Category Archives: Public Safety

Benician C. Bart Sullivan sends letter to Cal. Attorney General

By Roger Straw, September 2, 2016
[Editor:  This post originally appeared with an error that has since been corrected.  C. Bart Sullivan is not an attorney.  The error was our own, not that of Mr. Sullivan.  We apologize for our error.  - RS]

Local Benicia engineer C. Bart Sullivan petitions Attorney General Kamala Harris, points out serious flaws in Valero CBR design

On August 9, local Benicia engineer C. Bart Sullivan wrote the following letter asking for help from California Attorney General Kamala Harris.  Sullivan’s comments focus on the lack of adequate safety setbacks and potential catastrophic dangers within Valero’s facility and nearby facilities in the Benicia Industrial Park should the plan be approved.

This approach is highly significant, showing that even if federal law prevents the City of Benicia from denying a permit based on rail impacts (a highly disputed contention), there are nonetheless enough significant and serious flaws in Valero’s onsite engineering designs to allow the City to refuse the permit and deny the project.

Text of Mr. Sullivan’s letter follows.  Mr. Sullivan has allowed the Benicia Independent to reprint this letter with the understanding that it is “his personal opinion, informational only, and is not to be construed as legal advice.”

August 9, 2016

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris
Office of the Attorney General
1300 “I” Street
Sacramento, CA 95814-2919

RE: Valero – Crude By Rail Project

Dear California Attorney General Harris:

Benicia needs your help. I am deeply concerned about the safety of the Valero Crude by Rail Project and the oral dismissal of your legal advice to the city of Benicia by the city contract attorney, Bradley R. Hogin, Esq.

Based on the fact that Valero is the largest private employer in Benicia, the city staff is in favor of the project, and due to the oral legal advice provided by Mr. Hogin implying the futility of any action by the city, from my perspective, it appears that Benicia City Council will vote to approve the project.

From my personal expertise as an engineer with refinery experience, and based on expert opinions of professional engineers who have reviewed the proposed project design, Valero’s proposed crude-by-rail project design is extremely dangerous. Specifically, the engineering design does not allow for sufficient safety setbacks (the distance between the rail cars and oil storage tanks, etc.) to mitigate the likelihood of a chain reaction explosion within the refinery. Thus, due to the massive explosive potential of each rail car and the close proximity of the rail cars to other explosive fuel sources, it is highly likely that an explosion of only one rail car within the refinery will escalate into larger explosions extending beyond Valero property and into the city of Benicia.

Therefore, because of the lack of safety setbacks and the number of proposed rail cars entering the facility on a daily basis, the likelihood of catastrophic explosions at the refinery in Benicia puts hundreds, if not thousands, of Benicia residents directly in harm’s way. Unfortunately, the city has no way to mitigate this terrible danger, let alone mitigate other safety and health issues such as additional health impacts from the predicted increase in local air pollution.

Valero has categorically asserted that Benicia City Council cannot look to these unmitigable health and safety issues to deny the project due to the law of federal preemption. Based on Valero’s assertion, I wanted to bring comments from Mr. Hogin and Mr. John Flynn, Esq., Valero’s attorney, to your attention.1

In his testimony to the Benicia City Council, Mr. Hogin,  advised that the city had no recourse under federal preemption to deny the project, summarily dismissed your letter of April 14, 2016, and did not provide the city with any legal advice on how to challenge the project under Constitutional law. For example, Mr. Hogin did not provide any legal advice concerning how the proposed project could be challenged under the 10th Amendment or the Dormant Commerce Clause (DCC) using the rational basis test for the legitimate noneconomic purpose of protecting the health and safety of Benicia residents.

For your convenience, the following are recorded oral statements by Mr. Hogin and Mr. Flynn. I am deeply troubled by these statements, which I consider to be biased legal advice given to the Benicia city council April 18, 2016.

During the Benicia City Council meeting, Monday April 18, 2016, Mr. Hogin stated:

The Attorney General letter really missed the point. The issue here is whether a City can regulate rail impacts indirectly by imposing requirements on a shipper that address rail impacts, as opposed to impacts from the shipper’s facility, and the Attorney General opinion really doesn’t discuss that.

The Attorney General opinion only discusses cases where cities were addressing impacts from a transloading facility that was owned and operated by a private party.

In none of the cases where — that the Attorney General cites were any of the cities addressing rail impacts…”

Moreover, during the same Benicia City Council meeting, Mr. Flynn stated:

“As for the AG’s letter, I’m going to choose my words very carefully because I have a lot of respect for Kamala Harris and I have a lot of respect for her office, but that letter on the issue of preemption is dead wrong. Your attorney — the advice that you’ve been given by your attorney is exactly right. If you follow the advice that’s been given to you by Kamala Harris, you’ll be making a terrible mistake, a terrible legal error.

Somebody has suggested that Valero, because it’s a — it’s a refinery, doesn’t have any standing to ask for a Declaratory Order from the — from the Surface Transportation Board. That, also, is dead wrong.

You don’t have to be a railroad to get a Declaratory Order from the Surface Transportation Board, and that’s been proven on many occasions as a result of the fact that the Surface Transportation Board has, in fact, issued a number of declaratory orders as the result of requests made by nonrail carriers.

Valero is a shipper. A “shipper” is a term of art under federal law. So we do have standing to request that Declaratory Order.” (Emphasis added)

Even though Mr. Hogin briefly mentioned later in his discourse that the city could look to non-rail related impacts to deny the project, the above quoted transcript of the oral arguments do not reflect the serious and biased tone of the legal advice as orally presented to the Benicia City Council. Specifically, the oral presentation by Mr. Hogin implied that any legal recourse would be futile, and that the city of Benicia has no other option but to approve the project.

While the legal advice from both attorneys concerns me greatly, Mr. Hogin’s legal advice seems especially biased toward Valero’s position, and does not seem to be in the best interest of his client, the city of Benicia.

Thus, Mr. Hogin provided legal advice in a manner strongly advocating Valero’s position without formulating a defensible and well thought out argument for the case opposing Valero’s position for the city to consider.

Based on the above, I emphatically urge you and your staff to personally visit the city of Benicia to reiterate your position. I implore you to please help the city of Benicia realize that they have the power to protect their citizens, and without taking your advice they would be making a terrible legal error and would be breaching their duty to the people of Benicia and beyond.

Sincerely,

C. Bart Sullivan, E.E, J.D.


1 REPORTER’S TRANSCRIPT OF RECORDED PROCEEDINGS IN RE VALERO CRUDE BY RAIL PROJECT HEARING AND PUBLIC COMMENTS (http://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/vertical/sites/%7BF991A639-AAED-4E1A-9735-86EA195E2C8D%7D/uploads/City_Council_April_18_2016_Transcript.pdf)
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NPR: In The Pacific Northwest, Oil Train Derailment Highlights Potential Dangers

Heard on All Things Considered
By Conrad Wilson, August 12, 2016 4:31 PM ET

The number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington could dramatically increase.

There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota to a proposed oil terminal in southwest Washington state.

An oil train derailment earlier this year has shown the potential danger faced by the region.

TRANSCRIPT________________________________________________

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the Northwest, the number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River could dramatically increase, and that’s sharpened a debate over oil train safety in Washington state and Oregon. There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region to a proposed oil terminal in Washington. As Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, a recent derailment has shown the potential danger the area faces.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a Friday in early June, more than 40,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled in a fiery oil train derailment that burned for 14 hours.

EMILY REED: It is an incredibly scary thing to have something like this happen so – and within our city limits, so close to our school.

WILSON: Emily Reed is the city council president in Mosier, Ore., the town where the derailment took place. About 500 people live in Mosier, and 100 of them were forced to evacuate when the oil train derailed. Reed points out the town’s deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a canyon with steep cliffs, where winds can reach 40 miles per hour during the summer.

REED: If the wind had been as it is today or more, we would have had a fire going up more than four of those cars, all the way through town and wiping out our town.

WILSON: Union Pacific was to blame for the derailment that caused the oil spill, according to a preliminary report by the Federal Railroad Administration. It says Union Pacific didn’t maintain its tracks properly. However, an inspector certified by that same federal agency checked the tracks and gave them the OK a little more than a month before the derailment.

JERRY OLIVER: It was unfortunate for the community.

WILSON: Jerry Oliver is a port commissioner in Vancouver, Wash., and a vocal supporter of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, known as the Vancouver Energy Project.

OLIVER: It’s also unfortunate because it gives a tremendous black eye to anything related to fossil fuels.

WILSON: If built, the terminal would more than double the number of mile-long oil trains traveling along the Columbia River, to about 46 trains per week. Serena Larkin is with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes the oil terminal. She says until Mosier, oil train derailments were the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.

SERENA LARKIN: Mosier proved that we’re not any different. We are just as vulnerable. We are facing the exact same risks from oil trains that everyone else in North America is facing right now.

WILSON: Despite low oil prices, proponents of the project say the terminal is needed to reduce foreign imports and move domestic oil. For now, it’s relying on oil trains because there aren’t enough pipelines to move oil from North Dakota to the West Coast. Larkin says Mosier’s a turning point in the debate surrounding the Vancouver oil terminal and one that will weigh heavily on whether the project gets permitted.

LARKIN: It showed what the Vancouver oil terminal is really asking Northwest communities to shoulder in risk.

DAN RILEY: I strongly believe that all accidents are preventable.

WILSON: Dan Riley is vice president of government affairs for Tesoro, an oil company behind the project. Since the derailment in Mosier, he says there has been more scrutiny.

RILEY: I think that the criticism is not of the project, but of the rail system.

WILSON: Reilly says Tesoro has also pledged to only allow tank cars with thicker shells and other safety features designed to withstand a derailment into the Vancouver facility. But that’s done little to ease the safety concerns of firefighters and environmental groups. Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say on whether the project gets approved. That decision could come later this year. Inslee’s acknowledged the risk oil trains pose. He says the Mosier derailment is among the things he’ll consider when determining whether or not he’ll permit the oil terminal. For NPR News, I’m Conrad Wilson in Vancouver, Wash.

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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.

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