Category Archives: Blast zone

LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

::

These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.

::

Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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Grant Cooke: Benicia’s future is with Patterson, Young and the new economy

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Grant Cooke: Benicia’s future is with Patterson, Young and the new economy

By Grant Cooke, August 17, 2016
Grant Cooke
Grant Cooke

If Valero’s crude-by-rail, or CBR, project goes through, it will do irreparable damage to Benicia. If the three councilmembers—Mark Hughes, Christina Strawbridge and Alan Schwartzman— continue their support for the project, they will do an extraordinary disservice to the city.

I respect those who work on behalf of local government; however, in this case, the legacies of three pro-Valero councilmembers will be that when Benicia needed them, they stood down. They just didn’t have the vision or the ability to do what is right and best for the city.

While the same can be said for numerous elected officials in other American small towns, particularly those dominated by a fossil fuel company, it’s a painful thing to witness. What makes Benicia’s situation more painful, is that the city is gifted with a bright and forward thinking mayor and is nestled on the edge of the most innovative and financially robust center in the world.

Yet, the pro-Valero majority on the council mirrors the city’s self-inflicted company town identity. This fossil fuel dependence holds the city back from partaking in the Bay Area’s knowledge-based economy and its prosperity.

The company town malignancy is intensified by a remarkable and insulating geography that creates the city’s beauty. The town has an idyllic and picturesque quality that is enhanced by a touch of eccentricity and bohemian romanticism left over from the halcyon days of the Gold Rush.

This combination allows for a complacency in the social milieu that is on the one hand charming, but on the other, remarkably short-sighted. In fact, it’s just plain dumb, since it allows for the tacit acceptance of the status quo and masks the reality that problems are coming and action needs to be taken.

For a half-century, Benicia has allowed the refinery to prosper, hardly inhibiting its use of the atmosphere as a garbage can. For most of this time, the refinery has been the largest source of tax revenue, exercising dominant economic and political influence. Which is a pity, since the rest of the Bay Area embarked on a scientific, technological and economic renaissance that is unparalleled in human history.

Now, the era of carbon generated wealth and dominance is in decline, particularly in densely populated areas where growing number of residents are pushing back, protective of their health and well-being. Carbon-generated wealth, usually from extraction industries, is being overtaken by knowledge-based wealth. High-tech workers are transforming the communities throughout the Bay Area. Cities like Richmond that were mired in the death grip of the fossil fuel industry, are now undergoing gentrification and renewal.

So where does that leave Benicia? If the pro-Valero councilmembers have their way and Valero’s CBR project is approved, then the city will continue to be dependent on the refinery and the fossil fuel industry.It’s clear from the evidence that crude-by-rail transportation is unsafe, unhealthy, and disruptive, but it won’t matter if the project is approved and the 50-car trains take over the Industrial Park, cutting off access and exit for most of the existing businesses. Once the trains loaded with toxic and volatile Bakken crude start to roll, there will be no “do overs,” and the city’s future will languish.

There is no doubt that the fossil fuel and oil industries are in decline. Oil prices are dropping as too much supply hits the market. Renewable energy is cheaper, more plentiful and when connected to smart grids far more flexible and cleaner. Vehicles are getting more efficient and transitioning to hybrid, electric, and hydrogen power. The fossil fuel era with its environmental destruction, social and political upheavals, and corrupt power politics is winding down.

So by approving CBR, Benicia will be locked into a decline—all the while the rest of the Bay Area flourishes as the new knowledge-based economy expands.

As an interesting aside, in the last three months, Valero, Inc. made $19.6 billion in gross revenue and $87.8 billion for all of 2015. As part of the company’s second-quarter earnings announcement, Joe Gorder, Valero’s CEO, said “We are also encouraged by ample supplies of medium and heavy sour crude oils in the market…”

So, if there is plenty of supply, and the refinery’s current crude delivery process is creating substantial profits, why does the refinery still want to ship explosive Bakkan crude by trains through towns that oppose it? And why do they claim it’s necessary to bring it to a loading area with a potential blast zone that includes an elementary school?

Admittedly, Valero’s CBR project is not simple. There are key issues at stake, including the tax revenues versus the city’s right and responsibility to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Many people are involved to various degrees in the decision. Unfortunately, the town’s residents can’t vote on the project, since the decision is solely in the hands of the city council.

The pro-Valero CBR faction has tried to diminish the importance of the decision by claiming the opposition is simply a ruckus stirred up by passionate environmentalists opposed to Big Oil. The intent is to frame the local election, and opposition to the project, as simply a one issue ballot. But the reality is far different. It’s not merely a CBR issue, or whether the refinery is good or not for the city, but a clear and simple question of what is to be Benicia’s future? Will the city – pushed by the three pro-Valero councilmembers – be locked into fossil fuel’s decline, or will it have the wherewithal to step into the 21st century and join the Bay Area’s booming knowledge-based economy?

If Benicia is going to survive as a chartered city, it has to go where the future beckons, which is to the new economy. If it dithers, the city will be passed over, as the new economy leapfrogs to Vallejo and other cities along the Interstate 80 corridor.

Three decades in, the scientific and technological Renaissance is just getting started, powered by a steamroller of venture capital. Silicon Valley is awash with cash and opportunity, and the Bay Area’s great universities and national laboratories are brimming with patents just waiting for implementation. High-tech and green tech startups and businesses are growing exponentially each year. Chinese and other foreign buyers are trolling Northern California for the newest inventions and technology.

The Green Industrial Revolution will continue to grow, pushing out along the region’s main transportation corridors. Eventually it will extent from Palo Alto to Sacramento. Just as Apple overcame Exxon, the new economy will push out the fossil fuel industry in the Bay Area. Within a couple of decades, the Bay Area refineries will lock their gates, unable to withstand the shifts in the energy markets and the expenses of offsetting carbon emissions.

What the fossil fuel industries in the Bay Area—and by extension those cities that have cast their lot with them—are not realizing is that there is a generational and workforce shift taking place. The older work force who had a high tolerance for the fossil fuel and heavy industrial manufacturing industries are being overtaken by a tsunami of high tech workers. These young folks are sophisticated, intelligent and extremely sensitive to health and recreation. (Just visit San Francisco’s marina green on the weekend). Their lifestyles are far different than the established group. High-tech workers live in denser neighborhoods, drive efficient autos and take public transportation. (Visit Emeryville, or the area around Pleasant Hill’s BART station.)

Above all, tech workers have enormous amounts of money that is rapidly changing the real estate market and the Bay Area’s lifestyle. As these workers mature, they will pressure politicians for the things they value, which is certainly not carbon emissions or refineries.

Rarely in life does time and circumstance allow us to decide our fate. The future is often veiled and clouded, and usually clarity only comes with necessity, too often calamity. This is true for individuals as well as cities. Cities, especially small company towns, rarely have the visionary leadership and the ability to break loose from the status quo, until like Stockton or Vallejo they implode.

Benicia’s fate is remarkably unambiguous; stick with the old fossil fuel industry and go down with its decline, or join the Bay Area’s Renaissance and prosper. Throughout the world, other cities have faced much harsher realities and have been successful in transitioning to a new economy. Melbourne, Copenhagen, Berlin and Bristol leap to mind. In each, change was driven by strong visionaries who understood that change was the best option and who had the leadership skills to pull the cities and their residents forward.

Does Benicia have similar visionary leadership? That is clearly central to November’s local election. There are two councilmembers up for re-election—Tom Campbell and Christina Strawbridge. Mayor Elizabeth Patterson is being challenged by Vice Mayor Mark Hughes. Three councilmembers – Strawbridge, Hughes and Alan Schwartzman who is not up for re-election – favor Valero and its CBR project.

Mayor Patterson has shown time and again that she understands the dilemma the city faces and why its future lies with the new economy. She clearly has the vision, talent and leadership required to move the city forward, and should be re-elected. Councilmember Campbell also understands that Benicia’s future prosperity can’t be dependent on Valero’s CRB project and he should continue.

Steve Young, a new challenger for a council position possess exceptional talent and leadership skills, and clearly understands that the city’s best interests are to reject Valero’s CBR. As a member of Benicia’s Planning Commission, he spent countless hours on the issue, painstakingly doing the research and leading the commission through the pros and cons as each member came to agree that the CBR project was not the town’s best option.

Patterson and Campbell were outvoted by the three other councilmembers, and the council failed to accept the Planning Commission’s recommendation, instead giving Valero the opportunity to reopen the issue with the Surface Transportation Board. Cluttering the decision was some questionable recommendations from the city staff, goofy advice from a consulting attorney, and bullying from Valero’s high-powered lawyer. In short, the whole process reeked of the misinformation and strong-armed tactics so common when an oil company puts pressure on small town politics.

Given his remarkable dedication to Benicia and the work required to bring the whole CBR permitting process into the public light, Steve Young has clearly shown that he has the intelligence, talent and leadership skills needed to help the city transition away from the past and embrace the future.

For Benicia, come the November election, Mayor Patterson and Tom Campbell should be re-elected. Steve Young should be the newly elected councilmember.

Grant Cooke is a longtime Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is also an author and has written several books on the Green Industrial Revolution. His newest is “Smart Green Cities” by Routledge.
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HUFFINGTON POST: Top 5 Reasons To Ban Oil Trains Immediately

Repost from the Huffington Post

Top 5 Reasons To Ban Oil Trains Immediately

By Todd Paglia, Executive Director, Stand.Earth (formerly ForestEthics), 06/29/2016 01:32 pm ET

On Friday, June 3rd, a crude oil train traveled through the scenic Columbia River Gorge, a national treasure and one of the most beautiful spots in a country blessed with some of the most stunning places on Earth. It went slowly through the small town of Mosier, Ore. Children sat in class, no doubt looking forward to the weekend, people stopped by the post office, enjoying the rituals of small town life. Then the ground shook. Explosions rocked the area and a plume of thick black smoke snaked its way into the sky. The oil train had derailed a few hundred yards from that school, a few hundred yards from the city center. Four railcars spilled and caught fire — and tens of thousands of gallons of burning North Dakota Bakken crude created an inferno.

This disaster occurred as Stand and our many allies in the Crude Awakening Network were preparing for the third annual Stop Oil Trains Week of Action, planning dozens of events across the US and Canada between July 6-12 to mark the solemn anniversary of the tragic Lac Megantic oil train disaster on July 6, 2013. The Mosier derailment drove home, once again, why oil trains are too dangerous for the rails. And why Stand is asking President Obama for an immediate ban on oil trains.

Here are the top five reasons Stand, joined by hundreds of groups, community leaders, and elected officials, are calling for a ban on deadly oil trains.

1. 25 million Americans live in the oil train “blast zone”.
The US rail system was built to connect population centers, not move millions of gallons of toxic, flammable crude oil. But the oil industry is doing exactly that, sending explosive crude down the tracks right through our cities and by the homes of 25 million Americans. At Stand, we have mapped oil train routes with our Blast Zone map. You can use the map to see if your home, school, or office is inside the dangerous one-mile evacuation area. One clear finding from analyzing America’s blast zone: vulnerable populations like environmental justice communities and school children are clearly in harm’s way.

2. Oil trains can’t be operated safely.
Federal safety standards won’t improve oil train safety. Federal legislation, promises by the railroads, and federal regulations- weakened by years of interagency battles between the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board — have all come to very little. Former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Jim Hall, in a June 2016 op-ed advocating a ban on crude oil trains, put it simply: “Carrying crude oil by rail is just not a good idea.” That’s because it cannot be done safely. Period.

Thorough reporting by DeSmog Blog on the weak existing federal regulatory standards and the oil and rail industry’s failure to meet them demonstrates there have been no improvements on the safety of the 100,000 unsafe tank cars in the US fleet. Only a few hundred of these 100,000 dangerous tank cars have been retrofitted, and cars updated to the newest tank car standard will still puncture at just a few miles an hour faster than the current tank cars.

After 2025, there may be marginal improvements in the tank cars and procedures associated with oil trains. But trains will still derail, and crude will still leak and ignite.

3. Oil train fires can’t be controlled.
When an oil train derails at any speed over the puncture velocity of roughly 10 miles an hour a dozen or so cars typically come off the tracks, decouple and are thrown from their wheels. Tank cars are easily punctured, and the crude (either Bakken or diluted tar sands, both highly volatile) can either self-ignite or be sparked by a nearby ignition source.

Once the spilled oil from an oil train disaster ignites, the primary task of emergency responders is to evacuate the area due to toxic plumes, fire, and potential explosions. We write more about the difficulties here, but Bruce Goetsch, a county emergency manager in Iowa, had this advice: “Make sure your tennis shoes are on and start running.” Or listen to the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, which delivered a letter to Washington Governor Inslee on June 8 demanding an immediate halt to crude rail movement and stating that, “these fires are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, even under unusually ideal circumstances.”

4. We don’t need the oil these dangerous trains carry.
Oil trains in North America carry extreme fracked crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, or diluted bitumen from tar sands deposits in Alberta. We don’t need any of this crude oil. According to the most recent information from the US Energy Information Administration, shipments of crude by rail represent only 2.5 percent of the 19 million barrel daily US oil demand. At the same time, the US exports more than five million barrels of oil per day. So the US is exporting ten times more than the 513,000 barrels of crude that is moving by rail each day. The crude moving by train contributes nothing to our energy supply. If we stopped all oil trains tomorrow Americans would never notice the difference at the gas pumps – but we would all be safer, especially the 25 million Americans living in the blast-zone.

5. Oil trains are taking us in the wrong direction.
The dangerous, unnecessary, carbon-intensive crude oil moving by train through North American cities and towns is a new phenomenon. Before 2008, crude oil rarely, if ever, moved by train. Oil companies see this oil as the future. We see a future where we leave extreme crude oil in the ground and use decreasing amounts of conventional oil as we transition to 100 percent clean energy.

The climate accords in Paris followed by the April 2016 United Nations resolution put the United States and the rest of the world on a clear, inevitable path toward reducing fossil fuels from our energy supply. These dangerous oil trains carrying extreme oil are, quite simply, not part of that future: they fail the public safety test, the energy security test, and the climate test.

Forty-seven people died in the Lac Megantic oil train disaster three years ago. Only incredible luck prevented Mosier, OR from being another Lac Megantic. It was a dead-calm day in one of the windiest part of the US, otherwise the fire could have spread quickly to more derailed cars, to surrounding forests, homes, and even to the nearby school. This was another close call, one of more than a dozen major oil train disasters over the last three years that could have been much worse. We need to end this unnecessary and unacceptable threat before our luck runs out.

This is not a radical request. In fact, the Governors of Oregon and Washington have asked for a moratorium on oil trains. Join them — and Stand: Please join us in asking President Obama for an immediate ban on oil trains.

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