Category Archives: Dunsmuir CA

Sacramento Bee: Area leaders accuse Benicia of failing to take steps to help protect cities

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento officials challenge Benicia oil train project

By Tony Bizjak, February 5, 2016 11:30AM

HIGHLIGHTS
•  Valero Refining company wants to ship two 50-car oil trains daily through Northern California
•  The trains would pass through downtown Sacramento and other local cities
•  Sacramento area leaders say Benicia has failed to respond to rail cities’ safety concerns

This train is a crude oil train operated by BNSF. The train is snaking its way west through James, California just outside of the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley. Photo taken June 5, 2014 by Jake Miille
This train is a crude oil train operated by BNSF. The train is snaking its way west through James, California just outside of the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley. Photo taken June 5, 2014 by Jake Miille

Sacramento leaders this week accused the city of Benicia of failing to take any steps to help protect cities against potential oil spills from daily train shipments an oil company wants to run through Northern California.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, representing six local counties and 22 area cities, sent a letter Thursday to Benicia, saying that city’s environmental impact analysis of a rail plan by Valero Refining Co. is inadequate and represents “a non-response” to Sacramento’s safety concerns.

The challenge comes the week before the Benicia Planning Commission is scheduled to hear Valero’s controversial request for a permit to make changes at its Benicia refinery to allow it to receive two 50-car trains a day of crude oil from North America fields. The train shipments will replace current oil deliveries via ocean vessels.

The trains would travel through Rocklin, Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other rail cities en route to the the refinery. It is not clear which route the trains will take east of Roseville, but potential routes include the Feather River Canyon, Donner Summit and via Oregon through Dunsmuir and Redding.

As more and larger crude oil shipments have ramped up in the United States in recent years, the number of oil spills and fires has increased as well. Several have produced major fires, including one that killed 47 people in a Canadian town two years ago. Cities along rail lines across the United States have been demanding more protections.

Benicia recently released an environmental analysis that concluded the trains would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public from oil spills and fires, but said a spill is likely to only occur once every few decades.

Benicia city planning department officials wrote that they believe federal rail regulations prohibit the city from denying the project or placing restrictions because of concerns about rail safety. City officials also noted that Valero is the city’s largest employer and that it provides “a large source of revenue for the city.”

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, who signed the SACOG letter, said Sacramento officials are not asking Benicia to reject the plan, only to take legal steps to require the shipments are handled as safely as possible, including requiring rail companies use stronger tanker cars with safety mechanisms, and that the trains use new computer safety controls called “positive train control.”

Saylor pointed out that local emergency responders apparently will not be allowed to know when the trains are coming through.

“Our concern is about the 500,000 people in the 6-county area that live within a half mile of the rails, people who are exposed to potential risk,” Saylor said.

Sacramento officials and officials in other rail-line cities nationally have also called for requirements that companies take more steps to “stabilize” volatile North Dakota oil before it is shipped.

Benicia city officials have declined comment pending upcoming city hearings on the subject. Officials have set aside several nights in a row, beginning Monday, Feb. 8, for public comment on the plan. Those hearings are expected to be heavily attended by people arguing for and against the proposal.

Benicia’s approach contrasts with the way San Luis Obispo County is handling a similar crude oil train project. County officials there have recommended the county’s Planning Commission reject a proposal from Phillips 66 for changes at its local refinery that would allow it to bring oil trains on site. Those shipments would go through both Northern and Southern California, including the Sacramento area. The Phillips refinery currently receives oil via pipeline.

In a report, San Luis Obispo planning staff wrote they do not believe the economic and other benefits from the proposed project outweigh the unavoidable negative environmental impacts the project would cause. County officials listed the potential for elevated cancer risk from added air pollution near the tracks in the county and elsewhere in California.

“The project would be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the public and the residents of San Luis Obispo County due to the increase of hazardous accidents as a result of the project,” the county planning staff wrote in a report issued on Monday.

Hearings are ongoing over that project. SACOG sent a letter this week as well to San Luis Obispo County saying that –if the project is approved –the county should imposed “a full complement of mitigation measures addressing our safety concerns.”

Phillips 66 recently announced it will reduce the number of annual train shipments it plans to make from 250 to about 150.

Share...

    KQED: California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

    Repost from KQED Science
    [Editor: Significant quotes: 1) by Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) – “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”  2) by Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission – “My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state.  These trains explode. If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage.”    – RS]

    California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

    Molly Samuel, KQED Science | July 21, 2014

    A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)
    A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)

    The number of trains carrying crude oil across California is increasing rapidly, and two official reports say the state is not ready. Regulators are preparing, with funds for disaster response and more track inspectors, but they’re limited in how much they can do to make rail transport safer.

    “My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state,” said Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

    “These trains explode,” King said. “If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage. And of course we know what happened in little Lac-Mégantic.” That’s the town in Quebec where a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed last July. The explosion killed 47 people.

    Bakken crude is volatile. In the past year, trains transporting crude from the Bakken have also exploded in North Dakota, Virginia and Alabama.

    Trains carrying Bakken crude traverse California, too, bringing the oil to refineries here. And while the CPUC regulates rail in California, the state can’t actually do much when it comes telling the railroads how they can operate. Almost all of those rules are up to the federal government.

    ‘Our Hands in California Are Tied’

    The state can’t set speed limits on crude oil trains. It can’t tell railroads to choose less hazardous routes. It can’t tell oil companies not to bring trains carrying the volatile crude through cities. It can’t tell oil companies to ship that crude in stronger tank cars. It can’t require upgraded braking systems.

    Neither can local governments, though the cities of Davis, Richmond and Berkeley have all passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the transport of crude oil by rail.

    “I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a democrat from Santa Barbara, said at a hearing last month.

    Trains carried nearly 6.3 million barrels of oil into California in 2013. That’s more than five times more than in 2012. According to the California Energy Commission, by 2016 that number could balloon to more than 100 million barrels.

    That’s because there’s an oil boom in the middle part of the continent, and to get that crude from Alberta and North Dakota to California, oil companies have to use trains.

    Firefighters douse blazes after in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
    Firefighters douse blazes in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

    Steps Towards Safer Shipping

    There are ways to make the trains safer.

    Most of the tank cars used to transport crude oil, including the volatile Bakken crude, are old, and can’t protect against explosions. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada required that the most dangerous of the cars — the same tank cars that carry as much as 82 percent of crude oil in the U.S. — be removed from service, and that the rest be retrofitted.

    The U.S. is considering stricter tank car standards. Last week, the advocacy group Earthjustice sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging the agency to move faster by issuing an emergency order immediately banning the use of the unsafe cars.

    But California can’t require any of this. The CPUC intends to urge the DOT to “move expeditiously” to update its tank car regulations. That, and other recommendations, are laid out in a recent report on crude-by-rail safety in the state. The state wants the feds to require that there be newer braking technology on oil trains and a GPS-based system that prevents accidents on oil train routes. According to King, the CPUC will submit those recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration soon.

    The railroads have already adopted some voluntary safety measures, including lower speed limits and increased track inspections. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the company that is currently transporting large amounts of Bakken crude in California, is asking railcar manufacturers to submit bids to build 5,000 safer cars. (The railroads typically don’t own the cars used to ship material; the oil companies themselves either own or lease them.)

    The CPUC has done one of the main things it can: hire more railroad safety inspectors. The CPUC keeps a list of the most hazardous sections of track, and according to a recent report, the most frequent cause of derailments at those sites are track problems. The new state budget adds seven positions, bringing the CPUC’s inspection staff to 38. CPUC staff checks all the tracks in California once a year and, going forward, will check the tracks on Bakken oil train routes twice a year

    A Past Disaster

    California once tried to introduce stricter railroad regulations.

    In July, 1991, a train derailed in Northern California at a bend in the track where it crosses the Upper Sacramento River, near the town of Dunsmuir. It spilled 19,000 gallons of a pesticide called metam sodium into the river.

    “It killed everything down to the bacteria,” said Mark Stopher, who was hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the damage to the river.

    The poison killed more than a million fish, and every insect and plant in the river for 40 miles. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like that before,” he said. In video from the time, you can see fish struggling to escape the river and get into tributaries. Stopher said they all died.

    “It was kind of a blow to the heart to lose the river,” said Phil Dietrich, executive director of a conservation group called River Exchange.

    The Upper Sacramento had been a popular fishing destination. So when the fish were gone, the tourists, and their money, disappeared too.

    But it was a pulse of poison; metam sodium doesn’t linger. A few years later, the fish were back. The tourists are back, too. It could have been worse, if what spilled had been a substance that lasts in the environment for a longer time. Oil, for instance.

    After the accident, the CPUC tried to require stronger track at Cantara Loop, to keep it from happening again.

    “We were trying to adopt regulations where there were none,” said King. But they couldn’t. The railroad sued the CPUC, and eventually the court sided with the railroad, reinforcing the Federal Railroad Administration’s jurisdiction. There is a large rail in place on the bridge now, to help keep trains from derailing into the river. According to the CPUC, there have been four derailments in the area since 2009.

    “Our role is limited,” King said. “Our role is to ensure that the regulations that the federal government has in place are followed.”

    Beefing Up Clean-Up 

    Even if the the state can’t do all it wants to keep an accident from happening, it can prepare to respond to one.

    In June, dozens of fire fighters, public health experts and Red Cross volunteers gathered near Cantara Loop to run a drill. The scenario was that an oil train had collided with an illegal marijuana grower’s truck at the site of the ’91 spill. The truck wrecked, and the train derailed and spilled oil into the river. 

    Firefighters pulled the casualties (volunteers marked with paint) away from the scene, a helicopter brought tools to treat people who’d been doused in dangerous chemicals and a team deployed a drone to get a view of the (largely imaginary) disaster scene from above.

    “We want to make sure California’s prepared to respond,” said Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”

    OSPR got more money in this year’s budget, so that it can prepare for inland oil spills. Until now, the agency focused only on marine accidents. The state Office of Emergency Services is also looking for ways to better prepare emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers, for an oil train explosion. And state lawmakers are considering a couple of crude-by-rail bills that would improve emergency responses.

    Dietrich emphasizes that what happened in Dunsmuir in 1991 was a rare event, and yet, the memory lingers.

    “It comes down to we care about our river and about our towns,” he said. “And we hope that the agencies and the railroad are on top of it.”

    Share...

      Benicia Congressman Mike Thompson has long record of concern over hazmat rail safety

      [Editor: In an exclusive interview, the Benicia Herald details the historical background on Thompson’s response to the catastrophic derailment and spill in Dunsmuir, CA in 1991.  Note that Thompson is reported to have met with Valero and other area refinery and train safety officials.  He has proposed legislation that would involve federal intelligence oversight to guard against security threats on hazmat tank cars.  – RS]

      Repost from The Benicia Herald

      Congressman on Crude-by-Rail plan: ‘Make sure it’s done safely’

      May 25, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman
      MIKE THOMPSON. watchsonomacounty.comMIKE THOMPSON – watchsonomacounty.com

      When it comes to looking at the dangers posed by transport of hazardous materials, “it’s not just Benicia,” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson said Friday in an exclusive interview with The Herald.

      And it’s not just since the opening of the Bakken oil fields made a light, sweet and more combustible crude oil available domestically, particularly by rail delivery.

      Nor has Thompson been following these developments only since the the deadly train explosion last year that killed 47 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, or the April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va., that poured 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River.

      His interest was sparked nearly a quarter century ago, and it’s why he said the proposed Valero Crude By Rail project “must be done right.”

      In 1991, the small California resort town of Dunsmuir experienced its own toxic spill when a Southern Pacific train derailed nearby, spilling 19,000 gallons of a soil fumigant that killed more than a million fish and millions of other animals, from crayfish and amphibians to insects and mollusks.

      Hundreds of thousands of trees were killed as well, and the chemical metam sodium left a 41-mile plume from the spill site to where the river enters Shasta Lake.

      The disaster still ranks as California’s largest hazardous chemical spill. Many species still haven’t recovered from the spill, though fish populations have returned to normal.

      At the time of the spill, Thompson was a state senator. Dunsmuir, in Siskiyou County, was in his district.

      As a result of the devastating spill, he drafted legislation, Senate Bill 48, that became Chapter 766 of California’s Statutes of 1991. The bill founded the Railroad Accident Prevention and Immediate Deployment (RAPID) Force, which cooperates with existing agencies to respond to large-scale releases of toxic materials after surface transportation accidents.

      The statute also ordered the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to develop a statewide plan in cooperation with the state fire marshal, businesses that would be impacted by the requirement and agencies in the RAPID Force. For a time, it also raised money through fees to supply responders with necessary equipment to tackle such emergencies.

      Under the statute, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, CalFire, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services made interagency agreements so resources could be managed efficiently in preparing for or acting during an emergency.

      That RAPID plan has multiple policies and directions to any agency or business in the event of a railroad accident, so the damage to public health and the environment is minimized.

      Hazardous materials (hazmat) teams were formed, and regional training centers were established to provide certificate-level education, specifically in hazmat railcar safety and other specialist training to emergency responders.

      “My legislation set the standard for railroad safety,” said Thompson, Benicia’s representative in the House. “It included grant money so safety officials would have the equipment for spill cleanup.”

      More than a year ago, Valero Benicia Refinery applied to extend Union Pacific rail lines on its property so crude could be brought in by rail. This isn’t additional oil; it would replace some of the oil that currently is brought in by tanker ships or other methods.

      A draft Environmental Impact Report on the project is due to be released June 10.

      But trains already bring hazardous materials through other areas of the San Francisco Bay Area.

      Thompson said he has met not only with officials from Valero, but other area refineries about rail delivery of oil.

      “They’re here,” he said about the refineries. “Their employees live in the community.”

      That doesn’t mean the safety factors aren’t being reviewed, he said. One is the design of the oil containers that are drawn by locomotives.

      Though BNSF Railway has announced it’s seeking contractors to provide tanker cars that exceed federal safety standards, that’s an unusual step for a railroad company to take because of how contracting with a railroad works.

      Normally railroads don’t own their own cars, according to rail officials for both BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad: Customers either lease or own them, then contract railroad lines to move their products.

      Thompson said he has had conversations about construction of those cars, with one person telling him that if rail cars are carrying products that can harm people or the environment, they should be strong enough to fall off a cliff and not break.

      It isn’t practical to armor a car or make its walls so thick it can carry little inside, he conceded. But he added, “They do need to be as safe as they possibly can, to protect public safety and the environment and wildlife.”

      The Association of American Railroads and its Tank Car Committee has issued a statement saying that it petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2011 to strengthen the standard, non-pressure tanker car, called a DOT-111.

      Those cars make up 228,000 of the 335,000 active fleet tank cars, and AAR’s statement said about 92,000 DOT-111s carry flammable liquids, including crude and ethanol.

      When no federal action was taken on its request, AAR itself adopted higher standards for reinforcing flammable liquid-carrying tank cars that are ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

      AAR then reiterated in 2013 its request for the federal government to enact stricter regulations, and has said the oil companies that contract with railroads have resisted spending money on the stronger rail cars.

      “There’s always pushback,” said Thompson, referring to any new or strengthening of regulations or raising of standards, and not just concerning tanker cars.

      As for Valero’s specific Benicia project as well as crude delivery by rail in general, Thompson said, “I want to make sure it’s done safely, so damage is minimal, if not nonexistent.

      “There is risk in everything,” he said, noting that there are risks as well when trucks, ships and pipelines transport oil.

      He cited as examples such ship spills as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the Shell Oil pipeline break that sent oil into the Gulf of Mexico in April. He described how he went to inspect the latter incident.

      He said he’s also met with area train safety officials, who told him about the safety detectors designed to spot irregularities on the rails.

      “We walked the track,” he said.

      But there still are questions whether such transport is safe enough, and Thompson said he’s submitted to rail safety officials questions posed by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson.

      As a member of the U.S. House, Thompson said he has also authored an amendment to a recent bill that also addresses rail safety.

      He cited an example of one of his “walk the track” visits, when he saw rail tanker cars that were parked on a siding.

      The cars were illustrated in graffiti.

      Thompson said he has discussed this with federal rail safety officials, not as a vandalism problem, but as evidence of a lapse in security.

      His legislation requires intelligence experts to be involved in looking at refineries, too, so that shipments by rail are secure against such violent activity.

      While some refinery staff members have told Thompson that safety is being handled internally, without the need for federal involvement, he countered their objection by telling them about the tagged tankers.

      “If there’s time to put graffiti on them, there’s time to put a bomb on them,” he said.

      Share...