A looming disaster – Crude oil running on Butte County’s railways poses a threat to local, state watersheds
By Dave Garcia, 03.10.16
Scientists have found unprecedented levels of fish deformities in Canada’s Chaudière River following the Lac-Mégantic Bakken crude oil spill in 2013. This catastrophic train derailment, which killed 47 people and ravaged parts of the small town in Quebec, underscores the danger of spilled toxic crude oil getting into our waterways and affecting living organisms.
I find the Canadian government’s report very distressing—even for Butte County. That’s because, just last week, I observed a train of 97 railcars loaded with crude oil traveling through the Feather River Canyon and downtown Oroville.
The California Public Utilities Commission has designated this rail route as high risk because of its sharp curves and steep grade; it travels next to the Feather River, which feeds into Lake Oroville, an integral part of California’s domestic water supply.
If you think that railway shipping is safe, think back to 2014. That’s the year 14 railcars derailed, falling down into the canyon and spilling their loads of grain into the Feather River. The last thing we need, especially in a time of drought, is crude oil poisoning the water of our second-largest reservoir.
In 2010, it took over $1 billion to clean up the Kalamazoo River crude oil spill. But you can never really clean up a crude oil spill in pristine freshwater, as the deformed fish from the Chaudière River reveal.
Keeping crude-oil-carrying railcars on the state’s tracks is simply not worth it. Less than 1 percent of California’s imported oil is transported by railway. Californians receive little benefit, but bear the risks to their communities and watersheds from this practice.
Since Lac-Mégantic, there have been nine more crude oil derailments, explosions and spills into waterways. We need to learn a lesson from those catastrophes. We must convey to our politicians—local, state and federal—our priority of protecting our communities, fisheries and waterways. Let’s not let what happened in Quebec happen in Butte County.
Valero Crude By Rail: Extreme Crude as Extreme Threat
By Charles Davidson, Hercules CA, February 20, 2016
Like many other fossil fuel infrastructure expansions in the Bay Area, the Valero Crude by Rail project is a key part of the transition to greater processing of extreme crudes. Yet another project poses significant, yet unnecessary public health hazards—this time to Benicia, the Bay Area, the Delta ecosystem and all communities up-rail from Benicia.
Valero’s recently completed Valero Improvement Project, or VIP, was designed to facilitate the processing of much higher sulfur and heavier crudes than the refinery’s former crude oil slate. The VIP permitted the Refinery to process heavier, high sulfur feedstocks as 60% of total supply, up from only 30% prior to the VIP. The project also raised the average sulfur content of the imported raw materials from past levels of about 1 – 1.5% up to new levels of about 2 – 2.5% sulfur.
Now, Valero’s proposed Crude by Rail Project is specifically designed for the importation into Valero of so-called “mid-continent, North American” crudes, which would be either very lightweight, highly flammable shale oil from Bakken ND or extra heavy tar sands from Alberta Canada. However, because the Valero Crude by Rail Project combined with the VIP are related parts of a single expanded heavy oil project, the Crude by Rail Project is most likely for the delivery of tar sands (bitumen).
Tar sands is open pit mined as a solid; it does not start out as a liquid. The Bitumen mined in Northern Canada needs to be heated to several hundred degrees before it can be diluted with chemical solvents and made to flow into railroad tank cars. According to the recent Carnegie Endowment study, Know Your Oil: Towards a Global Climate-Oil Index, tar sands refining produces three times the climate-changing greenhouse gases in order to make gasoline, compared to traditional lighter crudes.
Worse, in a 2007 US Geological Service study, it was reported that tar sands bitumen contains 102 times more copper, 21 times more vanadium, 11 times more sulfur, six times more nitrogen, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead than conventional heavy crude oil. Sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollutants contribute to smog, soot, acid rain and odors that affect nearby residents. Because of these considerations, Benicia could likely experience an increase in local air pollution, and the refinery’s equipment could suffer enhanced sulfur corrosion, leading to potential accidents, such as documented for the 2012 Richmond Chevron fire.
The tar sand diluent itself adds significant risk: it is a highly flammable solvent that tends to separate from the heavier mixture during travel. In a derailment this could cause an explosive fire with a uniquely hazardous tar sands smoke plume. The diluted tar sands mixture would tend to rapidly sink very deep into the soil, with the diluent eventually evaporating and then leaving the tar sands bitumen deep underground.
A significant tar sands spill, in places like the environmentally sensitive Feather River Canyon, the Delta or the Suisun Marsh would be impossible to clean up. This was proven in Michigan’s 2010 Kalamazoo River Enbridge pipeline rupture, which will never be remediated, despite the spending of over 1 billion dollars to date. Nearby public infrastructure needs to be considered from a public health perspective; for example, East Bay MUD and others are doing a brackish delta water desalination pilot study near Pittsburg.
We must deny Valero the CBR permit and help keep the world’s absolutely dirtiest oil in the ground. To do so would comply with the expressed wishes of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments composed of six counties and 22 municipalities up-rail from Valero who have also asked that this project be denied. Our massive turnout at the Planning Commission hearings achieved our first step in this goal with a unanimous vote of the Planning Commission to deny the land use permit. Now we must continue our opposition to insure the full Benicia City Council follows this path.
• 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
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.