the city’s advice and hired a lawyer to defend herself against what she views as an attack on her free speech rights.

City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin declined to comment the matter, citing attorney-client privilege. However, Mc Laughlin said a handful of community and City Council members had raised conflict-of-interest concerns about Patterson’s engagement in the public discussion of the controversial project. She wouldn’t say which council members raised concerns.

Council members Alan Schwartzman, Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Tom Campbell declined to comment.

Valero is seeking permits to build a rail terminal to receive up to 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily by train. The city is in the process of responding to dozens of comment letters on the initial environmental impact report from residents and state and local agencies.

Patterson, who has served on the City Council since 2003 and as Benicia’s elected mayor since 2007, regularly communicates with residents on a wide variety of issues. In particular, she sends periodic “e-alerts” to people who have asked to be on her email list.

This year, several of those communications have included information regarding the city’s review of Valero’s pending land-use application as well as discussions of public policy issues raised by the proposed increase in oil train traffic.

In March, Patterson – a retired state environmental scientist working part-time on the California Water Plan – wrote a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed encouraging Gov. Jerry Brown to issue an executive order to ensure the state is prepared to deal with “highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming by rail and water into California.”

In June, she testified with other officials at a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento about state and local agencies’ preparedness to respond to oil train accidents like last year’s explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people. She didn’t comment at the hearing on the merits of Valero’s project.

In a letter to the city, Patterson’s attorney Diane Fishburn defended the mayor’s right to communicate with her constituents and participate in the public discussion. Patterson disclosed the June 26 letter in response to a recent Times-Herald inquiry about thousands of dollars in legal expenses on her latest campaign finance report.

“The law fully supports the mayor’s complete participation in both the public community discussions and her activities in her role as mayor as well as in any decisions which may come before the council on the project,” Fisburn wrote. She cited a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that held that the public statements of two Fairfield City Council members opposing a proposed shopping center did not serve to disqualify them from participating in the city’s decision on the project.

“These topics are matters of concern to the civic-minded people of the community, who will naturally exchange views and opinions concerning the desirability of the shopping center with each other and with their elected representatives,” the court wrote at the time. “A councilman has not only a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern with his constituents and to state his views of public importance.”

In that 1975 decision, the court also quoted a 1958 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that stated “it would be contrary to the basic principles of a free society to disqualify from service in the popular assembly those who had made pre-election commitments of policy on issues involved in the performance of their sworn … duties.”

Fishburn argued Patterson has not made public statements or indicated a specific position on the pending project. “However, even if she had expressed views on the pending Valero permit, it is clear based on (related case law) that this wouldn’t disqualify her from participating in the on-going proceedings and in future City Council decisions in the matter,” Fisburn wrote.

Union Pacific investigates Benicia derailment

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
[Editor: Here’s the story on the derailed train engines last Sunday.  Thanks to Jim Kirchhoffer for spotting it and bringing it to our attention.  Tony Burchyns of the Vallejo Times-Herald did an excellent job of investigative reporting (see below).  Tony’s article set the accident in context, providing background on the two other recent Benicia derailments, one on 5/17/14 and another on 11/4/13.  Do the math: that’s 3 derailments in 10 months!  …The story was also covered in the Benicia Herald.  – RS]

Union Pacific investigates Benicia derailment

Two locomotives came off the tracks Sunday near port
By Tony Burchyns, 09/09/2014
Union Pacific Railroad is investigating what caused two of its locomotives to come off the tracks in Benicia on Sunday, a spokesperson for the rail
Union Pacific Railroad is investigating what caused two of its locomotives to come off the tracks in Benicia on Sunday, a spokesperson for the rail operator said Tuesday. (Tony Burchyns-Vallejo-Times-Herald)

BENICIA >> Union Pacific Railroad is investigating what caused two of its locomotives to come off the tracks in Benicia on Sunday, a spokesperson for the rail operator said Tuesday.

The locomotives were being used for switching operations and were moving rail cars near the Benicia port when each had one wheel set come off the tracks at about 2:30 a.m., Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said. The engines were attached to each other when the derailment occurred, he said.

Both were re-railed several hours later and moved to Union Pacific’s maintenance yard in Roseville, where an internal investigation was launched to determine what caused the derailment, Hunt said. He added the findings would be reported to the Federal Railroad Administration.

“Fortunately there were no injuries and there was no damage to our track infrastructure,” said Hunt, adding he did not know how fast the locomotives were traveling.

Benicia police got a call from Union Pacific at 2:38 a.m. Sunday reporting the incident, but there was no request for assistance and no emergency response by the city, Lt. Scott Przekurat said.

Hunt said that because the derailment happened in the railroad’s automotive yard along Bayshore Road — where finished automobiles that arrive by boat are transported by rail to other places — there was no impact to motorists or other people in the area.

On May 17, two rail cars carrying petroleum coke derailed near the Valero refinery. Prior to that, three rail cars carrying petroleum coke came off the tracks on Nov. 4, 2013.

No hazardous materials were spilled in those incidents, but the derailments have raised eyebrows in light of the Valero refinery’s plan to bring in up to 70,000 barrels of crude oil daily on Union Pacific tracks.

Asked whether the locomotives involved in Sunday’s incident could be used to move tanker cars, Hunt said they were “switching locomotives” and are not the same as those used to move trains from city to city.

“Safety is our primary focus at Union Pacific,” Hunt said. “We invest time, human power and substantial capital to minimize derailments across our 32,000-mile network.”

LOCAL OP-ED – Craig Snider: Three reasons to oppose crude by rail

Repost from The Benicia Herald

3 reasons to oppose crude by rail

by Craig Snider, August 9, 2014

WHEN MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA IN 2003, we spent our first week in the Best Western on East Second Street. During our stay we met several workers visiting from refineries in Texas to assist with projects at local refineries. During breakfast, I mentioned to one of them that we had bought a house in Benicia and were waiting to move in. He replied, “I wouldn’t have my family living within five miles of a refinery,” implying that it was unsafe because of the risk of an accident.

We had already purchased our home and were pleased with the location of the town, the high-quality schools, the quaint downtown and the local arts community. At the time, I judged that the prevailing wind direction and rolling hills would likely buffer our home from the effects of any serious accident, such as the recent Chevron fire in Richmond, and that the many Benicia amenities outweighed any risk the refinery posed.

Now we are faced with the prospect of 100 tank cars of crude oil being hauled into Benicia every day. Valero insists this would be safe and warns that without a new facility to offload the crude oil, local jobs, company profits and charitable contributions would be at risk.

I have no doubt that, if necessary, crude oil could be transported by rail to various parts of the country safely and efficiently. We have the technological and engineering expertise to do amazing things these days, and such expertise could readily be applied to the crude oil transport business.

Some in our community scoff at the risk posed by crude by rail (it’s comforting to some that the Quebec derailment that killed 47 people and the many accidents that have since occurred were caused by human error and could have been prevented). Others are horrified at the thought of a similar accident here or elsewhere. They highlight the fact that this crude oil is more volatile and toxic than other types, that an accident here would wreak havoc on our lives, and they want to stop the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project in its tracks.

As I see it, there are three major reasons to oppose the project at this time.

First, simply put, hauling 100 tank car loads of volatile Bakken crude or toxic Canadian tar sands crude raises the risk of an accident relative to the status quo. Benicians already live in the shadow of a refinery; is it really necessary or desirable to add to this risk to satisfy Valero?

Second, rules governing high-hazard flammable trains need to be thoroughly vetted and approved before the Valero proposal can be approved. Between March 2013 and May 2014, there were 12 significant oil train derailments in the United States and Canada, including the Quebec accident. Crude by rail arriving in California was up 506 percent, to 6.3 million barrels, just last year. In fact, more crude oil was transported by rail in North America in 2013 than in the previous five years combined. Yet it wasn’t until the first of this month that regulations were proposed for dealing with this unprecedented increase in “High-Hazard Flammable Trains” (see Federal Register, Aug. 1, 2014, pg. 45,016).

Apparently the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) expects to issue new regulations governing crude by rail sometime after a 60-day comment period that ends Sept. 30. Oddly, their federal notice includes a brief two-page “environmental assessment” that concludes there will be no significant environmental impacts associated with their proposals. Apparently we are to trust the railroad industry and their minders to do the right thing after they have steadfastly refused to institute train safety mechanisms, such as “Positive Train Control,” that would have saved 288 lives, prevented 6,500 injuries and 139 crashes in the past 45 years. At a minimum, the rules governing high-hazard flammable trains should be subject to a full environmental impact statement as provided by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Such an environmental impact statement might determine that crude-by-rail terminals should be located a minimum distance from residential areas and that crude-carrying trains travelling through metropolitan areas be guided by automated systems that monitor speed, location and rail traffic, so that the potential for human error would be substantially reduced. Such systems currently exist, but have been largely ignored by the railroad companies. These measures need to be studied and decided upon before the Valero proposal is approved.

Finally, what’s the rush? Many would argue that fossil fuel use needs to be curtailed because of greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental havoc caused by ever-more-destructive means of obtaining oil (fracking, tar sands, etc.). Approving the Valero project gives tacit approval to these means, allowing our community to profit at the expense of other people and places. Maybe it’s time to just say no.

Craig Snider is a Benicia resident. He recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, where he was regional environmental coordinator for the national forests in California from 2003-14.

Oil Train Blast Zones – Interactive map by ForestEthics

Repost from ForestEthics
[Editor: ForestEthics has published an interactive map showing blast zones across the U.S., searchable by zip code or city.  It may be a bit too ambitious in scope.  For instance, details are missing in Northern California and Benicia.  Still, it serves as a visual warning to all who live near the tracks as Big Oil and the railroad industry gear up for crude by rail.  Check it out, and sign their petition while you are there.  – RS]


When oil trains derail we all pay the price. How close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen? Use the ForestEthics blast zone map to find out and take action.


Millions of Americans live in the blast zone. Do you?

Every day the oil industry sends millions of gallons of highly flammable crude oil through cities and towns across North America. Our rail system was never built for this dangerous cargo.

It’s time to take action! Sign the petition: Tell the President and Congress to stop the threat of oil train disasters today!

To: US President Obama and Congress

It seems each month another town is facing a terrifying oil train derailment, poisoned drinking water, or a deadly explosion. Our rail system takes these trains through population centers by schools and homes. Safety standards are weak and our emergency responders are not equipped for accidents.

We are not prepared for this threat:

  1. Oil trains are more than a mile-long with 100+ cars, concentrating the risk of an accident that could ignite the three million gallons of crude on a single train.
  2. Oil train traffic has increased more than 4,000 percent in the last five years.
  3. Rail routes run right through major urban areas and cross water supplies. The US rail system was not designed to transport dangerous crude oil.
  4. Dangerous DOT-111 cars, which make up the majority of US oil tanker trains, have serious flaws that make them highly prone to puncture during a derailment.

We have the solution:

  • The first step: Ban unsafe oil tanker cars.
  • We must prepare and equip emergency responders and reroute trains around population centers and away from water supplies.
  • New rail safety rules must be strong and must give citizens the information they need to protect themselves and the power to say no.

We do not need the extreme oil transported by these trains. The crude oil carried by train is more explosive and more toxic than conventional crude oil; it is also more carbon intensive. At a time when our oil use is decreasing and the threat of climate disruption is growing, the risk from oil trains is unacceptable.

Learn More