Category Archives: Good Neighbor Steering Committee

Candidate Strawbridge defends her environmental record – the Benicia Independent responds

Christina’s comments, with my apologies and rebuttals

By Roger Straw, October 13, 2018
Kari Birdseye

In Friday’s Benicia Independent newsletter, I wrote that the one Benicia City Council candidate who stands out as a shepherd of the planet’s future is Kari Birdseye.

Christina Strawbridge

I pointed out that candidate Christina Strawbridge made a huge difference in 2016, voting to stop Valero’s dangerous and dirty Crude by Rail proposal, but I went on to give a critical review of a few of Strawbridge’s votes on environmental issues.

Christina wrote a friendly and detailed response to my criticism, and she deserves to be heard on the issues.  Here are her comments, along with my responses:

SEENO

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “…she voted in favor of Seeno development…”

CHRISTINA: I did not vote for development of the Seeno Property. It never came before me while I served on the Council. This fabrication was used extensively against me in the last election. The closest I came was to ask Council in a 2 step process to put the use of the property on the Agenda to discuss. Even though a majority agreed to that request it never happened.

ROGER: I apologize for misstating the facts in my newsletter, however there is more to the story.  Seeno was back with a proposal, the Northern Gateway Project in 2015-2016, when Christina was on Council. She is right to point out that the project never came before Council – for approval. The project proponent, suspected Seeno surrogate Schwartz Land Development, approached the Council to be placed on the agenda for “guidance.”  Christina voted approval with a majority and so Council convened a workshop.  Ultimately the developer withdrew their plans when public opposition arose. Opponents of the project were strongly objecting to the housing element in the proposal, and skeptical of the developer’s claim of no relation to the Seeno family.  When a proposal comes before Council in a 2-step process, it is often fair to vote for an airing of pros and cons and discussion regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of the proposal.  But when Council convened the “guidance” workshop on Feb 23, 2016 Christina offered the following accommodating remarks as shown in the minutes: “Council Member Strawbridge discussed the need to figure out economic development within the City. The issue is what would be a viable project in the area. She would like to move forward with the project so we can see what can be done creatively out there (affordable housing, etc.).”  [Emphasis added.]

VALERO GETS GOOD NEIGHBOR SETTLEMENT MONEY

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “[she voted] in favor of a nearly million-dollar give back to Valero…”

CHRISTINA: The million $$$ give back to Valero. I believe you are referring to the grant recommendations through the Sustainability Commission for remaining money in the Good Neighbor Settlement. This was at the height of the historic drought and the project that Valero wanted to use the money for was a large water conservation project.

ROGER: Valero’s boiler construction project was a good idea at the height of our historic drought.  But the Sustainability Commission’s settlement funds were no substitute for the deep pockets of Valero Energy Corporation to fund the project.  Christina voted with Hughes and Schwartzman on June 17, 2014 to flip $829,000 of the Valero / Good Neighbor settlement money back to Valero to fund the project.  The Community Sustainability Commission recommended against distribution of grant funds to corporate giant Valero, pointing out that Valero could easily afford the outlay itself and recoup costs in about a year.  The CSC preferred to spread the money over a longer period of time to fund local climate solutions that would otherwise be unlikely to move forward.  By flipping the recommendation, most of the remaining funds were spent, decimating the ability of the Sustainability Commission to make further significant investments in smaller projects that would benefit Benicia.

DEFUNDING OF BENICIA’S CLIMATE ACTION COORDINATOR

BENINDY NEWSLETTER: [she voted] “in favor of a budget that discontinued employment of Benicia’s Climate Action Coordinator”

CHRISTINA: Funding the Climate Action Coordinator. As you might recall the contract ended for the CAP coordinator Alex Porteshawver when she left Sonoma State University’s Center for Sustainable Communities to work for a for a company that wanted to provide less service for more money. There was thought that the solar project savings would pay for the coordinator. That was not the case. During deliberation, I asked the Community Development Director if there had been an attempt to negotiate with the company to allow some continued presence of Alex. Staff’s response was the company was not interested. I believe the CAP coordinator was an important asset to our community and Alex was really well thought of in the industry. Perhaps with a different staff and more creative thinking she would still be here.

ROGER: Christina gives a fair defense here.  Budget decisions are complex and difficult, and often must include compromises.  Public support for the Climate Action Coordinator was huge, and the numbers showed that she more than paid for her salary through city savings.  Disappointment lingers.  If Christina is elected, I hope she will work with our new City Staff and Council to revisit funding for a Climate Action Coordinator.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

CHRISTINA’S OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL VOTES & ENDORSEMENTS

CHRISTINA: Some things you left out about being environmentally insensitive with my voting record:

  • voted for MCE Marin Clean Energy
  • supported the completion of the solar project pump 3
  • voted to move forward for obtaining grants for the water reuse project
  • served/serve on the Solano County State Parks Committee to coordinate efforts to keep the 2 State Parks open and get the State to do work on deferred maintenance, (Currently on the board of the Benicia State Parks Association)
  • voted to fund the BRIP Business Resource Incentive Program whose goal was to assist businesses in improving productivity and viability through energy and resource savings. BRIP won multiple awards in combining economic development and sustainability for Benicia businesses
  • voted for a comprehensive water conservation program to save water and find funding for lawn replacement, gray water use, etc.
  • I have also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee.

ROGER: Christina’s record on environmental issues definitely has some pluses, but it also has some poor marks.  Suffice to say, every vote on Council is nuanced, and there are often times when a compromise is called for.  In the end, however, the alliances we strike are in fact important, and outcomes matter.  In her 2016 campaign for Council, Christina aligned herself with Mark Hughes for Mayor.  Hughes’ comments and votes on Council have been uniformly insensitive to needs of the environment – he even waffles on the significance of human causes of climate change. Hughes strongly supported Valero Crude by Rail and has fallen short on many other important issues.  Christina is currently supported in her run for Council by Hughes.

    ISO Working Group: The rest of the story on air monitoring in Benicia (Part 2)

    Repost from the Benicia Herald

    June 17, 2018

    In Part 1 of this series, we explored the many health risks and costs of air pollution in Benicia, including premature deaths, hospitalizations and respiratory symptoms including asthma in adults and children.  Today we will take a look at air monitoring – and the lack of it – in Benicia.

    The City of Benicia and its residents need more information about our air.  For too long, voices have called for significant air monitoring, with little to no effect.  Valero Refinery contributes heavily to the pollution in the air we breathe, yet it is dragging its feet in addressing the monitoring problem.

    Currently, Valero has submitted a proposed plan for fence line air monitoring to the Bay Area Air Management District (BAAQMD, or the Air District). But Valero’s plan would not include monitoring large areas of Benicia, including Southampton residential neighborhoods, schools, and parts of the industrial park. These areas are directly west and southwest of the refinery. Valero’s plan also does not monitor the numerous hilltops and hills and valleys throughout Benicia.

    Valero’s air monitoring proposal is woefully inadequate and has drawn numerous other criticisms in formal submissions to the Air District.  The proposal lacks transparency and community input and leaves too many issues unaddressed, awaiting decisions after Air District review. Valero’s plan must not be approved in its present form.

    Valero’s fence line monitoring proposal does not adequately address “rare conditions.” In Benicia, these conditions include windless days or nights that occur during summer months, and prevailing wind patterns that often blow east-to-west in fall and winter, bringing pollution directly into Benicia’s air space.

    A prime example of a recent “rare circumstance” demonstrates why a Monitoring Plan must address circumstances considered “unusual.” On May 5th, 2017 a sudden total loss of power from PG&E triggered an immediate, unexpected shutdown of the entire refinery, which caused instantaneous, unmitigated flaring and burn-off of fuels within all of Valero’s processing units.  Evacuations and shelter-in-place orders were given to persons living and working around the refinery boundaries, including school children at two Benicia elementary schools, Robert Semple Elementary and Matthew Turner.  Little was known about air quality in nearby businesses, schools and neighborhoods in real time on that day – or since.

    Also, Valero’s plan only addresses in part the community’s right and desire to know what is in Benicia’s air on a real-time basis.  The Air District’s Rule 12-15 only calls for fence line perimeter monitoring with a minimum requirement to sample a few of the notable refinery gases.  Valero’s proposed plan allows for a minimum of 75% reliability rate for the monitoring system – it should be 90%, which is the reliability rate required of other Bay Area refineries.

    Valero says fence line monitoring results will be available in near real-time to the public on a website hosted by a third party. But Valero’s Plan is vague about procedures for displaying data on the public website and states that all will be “refined” at a future date. What restrictions to the public will there be, and will there be community involvement? Answers should all be clear PRIOR to the Plan’s approval, not after – with decisions made by whom, and when?

    Let’s remember where we are at this point in time discussing air monitoring in Benicia. Do we really need to be reminded of all the dedicated efforts over the past 18+ years of voluntary service by Good Neighbor Steering Committee (GNSC) members? Despite the clear requirement expressed in two separate agreements (in 2003 and in 2008), Valero has neither installed the purchased fence line monitoring equipment nor voluntarily and actively supported establishment of a permanent monitoring station in the community.  The assembled state-of-the-art array of monitors required by the agreements now remain “off limits” and mothballed on Valero property.

    Valero’s proposed air monitoring “plan” is only a continuation of the successful corporate delay and deflection of the community’s right to know what is in our air – what we can see and can’t see.

    We don’t know what is in the air, and Benicia has asthma rates much higher than the state average. Benicia needs air monitors NOW, and state/regional regulations will be slow in coming.

    In Part 3, we will take a closer look at the good reasons for Benicia to adopt an Industrial Safety Ordinance (ISO).

    Benicia ISO Working Group
    The Benicia ISO Working Group is an ad hoc citizen’s group of about a dozen Benicia residents.  Since October 2017, the Working Group has been studying, writing, meeting with officials and advocating that Benicia join all other Bay Area refinery towns in passing a local community industrial safety ordinance.  More information: beniciaindependent.com/iso.

      Benicia Herald: Release date of Valero DEIR, background

      Repost from The Benicia Herald
      [Editor: Note in the concluding paragraphs: “Million said city staff and refinery employees have been in conversation as the review draft has been prepared….This is typical of any application…’We work with an applicant to get them on board.'”  This should not be news, nor surprising, but it underscores the impression among citizen-opponents of the project that our City is a willing partner with Valero.  It will be interesting to see what mitigations and conditions have been written into the DEIR so as not to stand as “deal breakers” for the “applicant.”  – RS]

      Crude-by-Rail plan review to be released June 10

      May 1, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman

      The draft of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) being prepared for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project will be released by June 10, Principal Planner Amy Million announced Thursday.

      The long-awaited document will be given a 45-day public review, during which people may submit their comments, she said.

      That review period ends July 25.

      “We have been notified that the City’s independent evaluation and Draft Environmental Impact Review (DEIR) of Valero’s Crude-by-Rail project will be available for public comment by June 10,” Chris Howe, Benicia Valero Refinery director of health, safety, environment and government affairs, said in an email Thursday.

      Those interested will be able to read the draft EIR on the city’s website, www.ci.benicia.ca.us, by clicking on the Department of Community Development, Planning and Current Projects links under “City Departments.”

      They also will be able to examine paper copies at the Community Development Department desk at City Hall and at Benicia Public Library, Million said.

      Should a member of the public request it, she said, the city would make CD copies available as well.

      The Planning Commission will accept public comment on the matter during a hearing at its July 12 meeting at City Hall, Million said. However, no vote will be cast that night, she said.

      Once the comments are received, the city will prepare its response to those observations.

      Those comments and any changes to the environmental review will be incorporated into the draft when the city produces the final version of the EIR. “There could be additional information,” Million said.

      Should those comments and responses mean the draft needs to be “substantially modified,” the review would be rewritten and undergo a complete recirculation, she said.

      Otherwise, if the comments and modifications aren’t considered substantial, the final version of the review would be sent to the Planning Commission for its review and vote as part of the refinery’s use permit request for its rail project.

      The commission’s decision would be final, unless an appeal is filed, Million said. Should that happen, the City Council would hear the appeal and render a decision, she said.

      The refinery applied for a use permit early in 2013 to extend Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks into Valero property so crude from North American sources can be brought into the plant.

      Refinery officials in their application stated that the crude brought by train would not be in addition to the oil that arrives by tanker ships or pipelines, but would be substitutions. Up to 70,000 barrels would arrive daily by rail car, supplanting the same volume Valero currently receives by other methods.

      Valero officials, declining to provide what they called proprietary information to competitors, have been reluctant to say where the crude is being drilled. Unlike some oil companies, Valero drills no wells of its own, but buys its crude.

      Various company officials, speaking on multiple occasions, have stressed that the raw product would be similar to what it receives at its own local port.

      Some opponents to the project, however, have warned that the rail cars would bring in Canadian tar sands, which is a heavier substance made “sour” by a larger percentage of sulfur. Others have suggested the source would be the North American Bakken oil fields, described as much lighter and sweeter.

      Bakken crude also has a lower flash point than many oils, and has been associated with several explosions that have occurred after train car derailments.

      The most recent accident happened Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, Va., after breaches apparently developed on some of the crude-carrying rail cars on a CSX train.

      A fireball shot 200 feet into the air, according to some observers. Oil was reported leaking into the James River.

      Though no injuries were reported initially, at least 300 people were evacuated and neighboring cities were told to switch to alternate water sources, according to reports describing the incident.

      It was the latest in a series of fiery accidents on crude-carrying trains, though none is reported to involve Union Pacific, a company that, along with the Valero refinery, continues to stress its safety record. North American rail delivery of crude has increased dramatically in the last couple of years. In the third quarter of 2013 alone, trains delivered 66 million barrels of crude, much from the Bakken fields of North Dakota.

      That amounts to approximately 900 percent of what was delivered during all of 2008.

      Last July, 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, died when an unmanned parked oil tanker train came loose, derailed and caught fire. People were evacuated in Edmonton, Alberta, last October after another derailment.

      Thousands of barrels of oil contaminated an Alabama marshland after an oil train spill last November. A month later, two trains in Casselton, N.D., collided. One carried soybeans; the other, a BNSF train, spilled about 400,000 gallons of crude when 18 tank cars  ruptured and caught fire.

      In February, BNSF announced it was seeking vendors to deliver up to 5,000 tanker cars that are stronger than those currently in use. That’s an unusual move for a large carrier, which usually requires clients to buy or lease rail cars. The railroad said it would use the reinforced cars not only for crude but also for carrying ethanol.

      At a March public meeting organized by its community advisory panel, Valero officials said the refinery also would use the stronger cars to bring crude to Benicia.

      Unlike the U.S. Department of Transportation, Transport Canada announced April 23 that it would remove Department of Transportation-111 unpressurized tank cars from what it called “dangerous service,” saying they didn’t meet standards for carrying dangerous fuel.

      In the United States, railroads are federally regulated, a fact that has worried some residents when they learn that state, county and city officials are limited in the controls they can impose on that industry.

      The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that federal regulators upgrade requirements for oil-carrying cars, most of which are the DOT-111s.

      The Association of American Railroads, freight carriers and Amtrak, has endorsed the upgrade. DOT officials have said they have met resistance to that change from those in the oil industry.

      In the interim, the AAR and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx have announced a series of voluntary operating practices for crude-by-rail shipments that began last February. By April, rail lines promised increased track inspections and upgraded braking systems on trains with 20 or more carloads of crude oil.

      Railroads said by July they would be using the Rail Corridor Risk Management System to determine which routes would be safer for trains with 20 or more crude-carrying cars, reduce those trains’ speeds and install more wheel-bearing detectors, among other measures.

      Originally, Valero employees had hoped the Crude-by-Rail Project would be wrapped up within a year of filing the application in February 2013.

      But once the project was announced, City Hall received heavy public input.

      Opponents that included both residents and parties outside the city expressed concern about hazards associated with rail delivery of crude, the trains’ impact on traffic near Interstate 680 and inside Benicia Industrial Park, dangers to nearby environmentally sensitive wetlands, the threat posed to Benicia’s neighbors from explosions and spills, and the cumulative impact of rail delivery of crude to other Bay Area refineries.

      Proponents said the project would create construction jobs while it was being built, add jobs to Valero once it was complete and equip the local refinery to compete with industry rivals.

      The project has received support from Valero’s neighbors, including AMPORTS, which operates the Port of Benicia, and members of the board of the Benicia Chamber of Commerce.

      Residents and others packed several city meetings on the project, including a July 11, 2013, Planning Commission meeting at which 31 people spoke.

      During such hearings, every chair in the Council chamber has been filled; people lined walls and sat on the floor, waiting to speak or to hear what others said.

      Speakers usually were split, with about half speaking passionately in favor of the project and the same number just as determined in their opposition.

      The city initially issued a notice of intent to adopt a mitigated negative declaration for the project, which launched a 30-day comment period that ended July 1, 2013. During that time, the city received 34 written comments, some of which were substantial in length. After the closing date, 27 more written comments arrived; comments continue to be sent to City Hall.

      The Benicia-based Good Neighbor Steering Committee organized a meeting last year at which a variety of speakers opposed to the project, including Diane Bailey, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, described hazards associated with the import of tar sands crude from Canada.

      Because of the volume of comments, the city notified the Office of Planning and Research, Sacramento, Aug. 9, 2013, that it would prepare an Environmental Impact Report, a much lengthier examination than the mitigated negative declaration, to comply with California Environmental Protection Act requirements.

      Valero officials said they concurred with the decision.

      “We consulted with city staff and agreed to work with them to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Crude-by-Rail Project,” Sue Fisher Jones, Valero Benicia Refinery public affairs manager, said at the time.

      Even after the city announced its intent to have the have the EIR written, proponents and opponents continued to have meetings about the project.

      Bailey returned to Benicia last March for a meeting organized by the Steering Committee of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community. Joining her were Andres Soto, who has organized Communities for a Better Environment that opposes the increased delivery of crude by rail in the Bay Area; Damien Luzzo of Davis, who expressed worries about dangers to cities such rail cars would pass or go through; and, by video, Marilaine Savard, a resident of Lac-Megantic who described how the explosion devastated her home town.

      At Valero’s own public meeting in March, speakers included refinery safety officers and environmental managers; Liisa Lawson Stark, director  Union Pacific public affairs; and Phillip Daum, an engineer who has participated in investigations of recent rail explosions, including the one at Lac-Megantic.

      Valero Benicia Refinery officials won’t get to see the draft EIR any sooner than anyone else, Million said.

      “We will receive the document at the same time it is available to the public,” Howe concurred. “We will have the same opportunity to provide comments as anyone else during the public comment period.”

      He said his company anticipates arranging another public meeting once the draft EIR is released, and “the details for the meeting will be determined” then.

      Million said city staff and refinery employes have been in conversation as the review draft has been prepared.

      “They have been an integral part, because they have in-house expertise to answer technical questions,” she said. “They have a grasp of what the document says.”

      This is typical of any application, she said, and Valero isn’t being treated differently from the way another individual or business that applies for a use permit or variance would be treated.

      “We work with an applicant to get them on board,” she said of the way her department interacts with anyone filing an application.

      Applicants also are given “a head’s up” about an environmental report’s developments, she said, adding that some applicants decide certain conditions are deal breakers.

      The mitigations and conditions of approval for permits “are what the city feels is needed,” she said. “Ultimately, the comfort level is with the city.”