Valero Benicia Crude By Rail environmental report delayed for review of new federal regulations
The City of Benicia issued an announcement on May 21, 2015 delaying its release of a revised draft environmental impact report on Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposal to construct an offloading facility for delivery of crude by rail.
With this delay, The City will now have spent more than two and a half years processing Valero’s proposal and responding to the objections of concerned residents, experts and nearby officials.
Valero’s application for a use permit came to City staff in December, 2012. In May of 2013, Benicia’s Community Development Director issued a Notice of Intent and a Mitigated Negative Declaration, concluding that the proposal with mitigations was so benign as to not even need environmental review.
After yet another lengthy delay, the City announced in February 2015 that, in response to the magnitude of public criticisms, project consultants would revise the DEIR and release it by June 30, 2015 for recirculation and another 45-day public comment period.
According to the City of Benicia’s Thursday announcement, the new 2-month delay (until August 31, 2015) will give consultants “time to include additional analysis of the new regulations announced on May 1, 2015 by the Department of Transportation to strengthen safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail.”
The City consultant’s analysis, seemingly favoring Valero’s proposal from the outset, will likely make the case that new federal safety standards strengthen environmental protections for this project and improve Valero’s chances for landing a use permit. This analysis, of course, will come under heavy fire due to the inadequacy of the new federal rules, and likely will not withstand the scrutiny of Benicia citizens, officials and regional authorities and stakeholders.
More recently, BSHC has joined a chorus of national and international environmentalists and elected officials who are dismissive of the new (May 1) rules issued by the Department of Transportation. (See NYTimes article.) The new rules fail to adequately govern oil train routing, speed, braking systems and public notification, and leave entirely too many years for retirement and retrofitting of unsafe tank cars and the design and manufacture of tank cars to newer, safer standards.
BSHC and others have called for an immediate moratorium on all shipment of crude oil by rail, and a speedy transition to clean and renewable energy sources that will “leave the oil in the soil.”
“The anticipated release of the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) on the Valero Crude by Rail project has been postponed to August 31, 2015. The delay will provide the City with the necessary time to include additional analysis of the new regulations announced on May 1, 2015 by the Department of Transportation to strengthen safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail. The RDEIR will have a 45-day comment period, beginning August 31, 2015, which will include public hearings where the community may comment on the RDEIR. After the comment period closes, the City will complete the Final EIR which will include responses to all comments on the original Draft EIR and the RDEIR. The Final EIR and the project will then be discussed at subsequent public hearings.”
By Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent, Feb. 6, 2015
On Feb. 3, the City of Benicia released a significant announcement, further delaying Valero’s proposal to begin shipping North American (Bakken and tar sands) crude oil in railroad tank cars:
The City has reviewed all of the comments submitted on the Draft EIR and has determined that sections of the Draft EIR will need to be updated and recirculated. The anticipated release of the Recirculated Draft EIR for public comment is June 30, 2015. The Recirculated Draft EIR will have a 45-day comment period. After the comment period on the Recirculated DEIR closes, the City will complete the Final EIR which will include responses to all comments on the original Draft EIR and the Recirculated Draft EIR.
This is a victory for those of us who have openly and passionately opposed Valero’s proposal – a vindication of what we have been advocating all along. The local opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC), submitted a 132-page critique of the DEIR, disclosing multiple “fatal flaws” and calling for a revision and recirculation. The City of Benicia seems to agree.
After the City’s failed attempt to rush the project’s approval in early 2013, it has been significantly slowed for critical analysis and public transparency. The recirculation will further delay any possibility of approval. Don’t hold your breath, but little “David” may just be winning a long and arduous battle with “Goliath.”
On the other hand, the decision to recirculate indicates that Valero and City staff are NOT backing off plans to seek a permit, as some had speculated they might. The historic drop in crude oil prices; the resulting cutbacks in crude extraction in North Dakota; the uncertainty of impending new federal and state regulations and lawsuits surrounding those new regulations; vociferous local, regional and statewide opposition and severe critiques of the Draft EIR … none of these factors, nor all of them together seem enough to have backed Valero into a wait-and-see attitude.
Local conversation among Benicia residents following the recirculation announcement has been spirited with significant questions and concerns:
Many are questioning the City’s “selected” revision method–what sections of the DEIR are going to be revised, and what sections, if any, will go unchanged? Is a “piecemeal” revision a wise approach? Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) and other government agencies & NGOs have found serious deficiencies in ALL sections of the DEIR (see highly critical reviews and the BSHC critique). Surely the City should address ALL the concerns expressed by the California State Attorney General and the other government agencies and NGO’s. The City must have a solid EIR with full, honest disclosure of impacts of this project.
Critics have raised serious concerns about the ability of the current consulting team to complete the task of revising a DEIR that can withstand legal scrutiny given the extremely poor original product. Given the badly flawed analysis and obvious bias in favor of the project demonstrated by the consultants, it might be prudent for the City to hire a different consultant.
Many Benicians continue to believe that if the DEIR disclosed the true extent of the environmental impacts and safety risks of this project it could never be built.
So Benicians still have work to do. Maybe take a bit of a break between now and June, but PLEASE don’t quit writing letters, gathering signatures, putting up yard signs, canvassing, petitioning, keeping informed, and supporting nearby Bay Area refinery communities and important uprail efforts. Stay in touch!
Repost from The Sacramento Bee [Editor: Highly significant development – a must read! – RS]
New crude oil report concludes risks of train spills are real
By Tony Bizjak, 10/23/2014
Mile-long oil trains that are expected to crisscross California daily in the coming years pose significant risks to residents of urban areas, including Sacramento, a new report concludes, contradicting earlier studies that found no major safety concerns.
The report, issued by San Luis Obispo County officials, is based on a plan by Phillips 66 to transport crude oil on 80-car trains, five days a week, to its Santa Maria refinery, some likely through Sacramento. The authors looked at the cumulative impact of all oil trains that could come through California on a daily basis and came to the conclusion that the risk of oil spills and fires is real, and offered suggestions on how those issues should be addressed.
“Up to seven crude oil trains a day could travel on the stretch of track between Roseville and Sacramento,” the report reads. “The cumulative risk would be significant.”
The analysis, called a draft environmental impact report, contrasts with two recent analyses of similar crude-by-rail projects in Benicia and Bakersfield. Valero Refining Co. in Benicia and Alon USA in Bakersfield are proposing to transport crude oil twice a day on trains into their facilities. The Valero trains would come through downtown Sacramento, Roseville, West Sacramento and Davis, likely on the same tracks as the Santa Maria refinery trains. Some of the Bakersfield-bound trains also may come through Sacramento.
Those reports, issued earlier this summer, concluded the risk of spills and oil fires in Sacramento and other areas is not significant and requires no additional safety steps. Those earlier analyses have been challenged. An environmental group, Earthjustice, has sued Kern County over its Bakersfield project review. Two state safety agencies and the state attorney general have sent letters to Benicia challenging the adequacy of its review of the Valero project.
San Luis Obispo County officials said they decided to go beyond what was done in Benicia and Kern County – breaking new ground in California’s evolving crude-by-rail debate – by conducting a qualitative risk assessment, to understand the ramifications of “reasonable” worst-case oil spill scenarios. The new report is an amended version of an earlier report San Luis Obispo issued last year, which also had been challenged as inadequate.
“We have been trying to keep an eye on what is going on around the state, to understand comments coming in on the Valero project and others, and to take a holistic approach,” said San Luis Obispo County project manager Murry Wilson.
That qualitative assessment takes special note of spill risks in urban areas, saying, “The risk is primarily driven by the high-threat urban areas (Los Angeles, Bay Area and Sacramento) since these are the locations where fairly long stretches of track are in close proximity to heavily populated areas.” A series of tables in the report indicate that injuries and deaths could occur up to a third of a mile from a crash site in urban areas, if there was a tank car rupture and explosive fire.
The report points out that derailments of oil trains are rare. The chances of a train spilling more than 100 gallons of oil en route from the California border in the north state to the Santa Maria refinery are anywhere from one-in-19 to one-in-31 in any given year, depending on the route, the county estimated. Similarly, railroad industry officials say their data show that 99.99 percent of freight trains arrive at their destinations safely.
But the dramatic increase in the last few years of crude oil shipments around the United States and Canada, often on 100-car trains, has led to several major derailments and fires, prompting concerns from cities along rail lines, and federal safety officials. Last year in Canada, a runaway crude oil train crashed in a small town and exploded, killing 47 people, many as they slept. Several other crude oil trains have been involved in dramatic explosions around the country in the past year, prompting evacuations of residential areas.
At the moment, two crude oil trains run to or through Sacramento. One carries highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota through midtown Sacramento a few times a month to a distribution facility in the East Bay. Another periodically brings oil to a transfer station at McClellan Business Park in North Highlands. The company that runs the transfer station agreed this week to halt those shipments after air-quality officials concluded they had issued the permit in error.
The daily trains to the Santa Maria refinery, if approved, are expected to travel on both southern or northern routes into the state, starting in 2016, depending on where Phillips decides to buy its U.S.-produced oil. The Northern California route is uncertain east of Roseville. West of Roseville, trains are likely to run through downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis and through East Bay cities, but also could take a route through Sacramento to Stockton, then west into the Bay Area.
San Luis Obispo County officials, in their report, also went considerably further than officials in Benicia and Kern County on the question of “mitigation” or preventive measures that could be put in place to minimize risks of crashes and spills.
Federal law pre-empts cities, counties and states from imposing any safety requirements on the railroads. San Luis Obispo County officials suggest, however, in their report that the county could try using its permitting authority over the proposed Phillips 66 refinery expansion to require Phillips to sign agreements with the railroads ensuring that the railroads use safer tanker cars than those currently in use, and employ better train-control computer technology than is currently in place.
An expert on railroad law told The Sacramento Bee this week that a court likely would have to decide if such a move is legal. “The federal pre-emption of the local regulation of railroads is very strong, about as strong a pre-emption as exists,” said attorney Mike Conneran of the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco. “It makes sense. You can’t have a different rule every time a rail car pulls into another state or city.”
“I can see there being a (legal) fight on that,” he said. “It is pretty close to the line in telling the railroad what to do. On the other hand, the county is putting the obligation on the refinery, not the railroad. I think the real question may come down to whether such a mitigation measure is feasible if the refinery can’t force the railroad to comply.”
If San Luis Obispo officials determine that they cannot feasibly mitigate for the Phillips 66 project’s potential hazards, the county can still approve the project, in accordance with California law, if county leaders adopt a “statement of overriding considerations,” saying that the project’s benefits outweigh the adverse effects.
Sacramento-area representatives, who have criticized Benicia’s review of its Valero project as inadequate, say they have not yet reviewed the San Luis Obispo analysis.
“We’ll do a similar analysis to what we filed with Benicia,” said Steve Cohn, chair of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. He said San Luis Obispo’s determination that a train could spill here and cause significant damage is logical, but he wondered what proposed safety measures follow from that conclusion. “We’ll have to take a look,” he said.
It is uncertain at this point whether all of the crude oil train transport projects being proposed in California will actually be built. And, if they are, it’s uncertain still how many of them will route their trains through Sacramento and Northern California. The shipments will come from oil producing areas in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and other states, as well as Canada.
Benicia officials did not respond to questions from The Bee for comment about their environmental analysis of the Valero project.
Notably, both Benicia and San Luis Obispo based a portion of their reports on analysis by an Illinois professor, Christopher Barkan, who also does work for a major rail industry lobbying group. Barkan’s methods of determining the potential frequency of oil spills have been questioned by state safety officials. Barkan has declined to speak to The Bee.
Barkan estimated that a spill from a Phillips 66 train between Roseville and Santa Maria might happen once in 46 years if the trains use the Altamont Pass and once in 59 years if the trains use the tracks along the Interstate 80 corridor. Those numbers appear to be based on trains using the best available tanker cars.