Category Archives: Benicia City Attorney

VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD: Valero won’t sue city of Benicia over rejection of crude-by-rail project

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Valero won’t sue city of Benicia over rejection of crude-by-rail project

By Katy St. Clair, 12/22/16, 4:06 PM PST

BENICIA >> The Valero Corporation announced it will not be suing the city of Benicia for rejecting its controversial crude-by-rail project, which would have allowed the company to transport thousands of gallons of crude oil into town.

The project would have moved up to 70,000 barrels of crude a day to Benicia, passing through places like downtown Sacramento and Davis.

Valero first submitted an application for the project to the city of Benicia in December of 2012, but the Planning Commission rejected the bid in March of this year. Valero then appealed to the Benicia City Council, which also rejected the plan in a unanimous vote in September, citing fears of derailment or spills as its main concern.

“The margin of error was just too small and the risk of catastrophic failure too great,” Councilman Tom Campbell said.

In the wake of the city’s veto, Valero seemed primed to fight the decision in court. Benicia City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin told the city council on Tuesday night that she had previously “heard word” from the Valero attorney that they were “thinking of filing suit.”

It’s been reported that Valero officials believed Benicia’s rejection of the plan was illegal.

It now appears that Valero is backing off talk of litigation. Mc Laughlin announced that Valero’s attorney contacted her and said they will not be going forward with a lawsuit, after all.

“It’s like the best Christmas present ever,” she said to the council. “Yesterday they called and said that they were not going to file suit against the city because they want to maintain positive relations with the city.”

Valero did not respond to requests for comment.

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson released a statement Wednesday saying she is “pleased” with Valero’s decision not to sue.

“They are a valuable business in our community,” she said. “I look forward to the promise of those good community relations now that we can put this ill-advised project behind us.”

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City staff again recommends approval of Valero Crude By Rail – Council can vote on Tues, Sept 20

By Roger Straw, September 15, 2016

New staff report again recommends overturning Planning Commission’s unanimous decision

oil tank carsOn Thursday, City of Benicia staff released the agenda for the crucial and perhaps decisive September 20 meeting of the Benicia City Council.

A staff report accompanying the agenda stands by the staff’s previous positions on Valero’s oil train proposal, recommending on p. 10 that Council approve Valero’s appeal, reject Benicia’s Planning Commission decision, and approve the Crude By Rail project.

The staff report fails to quote the City’s own strong defense of local land use authority as stated in its recent legal brief before the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), and attaches the brief seemingly as an afterthought, the 10th among 10 attachments.

Although City staff follows protocol, offering Council four alternative courses of action including approval, denial, re-working the environmental report and continuing discussion – it’s recommendation is unenlightened, a repeat of previously heard pro-oil-train postures of Valero and the City’s paid consultants.

The one indication that staff is giving Council real alternatives is that they include a ready draft of a resolution to deny the project, a professional courtesy not afforded to Benicia’s Planning Commission last February.

That said, eight of the ten attachments that accompany the staff report  lean heavily in favor of Valero and against opponents. A new memo by Valero Benicia executive Don Cuffel disputes the findings of environmental expert Dr. Phyllis Fox. In the memo, Cuffel touts his own experience and authority, then launches into a 6-page attack on Dr. Fox, characterizing her arguments as based on “ideology or on heated rhetoric.”

The City’s release of Cuffel’s September 13 memo at this late date will no doubt make it difficult if not impossible for Dr. Fox to rebut and defend herself and her positions prior to the September 20 meeting of Council.

The agenda also attaches a second September 13 memo commissioned by Valero that claims Benicia’s Sulphur Springs Creek is perfectly safe from potential environmental impacts, and that the “proposed project meets the requirements and intent of the City of Benicia’s stream setback ordinance.”

It is interesting that public comment on the proposal has officially been closed, and yet Valero’s latest memos are attached to the official Council agenda.  Would the City have given such prominence to an afterword by Dr. Fox?  Did staff choose to attach the recent critiques of Benicia structural engineer Amir Firouz or Benicia engineer C. Bart Sullivan, who have pointed out on-site impacts that have nothing to do with rail-related dangers?  Of course not.  When does manufactured rebuttal by the project applicant come to a close here?

Valero plays hard ball, of course, and has done so throughout the more than three years of procedings.  One can only guess at the behind-the-scenes pressure applied by Valero to City staff and supposedly impartial City consultants.  Who knows why our City Manager, Assistant City Manager and Principal Planner have chosen to leave our employ in recent weeks?

Opponents of the project have been waiting and watching for signals from Benicia’s new interim City Manager Steve Salomon. It is disappointing, if not alarming, to witness staff’s new (old) approach on Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal. The lone holdovers on senior staff are City Attorney Heather McLaughlin and Community Develolpment Director Christina Ratcliffe. These two will be responsible, along with Council members, if Valero gets its way.

One can only hope that City Council members have taken note of the recent derailment disaster in Mosier, Oregon, the consistent input of outside experts, local structural engineers, California’s Attorney General and outside attorneys, and make a decision – finally on September 20 – to be done with Valero’s foolish proposal.

There is ample evidence of off-site and on-site factors that are sufficient for denial of this project. An entirely inadequate environmental review should not be certified, and a permit should not be granted.

(For a full listing of links to the staff report and attachments, see Benicia City Council: Sept. 20 agenda & attachments.)



Please attend the Tuesday, September 20 City Council meeting. Arrive early if you want a seat – some  will arrive as early as 5pm for this 7pm meeting! City Hall, 250 East L Street, Benicia.

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Valero Benicia Crude By Rail: No news is, well, a bit of news

By Roger Straw, September 2, 2016
[UPDATE as of Sept. 19, 2016 10AM PDT – still nothing from the STB.]
The Latest …STB logoEvery day, I check the Surface Transportation Board’s website, watching to see if they post a decision on Valero’s end run to delay the proceedings. Nothing yet. [If you go to their website, under E-Library, go to Decisions & Notices, or Filings, and search for “valero” under Case Title.]

Opponents of Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal are trying to plan for the City Council’s September 20 meeting when Crude By Rail will again be on the agenda, but…

  1. no one knows at this time whether the STB will have issued an advisory or declined to do so, and if so, what the STB advice will be, and
  2.  no one is sure exactly what procedures will guide Council and the public in either case!

The latest guidance from City Attorney Heather McLaughlin is complicated, a bit confusing, and perhaps inconclusive.  In response to Benicia resident Marilyn Bardet’s inquiry, McLaughlin wrote on 8/30:

I am sorry but I have to give you the lawyerly “it depends” answer at this point. It will depend if we get an answer from the STB. If we don’t get an answer, the Council already closed the public comment. They would have to take action to re-open the hearing. If we do get an answer, the Council would have to open the public hearing to allow comment only on the new information from the STB. The Council discussion is a continuance from the last appeal hearing. They specifically continued the item to September 20th.

Then on 8/31, McLaughlin added:

If the STB responds in time for the meeting on the 20th, the Council would open the hearing for comments as it relates to the STB response. Public comments would have to relate to the response. I can imagine a range of public comments along the lines of the STB’s response means the EIR must be redone, or that the EIR is good enough, or that some aspect of it must be redone, or that some permit condition should be applied to address the STB response. As long as comments relate to the STB response, then the comment is ok. Comments on the EIR or permitting that do not relate to the STB response would not fit in since the hearing for general comments has already happened.

Quickie Background…

Last February, after 3 years of study, public and expert comments and lengthy hearings, Benicia’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny Valero Crude by Rail. Valero immediately appealed the decision to Benicia’s City Council.

In March, as Valero presented its appeal to the City Council, the refinery’s attorney surprised everyone by asking for a delay so that it could ask the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) for a declaratory order favoring Valero’s proposal. Valero’s petition asks the STB to clarify whether the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, or ICCTA, prohibits the city from taking rail-related impacts into account while deciding on the project.

In April on a 3-2 vote, ignoring the advice of city manager and staff, the City Council granted Valero’s request for a delay.  As part of the motion, the Council “approved continuing discussion on this item to September 20.”

After a delay of its own, Valero submitted its petition to the STB on May 31. On Jun 10 the STB granted an extension for public comments until July 8.  The STB has received multiple letters pro and con on Valero’s petition. Among the many letters is a response by the City of Benicia to Valero’s petition, in which the City asserts local land use permitting authority.

No one knows if – and when – the STB will give an opinion; and if the STB does weigh in, no one knows to what extent they will support Valero or uphold local land use permitting authority.

For complete background on the Appeal and STB, see the Benicia Independent’s APPEAL PAGE.  For public comments and City transcripts, see the Benicia Independent’s PROJECT REVIEW PAGES.  All things Valero CBR can also be found on the City of Benicia website.


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