By Roger Straw, September 15, 2016
New staff report again recommends overturning Planning Commission’s unanimous decision
On 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.