Category Archives: Environmental review

Letter: Bay Area Air Board needs to step up for cleaner air

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Where our mayor, supervisor stand

By Michelle Pellegrin, 08/04/16, 4:09 PM PDT

There are 24 people in the Bay Area with the power to regulate the air we breathe. Their decisions cause or reduce asthma, cancer and other illnesses that can and have resulted in death.

This regional board has so much power to affect peoples’ lives and deaths, yet most people haven’t even heard of this agency with the unwieldy name: The Bay Area Air Quality Management District — or BAAQMD.

The 24 members of this board — which includes Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis — have a mandate to protect public health.

The neighborhoods around the refineries have suffered severe health effects from emissions. The 2012 Chevron toxic explosion and fire in Richmond sent more than 15,000 people to the hospital, which is now closed. A broad coalition of Bay Area groups would like to see refinery emissions, which have continuously gone up for the past 20 years, capped and then methods found to reduce harmful emissions. The first step in this process is an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

On Wednesday, July 20, after four long years and several refinery incidents, the board, in a room with standing room only, was to vote on this. What appeared as a simple slam dunk became a political football between clean air advocates and Big Oil.

Bay Area refineries have been preparing to process heavier dirtier crudes, which will increase emissions and their diseases. The wave of Crude By Rail (CBR) of proposed projects, such as the Valero Benicia CBR project, are designed to facilitate the importation of extreme crudes, such volatile oil from the Bakken fields and volatile heavy crude from the Canadian Tar Sands.

BAAQMD staff, in what can only be seen as another move to interminably delay implementing modern and necessary emission standards on Bay Area refineries, supported combining the simpler refinery emission cap EIR with a complex EIR on toxic chemical emissions for up to 900 businesses.

Bay Area refinery corridor communities and their allied cities want the EIRs to be conducted separately, as the EIR on refineries can be done much more quickly than the more complex toxic chemical EIR because it requires no infrastructure changes. They want answers and relief from the constant health problems they are suffering.

And here is where our mayor stepped in to show his stripes. Davis, just recently appointed to the board, gave a critical speech supporting combining the two EIRs. Who would have thought the BAAQMD’s newest member would have such sway with the board?

Anyone with respiratory health problems or cancer can give a big round of applause to our mayor and Solano County Supervisor Jim Spering, who made the motion to combine the two EIRs. We in Solano County have the dubious distinction of having the most anti-public health, pro-corporate members on the board.

Even the Contra Costa appointees where four of the five refineries are located weren’t as instrumental as the Solano reps in pushing for the delay of this most important EIR.

Luckily, other board members did uphold their duty to the public’s health and a compromise was reached. The EIRs will be combined but if they become bogged down then they will be separated out. In addition, and a very important one from the public’s point of view, there will be citizen oversight of the process.

The irony here is that this is a false dichotomy. Big Oil will keep functioning and we need them for those cars we drive. These companies provide jobs and add to our economies. But it is no longer legitimate to trade health for jobs. It is an outmoded model and has no place in deciding public policy. It is no longer acceptable for companies to dominate local economies and the policies of the people in those communities where they are located.

Big Oil has known for years that this is the direction things are moving. A 2014 article in the San Jose Mercury News notes the refineries are already working on improving their systems in anticipation of processing the dirtier and volatile oil from outside California.

As Tom Griffith, head of the Martinez Environmental Group back in 2014 stated, “The missed opportunity here is for the oil companies to refocus their sights on the future of renewable energy.”

We should be working together to improve public health. The corporate stranglehold on such important regional boards must end. Citizens need to be attend BAAQMD board meetings and provide input on upcoming board decisions for this to happen. The next meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 9:30 a.m. at the BAAQMD headquarters at 375 Beale St. San Francisco.

And here in Vallejo we need to do the same and be more engaged. We have seen the result of complicity between politicians and corporations that excluded public input: The absurd notion of putting a cement factory in a residential area with its disastrous public health consequences. Don’t let Mayor Davis and his cronies put our community in harm’s way. Say “no” to the Orcem/VMT cement plant and don’t vote in November for any candidate who supports it!

— Michelle Pellegrin/Vallejo

ENDORSEMENT: Don Saylor for California Assembly (with appreciation for Dan Wolk)

Editor:  The Benicia Independent endorses Don Saylor of Davis for Assembly District 4 this November (Don Saylor.org). Lynne Nittler’s letter speaks for me – see below. Another good candidate, Davis Mayor Dan Wolk, has expressed strong concerns about oil train safety and joined with the Davis City Council in opposing crude by rail, but has not risen to the level of diligence, outreach and follow-through that Mr. Saylor has shown on Valero’s proposal (DanWolk.org).  Many thanks to both for their efforts.  – RS

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor for California Assembly, District 4

By Lynne Nittler, in her email of May 15, 2016
Don Saylor for California Assembly District 4
Don Saylor for California Assembly District 4

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor stands out as an uprail public official committed from early on to stopping the dangerous transport of crude oil through our natural habitat and populated areas.  He wasted no time in directing his staff to research and compose a letter insisting that uprail concerns had to be addressed in the EIR.  On the draft EIR, Yolo County wrote a second letter detailing the impacts of the unsafe oil trains, and when the response was inadequate, added a third letter response to the revised draft EIR.

Meanwhile, as President of Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), Don Saylor also led the 22 cities and 6 counties of SACOG to respond to the regional threat of oil trains with a series of hard-hitting letters during the EIR process.

His deep concerns even took him to Washington DC where he conferred with our local Congressman John Garamendi on stabilizing crude at the loading site as perhaps the only acceptable method of making the Bakken crude safe to transport by rail.

Don continues to monitor the volatile issue closely, as 500,000 of the 2.4 million SACOG residents live at risk in the blast zone.   Most recently, he took time to testify before the Benicia City Council in hopes of convincing them of the enormous impacts to uprail communities and to our state.

We are fortunate to have such a diligent public official.  While an independent PAC of outside oil corporations including Valero as well as other PACS have intruded with huge campaign contributions to one candidate for the District 4 Assembly race (including Lake and Napa Counties, most of Yolo County, and part of Colusa, Solano, and Sonoma Counties ), Don Saylor has not been chosen for such outside support.

If elected, we can count on Don to work and vote as he always has for programs that benefit our region.  Don Saylor will continue to keep a watchful eye on oil trains if he is elected to the CA Assembly.

Benicia City Manager leaving to take post in Martinez, CA

By Roger Straw, April 30, 2016

City Manager Brad Kilger oversaw Valero Crude By Rail proposal, not sticking around for outcome

Brad Kilger, City Manager of Benicia, 2010-2016
Brad Kilger, City Manager of Benicia, 2010-2016

In Benicia’s Council/Manager form of government, there is no more powerful person than the City Manager.  The Mayor and City Council supposedly run the city, and they do make the final decisions. Some decisions are also made by Commissions, but the real power in Benicia is the city manager.

The CM presides over staff, and staff guides every decision of our elected and appointed officials, making recommendations and consulting with officials outside of public meetings. For instance, the city manager works with the mayor in setting the agenda for every Council meeting.

Brad Kilger was hired as Benicia’s city manager in 2010, and has overseen the Valero Crude By Rail (CBR) proposal from the start. Outwardly, CBR has been routed through the City’s Community Development Department and its Planning Division. Those offices have undergone personnel changes during the lengthy 3½ year Valero process, but Mr. Kilger has remained in charge throughout.

Kilger is due to begin work in Martinez on June 13, leaving only 6 weeks to finish up here in Benicia. As of this writing, no word has been released as to Kilger’s final day in Benicia. Nor have details been given about his rather sudden departure.

Getting out of dodge before a decision on CBR may very well be a smart career move. Everyone expects litigation, which would be any manager’s nightmare, and a loss either way could be expected to leave a blemish on his professional profile.

Kilger was welcomed to Benicia by Council members and citizens in 2010 as a promising new presence, bringing credentials and commitments that offered hope in the area of environmental sustainability. Indeed, his tenure has seen numerous advances on that front. But many of those advances can be credited primarily to the leadership of Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and the Community Sustainability Commission.

City Council during Kilger’s time in Benicia has often been contentious. Collegiality has often been wanting among Council members, and the public has come into fierce conflict with staff over staff’s seemingly blind support for Valero’s CBR proposal.

The City will no doubt bring in an interim. No telling how long the interim will be in charge, but it seems highly likely a permanent replacement would not be in place until January 2017, after elections, and under the authority of a new City Council.

It seems likely the City Council will face a decision on Valero CBR in September with a new and possibly untested interim city manager. If the delay for review by the federal Surface Transportation Board results in a re-write and recirculation of the environmental report with attendant written comments and lengthy public hearings, it could be a real handful for whoever is in charge.

It may be a real challenge locating a qualified candidate who is willing to step in at this critical moment in Benicia’s history.

EDITORIAL: Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

By Roger Straw, April 29, 2016

Valero wins one; attorneys wrangle; opponents get testy

Catching up on recent events

RDS_2015-06-21_200pxSorry, I had to take a little break.  When the Benicia City Council voted 3-2 to put off a decision on Valero’s crude by rail proposal (CBR), it was just a bit too much.

I was deeply discouraged by the majority’s need for yet more information.  Three Council members wish to hear from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) before making the decision whether to permit a rail offloading rack on Valero property – a project that would foul California air and endanger lives and properties from here to the border and beyond, a project that would clearly contribute to the ongoing effects of global warming.

So I was one discouraged 3½ year supposedly-retired volunteer.  I was in no shape last week to send out my Friday newsletter.

Here, as best I can summarize, is news from the last 2 weeks:

Valero wins one

You will recall that Valero appealed the Planning Commission’s unanimous February decision on crude by rail to not certify the environmental report and to deny the land use permit. Then at the Benicia City Council’s opening hearing on the appeal on March 15, Valero surprised everyone by asking for a delay in the proceedings so that it could ask for guidance from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).

City staff recommended against Valero’s request, rejecting the proposed delay as unnecessary and risky, given that the City and Valero could end up with a “stale” environmental report that requires yet another time-consuming revision and more hearings.

Opponents also argued against the delay, noting that the request would be carefully framed by Valero in its own favor, submitted for review to an industry-friendly STB, and result in a judgement that would still be subject to final review in a court of law. Opponents also pointed out the possibly that the delay was a Valero political tactic, given that this is an election year with three members of City Council up for re-election.

At the most recent City Council hearing on April 19, contract attorney Bradley Hogin disclosed that he was not involved in the staff decision to recommend against the delay, and that he disagreed with his employers. Given every opportunity by Council members, Hogin argued at length in favor of the delay. During verbal questioning, Council did not give similar opportunity to Hogin’s bosses to argue against the request for delay.

And guess what, 3 members of Council were convinced by the pleasant instruction of their outside attorney Hogin that we would do well to hear from the STB before rushing (3 years into the process) to judgement.

Win one for Valero.  Council will resume consideration in September.

The attorneys wrangle

We are asked to believe that the big issue here after 3 years of environmental review has nothing at all to do with the earth or the health and safety of you, me, our neighbors or the lands and wildlife.

Supposedly, according to Valero’s attorney and contract attorney Hogin, it’s all about “federal preemption.”  Supposedly, our city officials have no legal authority to impose conditions or mitigations or deny a permit in this case.

However, according to California’s Attorney General and environmental attorneys, “federal preemption” does not prohibit City government from making such land use decisions based on local police powers and the legal requirement to protect public health and safety. Federal preemption protects against state and local authorities regulating railroads. A refinery, says our Attorney General, is not a railroad. Go figure.

Anyway, Valero’s attorney has written several letters on preemption and taking issue with the Attorney General. The Attorney General has written several letters, sticking by its argument. Environmental attorneys have written several letters making similar arguments.

In addition to the letters, Valero’s attorney and Mr. Hogin have testified at length under questioning by City Council members. Environmental attorneys have been given only 5 minutes each to speak at hearings, with little or no back and forth questioning from City Council members.

Everyone I have talked to expects this decision to end up in court, whether or not the STB issues a ruling, and regardless of which way they rule.

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community gets testy

Like me, I suspect, members of our local opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) were highly disappointed and discouraged by the Council vote to delay for Valero and the STB.

In interviews and online statements that followed the April 19 Council vote, some BSHC members were quick to presume that the 3 Council members who voted for delay would also support Valero when it comes to a final vote in September.

Of course, a 3-2 vote favoring Valero in September is not the only possible outcome. Some would say that the next 5 months might best be spent respectfully reminding Council members of facts of the case, and encouraging them to make the right decision.

Those of us who have spent countless hours opposing Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal have known all along that it is an uphill battle, that the odds are against us, that big business prevails all too often against the interests of health, safety and clean air.  But look what happened at our Planning Commission.  There is hope.

It seems to me that the presumption of a negative outcome can only serve to harden Council members’ attitudes and opinions.  But I may be wrong.

Some will continue to argue that Council members should be made to feel the public’s disappointment, that outrage and pessimism is understandable, and that an obvious implication is that unhappy voters will have their say in November.

I’m convinced that hardball politics and small-town respect for decision makers will need to co-exist over the next few months. Come September, we shall see.