Category Archives: Environmental review

Orcem/VMT Letter: Environmental Misdirection

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald, Letters

Environmental misdirection

By Jeff Carlson, March 12, 2019 at 6:00 am

The corporate interests desperate to salvage an ill-conceived waterfront slag cement mill application, now staggering on its last legs under appeal, will attempt to pull off a sly last minute magic trick. Like most magic tricks, it relies on misdirection to draw the observer’s attention away from what they should really be looking at. Instead of talking about community values and our aspirations for the future character of our city for decades to come, the applicants want us to focus on the arcane intricacies of a technical environmental review process.

It’s a cynical calculated strategy designed to take a process intended to inform decision-makers and the public and turn it into an inaccessible debate among “experts” — impossible for the general public to follow or critically evaluate. Just check out the EIR analysis of traffic impacts from all the heavy diesel truck and crosstown freight train trips the project would generate at various intersections. See if you can make heads or tails of how they arrive at their numbers. Likewise for the modeling of the impacts to air quality from all the various pollutants the project would release. One more version of an environmental report and re-hash of emissions thresholds and mitigations adds nothing useful to the discussion, but the applicants are determined to create the illusion that the decision should hinge on nothing else.

The city staff who worked on this project application for years recommended that the permits be denied, not because the project crossed this or that threshold of significance in the environmental review, but because a heavy industry project in that location is fundamentally incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood land uses. The city commission primarily responsible for making rational decisions about land use compatibility and planning overwhelmingly agreed, and voted to deny the permits. The city’s general plan update process conducted at a cost of millions of dollars with broad public participation over a period of years resulted in a very different vision for a walkable connected waterfront, in line with the Bay Commission’s public access guidelines.

Why should we pay any attention to one more round of technical environmental analysis? If a deep-pockets corporation can pay experts-for-hire to come up with greatly improved numbers at this late date, it only goes to show what those numbers are really worth. It’s particularly galling after years of trying to avoid and game the environmental review process that the applicant’s would now so desperately cling to it as their last hope.

Former City officials and some members of the lead agency repeatedly demonstrated impermissible pre-approval of the project over a period of years prior to environmental review, beginning with the resurrection and transfer of a lease for public trust land with amendments that anticipate major impactful development. A one-vote majority of the Vallejo City Council colluded in secret with the applicants in a private planning initiative, and explicitly tied the goals of their ad hoc committee with approval of the project before even a first draft EIR was ready. CEQA requires that the public be allowed to evaluate and comment on an environmental analysis based on a stable project description. All the talk of trying to approve a final version of a radically altered project now without re-circulating a new draft EIR for public comment is not at all realistic and will never fly.

This decision is not about thresholds of significance or mitigation measures, it’s about what we value as a community and consider worth preserving and protecting. Residents in the proposed project impact zone already suffer some of the highest rates of pollution-related health effects in the state, including low birth weight babies and heart and lung diseases. No matter what a final EIR and the mercenary experts have to say, it won’t change the fact that instead of an accessible walkable waterfront, local residents would get heavy neighborhood truck traffic and another load of particulate and gas pollutants on top of the unfair burden they already carry.

Let’s ignore the magical misdirection and expert dog and pony shows masquerading as participatory public forums, and keep our attention focused where it belongs. The quality of economic development matters, and the old take-whatever-comes-along approach to city planning is completely irrational. The council is under no legal obligation to wait for another version of the EIR, and I’m sorry — the applicant’s fairness argument is laughable. This project was never worth anywhere near the resources and effort the city put into it, and the costs in terms of political division and acrimony continue to pile up. Time to pull the plug and turn out the lights on this magic show.

— Jeff Carlson/Vallejo

    Joining Trend, NY Suspends Review of Oil Train Terminal Permit

    Repost from Inside Climate News

    Joining Trend, NY Suspends Review of Oil Train Terminal Permit

    Another fight over energy infrastructure ramps up, as state regulators require company to address environmental justice, safety and climate change concerns.
    By Zahra Hirji, September 23, 2016
    New York regulators have suspended the application of a major oil-by-rail terminal project pending review of potential environmental, health and climate change impacts. Credit: STEEVE DUGUAY/AFP/Getty Images

    New York environmental regulators have suspended their review of two proposals to renew and expand operations at a Port of Albany oil terminal until Global Partners LP addresses a laundry list of concerns over environmental, public health, safety and climate change.

    Officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) told the company in a letter on Sept. 16 it has three months to provide plans for the following:

    • limiting the oil terminal’s odors and emissions from toxic pollutants, such as benzene
    • addressing high noise levels and safety risks associated with oil trains coming to the facility
    • reducing the terminal’s climate footprint, among other issues.

    DEC also informed Global Partners that it is combining the company’s renewal and expansion proposals and treating it like an application for a new project. This dramatic step means even after the company provides the extra information requested by the state, the application will undergo a public comment period and be considered for a comprehensive environmental and climate impact review.

    The full review process could take years.

    Environmentalists, Albany residents and county officials celebrated the decision, having spent more than two years raising concerns about the oil terminal’s current and proposed operations and fighting it in court.

    This case joins a national trend of green and grassroots activism helping to delay and cancel dozens of proposals for new and expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, from oil sands and natural gas pipelines to oil terminals and coal mines. Earlier this month, construction of part of the Dakota Access oil pipeline was halted by the Obama administration in North Dakota, following months of protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe objecting to the project’s potential threat to its drinking water and sacred sites.

    “What is so gratifying about the DEC letter is that it requires Global to address every single issue we have raised since 2014,” said Chris Amato, an Earthjustice lawyer who represents the tenants association for Ezra Prentice Homes, a low-income housing development located next to the rail yard associated with the oil terminal. According to Amato, the community “is really, really happy that at long last Global is going to have to…examine the impacts.”

    Ezra Prentice Homes is among the communities in the south end of Albany at risk from air pollution and potential train fires. “They are literally at the fence line” of the train tracks, Amato said. “Twenty feet separate the closest homes from oil tankers on the track.”

    People in Albany’s South End, which is largely African American, had repeatedly complained to state officials about bad odors wafting from the facilities, among other concerns, since 2012.

    “This is a victory for the people of the Ezra Prentice Homes and for the people in the county who live in fear of oil trains every day,” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in a statement.

    In response to DEC’s recent letter, Global defended its record. “We disagree with the New York DEC’s decision and believe that we have fully complied with the required permit application process,” said Mark Horan of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, which represents the company. “Global has always been particularly vigilant about the safety of our neighbors wherever we operate and we will continue to work with the Albany community on these issues.”

    Global Partners filed a permit request to state officials in 2011 seeking to overhaul its operations to handle more oil. The facility went from handling more than 18 million gallons of oil that year to more than 460 million gallons in 2012, according to the DEC. The facility’s oil capacity peaked in 2014 at more than 1.1 billion gallons of oil, but it has since declined as the oil market has slumped.

    The source of the oil and how it traveled to the facility also changed during that time. Initially, the oil coming in was refined; it arrived from barges that came up the Hudson River and was then trucked out regionally. The company began handling unrefined, more volatile (and potentially explosive) crude arriving on trains from North Dakota.

    Global sought to expand its operations further in 2013, submitting a permit modification request to add seven boilers to the site. Boilers are critical equipment for handling and storing Canadian tar sands; the thick crude is so viscous it must be heated before it can be transferred from a train car to a storage tank.

    The company’s initial expansion plan flew under the radar of Albany residents and the environmental community. Global’s 2013 proposals, however, were loudly protested. And regulators responded by installing a permanent air monitor near the Ezra Prentice community in 2015. According to officials, the air showed elevated levels of benzene. Regulators cited these findings in their recent letter.

    “The DEC has monitored higher-than-expected benzene levels in the vicinity of the facility that may be attributable, in part, to the storage and processing of petroleum products at the Global facility,” regulators wrote. “Global must address what measures it intends to take to limit, to the maximum extent practicable, any benzene emissions attributable to the facility.”

    DEC has identified Albany’s South End, which includes Ezra Prentice Homes,as an “environmental justice” community associated with Global’s operations. In 2013, the DEC updated its environmental justice policy to include more public participation requirements for projects with potential impacts on such communities. In the recent letter, DEC specifically orders Global to take these steps.

    Another task for Global, identified by DEC, is to devise a plan to limit any climate impacts associated with the future handling of oil sands, a crude that generates especially high emissions during extraction and processing.

    “New York is the most aggressive state in the nation in pursuing action to ensure the public and the environment are protected from risks associated with the federally regulated transport of crude oil,” DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald wrote in an email.

    State officials are also conducting a more comprehensive review for the permit renewal application of Buckeye Partners, another energy companywith an Albany rail terminal.

      BENICIA HERALD: Council denies Valero Crude-By Rail Project

      Repost from the Benicia Herald
      [Editor:  See also the Benicia Herald’s “Community, environmental groups react to crude-by-rail decision.”  – RS]

      Council denies Valero Crude-By Rail Project

      By Donna Beth Weilenman (Martinez News Gazette), September 22, 2016
      Valero Crude-By-Rail proponents and opponents fill Benicia City Hall Tuesday to hear the City Council’s decision on the project. (Photo by Donna Beth Weilenman/Martinez News Gazette)

      Benicia City Council has unanimously denied a use permit for the controversial Valero Crude-By-Rail project, citing a federal board decision as well as a June 3 derailment that spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil and caused a fire that burned 14 hours.

      But the matter didn’t end Tuesday with the vote. The Council has asked its legal staff to rephrase its findings in a document the panel will see for approval Oct. 4. Valero Benicia Refinery will have 30 days after that to decide how to proceed.

      Valero had appealed to the Council a Feb. 11 Planning Commission decision to deny both an environmental report on the project as well as the use permit the refinery had sought.

      After several meetings, several members of the Council said they needed answers to their questions, some posed by constituents, before they were ready to vote.

      Meanwhile, Valero sought a declaratory order from the federal Surface Transportation Board, and the Council agreed to wait until Tuesday to give the Board time to respond.

      At 2 p.m. Tuesday, city staff learned the federal board denied the refinery’s request and instead issued guidelines. While Benicia has little say in the governance of railroads, the board concluded the Planning Commission decision “does not attempt to regulate transportation by a ‘railroad carrier.’”

      Because Valero isn’t a rail carrier and its employees, rather than those from UP, would be offloading the crude into the refinery, the board said the Planning Commission’s decision had not tried to regulate the railroad.

      “If the offloading facility were eventually to be constructed but the EIR or land use permit or both, including mitigation conditions unreasonably interfering with UP’s future operations to the facility, any attempt to enforce such mitigation measures would be preempted,” the Board’s decision said.

      Scott Lichtig, California’s deputy attorney general, expressed a similar opinion in his April 14 letter.

      “Because the project applicant Valero is not a rail carrier and not acting pursuant to STB authorization, ICCTA (Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act) simply has no application to Valero and its proposed refinery upgrades,” he wrote.

      Councilmember Christina Strawbridge, who said she had been doing her own “homework” about the matter and who had been carefully weighing both sides, said it was a derailment in late spring that made her reject the refinery’s application. Later, the other councilmembers joined her in voting against the refinery’s project.

      The Council decision is the latest step in the project that proposed extending Union Pacific Railroad track into Valero Benicia Refinery land so than up to 70,000 barrels of oil could be brought in daily by train rather than by tanker ships.

      The refinery, which produces about 10 percent of the gasoline consumed in California, originally applied for the use permit in late 2012. It not only proposed the rail extension, but also replacing and moving tank farm dikes and a concrete berm and moving underground infrastructure. The project also called for new roadwork.

      A mitigated negative declaration was written and circulated between May 30 and July 30, 2013, but the city decided that document wasn’t thorough enough to meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements for such a project and ordered a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) instead. That document was circulated between June 17 and Sept. 15, 2014.

      After hearings and public comments, that report was revised and circulated Aug. 31 to Oct. 30, 2015, and a final environmental report was given public airing this year at Benicia Planning Commission meetings Feb. 8-11.

      During that time, those who opposed the project citing environmental concerns staged protests, including walks to the five Bay Area refineries on both sides of the Carquinez Strait.

      They argued that a derailment could damage Suisun Marsh, sensitive lands, such as Sulphur Springs Creek, the marshland between Benicia Industrial Park and the Carquinez Strait near Valero’s property and small and large towns next to tracks uprail from Benicia.

      Detractors also insisted that the project would affect Benicia Industrial Park traffic, particularly on Park Road and ramps on Interstate-680.

      They cited nearly two dozen train derailments, in particular the July 6, 2013, Lac-Megantic tragedy in which a runaway unattended Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway train loaded with Bakken Formation sweet crude oil overturned in the small Quebec city.

      During the derailment, the fuel caught fire and exploded, killing 47 and destroying 30 buildings.

      Union Pacific and Valero representatives stressed UP’s safety record. UP spokespersons said the railroad has stronger safety practices that, among other things, requires employees to remain with an idling train. The refinery promised it would use improved, reinforced rail cars to carry its crude blend.

      Refinery emergency personnel trained with Benicia municipal emergency responders to learn about the rail cars’ configuration.

      Supporters reminded the Council that Valero employs about 500, and backs community projects. In addition, its projects mean jobs, not only at the refinery but for contracted industrial workers.

      They also worried that denial of the project might cause the company to close the refinery, which could harm Benicia’s economy. Valero sales and utility user taxes represents more than 20 percent of Benicia’s General Fund.

      Train and refinery spokespersons kept reminding the Council that because railroad operations are part of interstate commerce, they are under federal regulation, not local control.

      Then a train, traveling below the area’s speed limit, derailed June 3 near the Oregon-Washington border. Although the Union Pacific locomotive was pulling the improved oil cars, the accident spilled 42,000 gallons of crude rail and ignited a fire that lasted 14 days. That began raising new questions about the safety of the reinforced tank cars and Union Pacific’s track inspection methods.

      Federal investigators said Union Pacific was to blame, since it didn’t find broken bolts along the track, although a UP spokesperson, Justin Jacobs, had said the railroad’s May 31 inspection had detected no broken or damaged bolts.

      During the long consideration of the divisive issue, Councilmembers themselves found themselves under fire. In previous months, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who sent emails about her personal findings about related matters, had her “e-alerts” and her objectivity questioned.

      Tuesday night, Councilmember Alan Schwartzman responded to a recent Benicia Herald letter from project opponent Andres Soto, who had suggested Schwartzman had taken Valero money for his campaign. Schwartzman denied the accusation and criticized Soto’s behavior at past meetings. ”It’s disrespectful,” he said.

      Councilmember Mark Hughes supported Schwartzman, saying he, too, had had his integrity questioned.

      “Show a reasonable level of respect,” he urged, adding that Benicians didn’t like that style of campaigning.

      But in Tuesday’s vote, they were unanimous.

      After Councilmember Tom Campbell moved to deny the use permit, Councilmember Christina Strawbridge described the depth of her own research of various sides of the issue. What finally led her to oppose the permit was the June derailment and fire in Oregon.

      Saying others, including those voting on the Phillips 66 Santa Maria rail extension, were waiting to see how Benicia would vote, she said railroads and those regulating them weren’t addressing derailments.

      “This is a safety issue,” she said, adding that she would vote to deny the use permit.

      Schwartzman said the matter was complex, and he had wanted to make a decision that wouldn’t embroil the city in a lawsuit. While he appreciated Valero’s decision to use safer tanker cars, he said, he couldn’t ignore the Oregon derailment. “I can’t vote for the project.”

      Hughes said he agreed with the Surface Transportation Board’s guidance that the city couldn’t address railroad operations. He observed there was no such thing as a perfectly safe project. He said risk management consisted of looking at the probability something bad would happen, then at the consequences resulting from that happenstance.

      Given UP’s and Valero’s safety record, especially the refinery’s plant-wide culture of safety, Hughes suggested the chance of a catastrophe was low. However, the consequences of an incident made him uncomfortable.

      “There is too much uncertainty for me,” he said. The recent derailment gave him a signal.

      “It was not something I could live with.”

      Patterson said she, too, had made an extensive study of the matter, and said she was vilified when she tried to share her research. She said she had concerns about who would pay for a disaster cleanup, and worried how it would affect the city’s small businesses.

      “I could not certify a flawed EIR,” she said, suggesting the Council deny the appeal and approve its findings at a future meeting.

      In addition, she asked city staff to urge state and federal regulators to improve the way they regulate rail safety.

      “That’s exactly what I want to do,” Campbell said.