Category Archives: Draft EIR

Benicia Herald: Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year

City announces five-month recirculation of environmental report for Valero proposal first announced in February 2013

February 5, 2015 by Donna Beth Weilenman

The first draft of a lengthly environmental impact report on the proposed Valero Crude-By-Rail Project will be rewritten, and the revised document may be available for public viewing June 30, the city announced in a prepared statement.

The window for commenting on the revised report, once it is released, is 45 days, according to the city.

“After the comment period on the Recirculated DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) closes, the city will complete the Final EIR (Environmental Impact Report) which will include responses to all comments on the original Draft EIR and the Recirculated Draft EIR,” the statement said.

Valero Benicia Refinery originally applied for a use permit for the $30 million project Dec. 20, 2012, submitting additional drawings Feb. 18, 2013, and a project description in March 2013.

The project was publicly announced in February 2013.

The cost of the proposed project triggered the necessity of a Planning Commission public hearing on the permit. Had the endeavor been smaller and less expensive, a city employee could have made the decision over the counter.

The company is asking to extend three Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can accept North American crude oil it said would resemble the composition of the oil it currently receives from Alaska and foreign countries by maritime oil tanker. All construction would be on appropriately zoned land.

The refinery has contended the change not only would help it remain competitive, but that the project would reduce dependency on foreign fuel and result in a net reduction of greenhouse gases in the San Francisco Bay Area, since trains produce fewer emissions than tanker ships.

Trains would bring in 70,000 barrels of crude daily, replacing the same volume currently delivered by ship, according to the application. Other elements of the refinery’s operations would not change.

Refinery officials had hoped the permitting process would go smoothly, and that the rail operations would be started well before 2013 ended.

But before the matter got its first public airing, residents and environmental groups began meeting to air their concerns.

Those worries were heightened after a crude-carrying train, left idling and unattended July 6, 2013, in the Quebec, Canada town of Lac-Megantic, became a runaway that derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying a significant portion of the city’s downtown area.

Initially, local meetings focused on pollution blamed on heavy, sour Canadian tar sands oil. Attention soon shifted to the preponderance of trains carrying the sweet North American crude, particularly from the American Bakken fields, and meeting conversations turned to the volatility of the lighter crude and whether federal standards for tanker rail cars are adequate.

Those concerns, and whether plans were adequate to cope with possible rises in water levels, earthquakes, nesting birds and marshland plants and wildlife convinced city officials to seek the more comprehensive EIR to comply with California Environmental Quality Act requirements, instead of the less intense mitigated negative declaration.

That decision was praised by Benicia’s representative in the state Senate, Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat who called the move “wise.”

The weighty first EIR draft was released June 17, 2014, and the Planning Commission decided July 11, 2014, to give the public additional time — until mid-September of that year — to submit questions and comments. That panel also set aside multiple meetings to accept comments and observations from those who wanted to do so in person.

Among those weighing in were Wolk, who said, “I seriously question whether the EIR has adequately evaluated the true risk of an accident or a spill involved with this project.”

After the formal commentary period had closed, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig sent an Oct. 2, 2014, letter that said, “Unfortunately, the DEIR for this project fails to properly account for many of the project’s potentially significant impacts.”

The pair wrote that the DEIR “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts” by limiting its scope to the 69 miles of rail between Benicia and Roseville, adding that it failed to look at the cumulative impacts of multiple crude-by-rail projects on public safety and the environment.

Supporters of the project, including members of organized labor associations, Valero employees and others, disagreed, particularly at the public meetings.

They reminded the Planning Commission that Valero officials had committed to using reinforced rail cars, and that the refinery continues to earn one of the highest industrial safety designations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can award. They also noted that Benicia gets a significant portion of its revenue from the refinery, a major local employer, and that the project would add both temporary construction and permanent operations jobs.

The report itself noted the refinery would have to meet requirements of existing rules that govern oil refining, including the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006; and that the project could displace as many as 73 ships annually and trade their 25,550,000 barrels for an equal amount brought by train, which would reduce maritime deliveries by as much as 82 percent.

The project calls for about 8,880 track feet of new railroad, and would realign about 3,580 existing track feet. New rail spurs and parallel storage and departure spurs would be built between the east side of the lower tank farm and the west side of the fence along Sulphur Springs Creek.

Also part of the project are crude oil offloading pumps and pipeline, and associated infrastructure, spill containment structures, a firewater pipeline, groundwater wells and a service road. It includes the construction of 4,000 feet of 16-inch crude oil pipeline.

The project, if approved, is expected to take about 25 weeks to complete, and the refinery would eventually be able to accept up to 100 tank cars of crude daily in two 50-car trains, according to the initial report draft.

Those trains would be asked not to cross Park Road during commuter hours, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.

Trains would come to Benicia through Roseville, where cars would be assembled into a train, the report said. Uprail communities would experience “significant and unavoidable” air quality impacts as a result, without receiving the benefit of reduced tanker ship deliveries, the report said.

The first draft of the report said such elements as noise generation and likelihood of spills would be less than significant, though any such spill would be “a significant impact,” particularly in the vulnerable Suisun Marsh and other wetlands.

The report said it wouldn’t conflict or obstruct applicable air quality plans, and would comply in particular with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Bay Area 2010 Clean Air Plan.

However, locomotive engine emissions are regulated at the federal level, and Benicia isn’t allowed to impose emissions controls on them, the report noted.

    Benicia 2014: Year in Review, Vallejo Times-Herald

    Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

    Benicia: Drought, budget keep city busy in 2014

    By Tony Burchyns, 12/29/14

    Benicia>>It was a busy year for Benicia as residents responded to drought and budget problems challenging their way of life.

    Faced with the potential loss of 85 percent of their water supply, Benicians were forced to conserve and pay more for water from other sources.

    Meanwhile, residents approved a sales tax measure to forestall further budget cuts. They also passed school district bond measure to fix aging classrooms.

    The city also managed to adopt a mater plan for its long-awaited downtown waterfront park and complete a $3 million park-and-ride project funded by bridge tolls.

    Here’s a look back at some of Benicia’s top stories of 2014:

    • More so than any other Solano County city, Benicia was hit hard by the state’s ongoing severe drought. The city’s dicey water situation is related to the State Department of Water Resources’ decision in January to halt State Water Project deliveries to millions of residents. Normally, that’s where Benicia gets 85 percent of its water.

    In response the shortage, the city cut its water use by more than 20 percent, exceeding the statewide average of 6.7 percent. In addition to implementing outdoor water restrictions, the City Council also approved a drought surcharge to pay for added costs, such as purchasing water from other communities to meet demand.

    In the coming year, the city is expected to look for ways to increase the reliability of its water supply to avoid future shortages.

    • Faced with ongoing budget problems, voters overwhelmingly passed a 1 cent sales tax to maintain city service levels. City officials argued the extra revenue — projected to reach $3.7 million annually — was needed to maintain “quality of life” services such as police and fire and parks and recreation. The city has trimmed 12 percent of its workforce since 2008 to make ends meet.

    • In June, voters passed a $49.6 million Benicia Unified School District bond to fund facility improvement at several campuses. It is the first district improvement measure in 17 years, following three failed parcel tax attempts.

    • The Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposed rail terminal project continued to fuel debate over crude-by-rail safety issues. If approved, the project would allow Valero to import up to 70,000 barrels of Bakken or Canadian tar sands oil daily by train.

    In June, the city released the project’s environmental impact report, leading to packed public hearings over the summer. People as far away as Roseville attended to voice opposition or support for the project, which would increase oil train traffic through the Sacramento Valley.

    The city also received letters from state and local officials — including State Attorney General Kamala Harris — criticizing the project safety analysis as inadequate. The city is in the process of responding to those and other comments.

    Meanwhile, the project has sparked a debate on whether Mayor Elizabeth Patterson’s public statements about crude-by-rail issues would prevent Valero from getting a fair hearing. In October, Patterson — an outspoken advocate of tougher oil-train safety measures — revealed the city had advised her not to participate in any decisions on Valero’s pending permit. Patterson, however, has challenged that advice, defending her right to speak openly about public safety issues related to the transportation of crude oil by train.

    • Following years of planning, the city adopted a waterfront park master plan in October. The Urban Waterfront Enhancement and Master Plan is meant to guide the development of a waterfront park along the Carquinez Strait between First Street and the marina. In the coming year, the city is expected to seek funding for design and engineering phases estimated to cost $6.7 million.

    • Hoping to make life easier for bus riders, the city completed transit stop improvements on Military West between West K Street and Southampton Road.

    The project followed the completion of similar improvements on Military West near City Park last year. The projects cost $3 million and were funded by bridge tolls.

    Both stops are served by SolTrans Route 78, which links the Vallejo ferry terminal to BART in Contra Costa County.

    • The city has also moved forward with joining Marin Clean Energy to give residents another option for power source. Benicians will be given a six-month opt out period to give a chance for them to stay with Pacific Gas and Electric. There will be a one-time fee for those who decide to opt out afterward. According to staff reports, The city could also receive between $40,000 to $80,000 annually as its solar power credits by utilizing the clean energy source. The current MCE rates are lower than those of PG&E’s, though both rates could fluctuate in the future.

    Staff writer Irma Widjojo contributed to this article.

      San Francisco Chronicle: Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

      Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

      Benicia sees cash in crude oil; neighbors see catastrophe

      By Jaxon Van Derbeken, October 23, 2014
      Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered.
      Ed Ruszel and his family own a woodworking business that fronts the railroad tracks next to the Valero refinery in Benicia where the crude oil would be delivered. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

      A plan to bring tank-car trains filled with crude oil from Canada and North Dakota to a Benicia refinery is pitting the Solano County town against Northern California neighbors who say they will be burdened with the risk of environmental catastrophe.

      Benicia officials must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on a $70million terminal at Valero Corp.’s refinery near Interstate 680, where two 50-car oil trains a day would deliver crude.

      Supporters and the company say California consumers stand to benefit: With no major oil pipelines running to the West Coast and marine transport both costly and potentially hazardous, they say, rail is the best way to keep local gasoline prices low.

      “Right now, that refinery relies on more expensive crude from Alaska,” said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero. “Rail is the quickest, most efficient and safest way of delivery.”

      Benicia’s environmental study weighing the risks of the project, however, has done nothing to assuage critics who say the city is downplaying the dangers of delivering oil by rail.

      Crude from North Dakota shale is extra-volatile, they say, and the city’s environmental report assessed only the chances of a spill along the 69 miles of track from the Sacramento suburbs to Benicia — not the chance of a catastrophic explosion, or the possibility of an accident of any kind along the more than 1,000 additional miles the trains would have to travel to reach the shores of the Carquinez Strait.

      “This project is not in our region — it is outside of our region — but the impacts on the 2.3million people who live here we view as very significant, very troublesome, very disturbing,” said Don Saylor, chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors and vice chairman of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which represents 22 cities and six counties through which the oil trains could travel.

      ‘A street fight’

      Benicia itself is divided by the proposed project. Some locals worry about the environmental risks and traffic problems, while others tout the benefits of low-cost crude to Valero — a company that accounts for a quarter of the city’s tax revenue.

      Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”
      Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson hasn’t taken a stand on the Valero oil-trains terminal, but says, “We need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.” | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

      “This is going to be a street fight,” said oil-train opponent Ed Ruszel, whose family woodworking business fronts the railroad tracks next to the refinery. “They have to come across my driveway every day — we’re at ground zero.”

      The issue is so contentious that the city attorney recently told Mayor Elizabeth Patterson to stop sending out e-mail alerts about city meetings regarding the oil-train project. According to Patterson, the city attorney warned that her activism could open Benicia’s final decision to legal challenge.

      Patterson said she has not taken a stand on the Valero terminal, but that “we need to make sure that just because one industry wants to do something, we don’t ignore the adverse impact to the other businesses and the community.”

      She called City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin’s warning “a blatant effort to muzzle me.” Mc Laughlin did not respond to a request for comment.

      Canadian disaster

      For Ruszel and other critics of the project, the danger is real. They cite several recent oil-by-rail explosions, including the derailment of a 72-car train that killed 47 people and wiped out much of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec in July 2013.

      The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains.
      The Valero refinery in Benicia wants to build a rail terminal where crude oil could be delivered by trains. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

      The Valero-bound trains would pass through Sacramento, Davis and Fairfield, among other cities, en route to Benicia. Those cities have voiced concerns about the terminal, where trains would deliver a total of 2.9million gallons a day of shale oil and tar sands.

      “We have lots of support here from our own local people,” said project critic Marilyn Bardet of Benicia, “but the real difference is that there are so many agencies and people from up rail looking at this problem. We feel exonerated — everybody has chimed in and agreed with us.”

      Not everyone along the rail line is against the idea, however. State Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican who represents Rocklin (Placer County) and is running for state insurance commissioner, called the project “beneficial environmentally and economically.”

      It “can be done safely given the prevention, preparedness and response measures in place by both Valero and Union Pacific Railroad,” Gaines said.

      Setting precedents

      The Benicia battle will probably be a preview of numerous local fights over oil trains in California. Oil-by-rail shipments jumped from 1million barrels in 2012 to 6.3million barrels in 2013, according to government estimates. By 2016, the state could be awash with 150million rail-shipped barrels of crude a year.

      What Benicia does could influence how future oil-train plans play out. Several cities have called on Benicia to require that all train tanker cars have reinforced walls and be better controlled by new, electronically activated braking systems, and that officials restrict what kind of oil can be shipped to Valero.

      Such efforts, however, could run afoul of federal law that preempts states and local governments from setting standards on rail lines. Valero has already warned city officials that it may “invoke the full scope of federal preemption,” a thinly veiled threat to sue if Benicia imposes too many restrictions.

      Much of the crude that would arrive via train at Valero is expected to come from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Federal transportation officials recently deemed Bakken crude to be an “imminent hazard” because it is far more easily ignitable than more stable grades of crude previously shipped by rail.

      In issuing an alert in May, federal transportation officials warned that oil trains with more than 20 cars are at the highest risk because they are heavier than typical cargo and thus more difficult to control. The federal government is considering requiring additional reinforcement of tanker cars and more robust braking systems.

      The federal alert about the danger of crude by rail comes as accidents have skyrocketed, with nine major explosions nationwide since the start of 2013. Last year alone, trains spilled more than 1million gallons of crude in the United States — 72 percent more than the entire amount spilled in the previous four decades combined, California officials say.

      The consultants who wrote Benicia’s draft environmental impact study concluded that because the type of crude that would be brought to Valero is a trade secret, they could not factor it into their risk assessment. They calculated that a major spill on the 69 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and Benicia could be expected roughly once every 111 years.

      Among those who think Benicia needs to take a harder look is state Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office wrote a letter challenging the environmental impact report this month.

      Harris’ office says the report’s authors assumed that the safest rail cars available would be used, disregarded spills of fewer than 100 gallons in determining the likelihood of accidents and, in looking only as far as Roseville, ignored 125 miles of routes north and east of the Sierra foothills town.

      Some possible routes go through treacherous mountain passes that historically have seen more accidents, say oil-train skeptics. While not specifically mentioning a legal challenge, Harris’ office called Benicia’s study deficient and said it ignored the “serious, potentially catastrophic, impacts” of an accident.

      Not her call

      Valero says Harris can voice all the objections she wants, but that she doesn’t get a say on whether the terminal will be built.

      “This is really the city of Benicia’s decision,” said Day, the company spokesman. The attorney general and others, he said, are “free to file comments” on the environmental report.

      He added that “all the crude oil that Valero ships will be in the newest rail cars, which meet or exceed rail safety specifications.”

      “Rail companies have products moving on the rails every day that are flammable,” Day said. “The overwhelming majority of everything transported gets there safely, on time, with no incidents.”

      Benicia’s City Council now has to decide whether to order to certify the draft study, order it revised or reject it entirely. When that decision comes, Benicia will be getting a lot of out-of-town attention.

      “We have near-unanimity in our region to address the safety issues of the crude-oil shipments by rail,” said Saylor, the Yolo County supervisor. “For us, it has been strictly about public safety. It’s a high-risk operation — we have no choice but to take on this issue.”