Category Archives: Sierra Club

Dredging the Carquinez to Accommodate Oil

[BenIndy Editor: Please come to the Pinole Public library on Nov. 13 at 6pm to protest the plan to increase dredging in the Bay.  More info and sign a petition at Sunflower Alliance.  If you can’t make it, download a comment form – or comment by email to SFBaytoStockton.PA@usace.army.mil.  – RS]

The Army Corps is deepening shipping channels to allow tankers access. The agency says it will clear the air. Environmentalists don’t agree.

The East Bay Express, by Jean Tepperman, Sept 11, 2019
The dredging will deepen a 13-mile stretch from San Pablo Bay to the four refineries along the Carquinez Strait. PHOTO COURTESY USGS

The federal government is preparing to deepen the shipping channels that serve four of the Bay Area’s five oil refineries. Because the channels are too shallow to accommodate fully loaded modern oil tankers, those ships travel to and from refineries only partly loaded, and sometimes wait for high tides before sailing. By reducing the number and duration of those trips, the project is likely to reduce diesel emissions affecting the already-polluted refinery communities along the Carquinez Strait. But environmentalists view it as a move to subsidize and expand oil production at a time when the future depends on ending the use of fossil fuels. And they predict it will actually increase air pollution by enabling an expansion of refinery production.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is gearing up to start the project, first authorized by Congress in 1965 and funded in 2012. The Army Corps currently maintains a 35-foot-deep shipping channel down the middle of the strait. The plan is to deepen it to 37 or 38 feet along a 13-mile stretch from the Bay to the refineries, three of which lie in northern Contra Costa County and one across the strait in Benicia.

That the project will primarily benefit the oil industry is not disputed. “The channels in the study area primarily serve crude oil imports and refined product exports to and from several oil refineries and two non-petroleum industries,” according to the Environment Impact Statement issued by the Army Corps in April. “Petroleum is the big economic driver” of the project, agreed project contact person Stu Townsley. Indeed, the Western States Petroleum Association is one partner in the project.

The Army Corps says deepening the channels will save between $7.6 and $11.3 million a year in shipping costs, savings that could be passed on to consumers. A comment letter on the project from the Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations says, “In essence, the public is subsidizing the oil industry to ensure greater profit for private corporations.”

However, the Army Corps also argues that the project will provide environmental benefits. Agency economist Caitlin Bryant said her forecast predicts that the same volume of oil will be shipped with or without the project. If the ships involved are fully loaded, it will take fewer vessel trips to handle the same amount of oil, and tankers no longer will have to idle offshore waiting for high tide. Fewer trips and less idling time will mean less diesel pollution.

The project will mainly benefit shipping in a type of vessel called a Panamax. The Army Corps predicts that as the volume of petroleum shipping increases, the number of Panamax “ship calls per year” will increase. But by dredging, they can reduce the size of the increase. The Army Corps projects that the project will result in about 11 percent fewer Panamax trips in the Carquinez Strait in 2023, the first year the project will be completed, 10 percent fewer in 2030, and about 8 percent fewer in 2040, with corresponding decreases in the level of air pollution they contribute to the already-high levels of pollution in refinery communities.

But environmentalists worry that the project will enable greater volumes of oil imports and exports by “debottlenecking” shipping. The environmental groups challenged Bryant’s forecast in their letter. They pointed out that Richmond’s Chevron refinery, the only one now able to handle fully loaded tankers, is operating at 99.7 percent of capacity, while the other refineries operate at only 91.3 percent. Removing the shipping bottleneck would make it easy for the other refineries to step up production, the groups claim. And they argue that increasing oil production will not only worsen climate change but increase local air pollution, outweighing the benefits of reducing the number of tanker trips.

Critics see the project as part of a larger trend to increase oil shipping and refining in the Bay Area. “The refineries are importing more oil to make products for export, polluting all the way,” said Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment. Exports from Bay Area oil refineries “have increased in lockstep with the decrease in domestic oil demand,” as refineries seek new markets. The Bay Area, Karras said, is becoming “the gas station of the Pacific Rim.”

Sunflower Alliance, along with Stand.earth, the Rodeo Citizens Association, the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, Idle No More SF Bay, Communities for a Better Environment, and Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), have launched a petition campaign against the dredging project. They had already joined together as the Protect the Bay Coalition to fight a proposal by Phillips 66, to increase the amount of oil shipped to and from its Rodeo refinery. “It’s troubling that this project, stalled since 1965, is going forward just after P66 requested a permit to triple oil tanker deliveries to its wharf,” said Shoshana Wechsler of the Sunflower Alliance. “Is the Army Corps of Engineers trying to facilitate increased tar sands refining at P66?”

Because it’s likely that future imports will increasingly come from tar sands, oil spills, which inevitably occur, would be more destructive. Tar sands crude oil is so heavy that it sinks when spilled in a body of water. Unlike lighter oil, it can’t be cleaned up by conventional “skimming” methods and remains on the bottom, leaching toxic chemicals. The amount of tar sands crude oil traveling to the west coast of Canada is expected to triple soon. Owners of the planned Trans Mountain Pipeline just announced they’re about to re-start construction on the project, after delays caused by protests from indigenous tribes and environmental organizations. When the tar sands crude arrives at the coast, it will be shipped to refineries in the United States — including California — as well as to Asia. Bay Area refineries have already been gearing up to process this heavier, dirtier crude oil.

Community groups also worry about harm the project could cause to the local marine environment. Even with no increase in the volume of oil shipped, the Army Corps predicts an increase in the use of larger ships. Environmentalists say larger ships go faster, which increases noise in the underwater environment as well as the likelihood of “ship strikes” on marine mammals. An increase in shipping would amplify those problems.

Environmental groups also charge that the Environmental Impact Statement underestimates the harm that would be caused by the dredging itself — both from the initial channel project and the subsequent annual maintenance that will be required. An earlier report from the Army Corps acknowledged that current ship traffic and maintenance dredging already stress the endangered Delta smelt. Noise associated with the dredging would also stress sturgeon, salmon and trout, and marine mammals.

The stirred-up sediment mixes with the water, changing its temperature and chemical makeup in ways that harm fish populations. The Army Corps describes plans to minimize these impacts, including the use of less-damaging dredging equipment and limiting dredging to times of the year when it would cause the least harm to wildlife. The environmental groups say these assurances are not adequate because dredging at the planned times could still harm smelt and salmon, and because the Army Corps says it will use these methods when “practicable” — which environmentalists see as a significant loophole.

And they warn that dredging could stir up heavy metals and other toxic pollutants now settled in the floor of the channel. Townsley of the Army Corps of Engineers responded that the Corps does some routine dredging every year. “The process includes rigorous sediment testing,” he said, and “it has not identified challenges with the cleanliness of the dredged material in the channel.” The environmentalists say they should also test the water before approving the project.

Environmentalists also raise questions about the recent decision to limit the dredging project to a 13-mile stretch mostly west of Martinez, rather than continuing it to the port of Stockton, as originally envisioned. They suspect that the project stops where it does because going farther inland would worsen an already serious environmental problem: increasing the concentration of salt in the Delta. They say the corps is illegally “piecemealing” the project — doing an environmental study of just one part so as not to acknowledge the harm the full project would cause.

Sea-level rise and diversion of water to Central Valley agriculture are already making Delta water saltier. Large amounts of fresh water are being pumped in to keep the salt level down, but if it continues to increase, it will threaten agriculture and every other aspect of the Delta ecosystem. The Army Corps of Engineers acknowledges that this is a serious issue for the dredging project. It will be a factor in the decision about whether to deepen the shipping channel to 37 feet or 38 feet. Deeper dredging would save the oil industry more money but allow more salt upstream.

The Environmental Impact Statement says planners limited the project to the western section because that’s where it’s currently needed. Dredging the first 13-mile stretch is “more appropriate for the immediate problems facing existing vessels.” The dredging is planned to go just past the eastern-most refinery in Martinez.

Townsley of the Army Corps said the “rescoping was based on a number of factors, not just environmental.” A large part of the motivation for the project, he said, is the “national economic interest — why taxpayers in Kansas would find some value in it.” He said planners evaluated whether the stretch farther east has “enough maritime commerce to justify” the expense. He said it was “close to being a positive” but was rejected because of “the complexity of the study — other factors.”

The Port of Stockton is the official “nonfederal sponsor” of the project because the original plan was to deepen the channel all the way to Stockton. Spokesperson Jeff Wingfield said the port hopes the eastern phase will be completed next. That raises another fear in the environmental community. Stockton doesn’t ship petroleum, but it does export coal — and it can’t get big ships fully loaded with coal down the Carquinez Strait. Environmental and community groups fighting coal exports in Richmond — and potential coal exports in Oakland — fear shipments of coal will increase if shipping channels are deepened to Stockton.

Finally, project opponents charge that the Army Corps of Engineers has not consulted enough with the community in developing the project. They say an initial community hearing in June was poorly publicized. They also point out that Corps staff members who wrote the Environmental Impact Statement are based in Florida. They say work on the project should be done by local people who know the area and can consult with the community.

Townsley responded that developing the project was “a team effort” in which “local people were well represented.” It’s Corps policy to “get expertise wherever we can,” he said, “but we make sure we have people who understand the local conditions.”

The public comment period on the Environmental Impact Statement has officially closed, but project opponents attended an Army Corps of Engineering hearing on a related topic in July and demanded more opportunity for public input on the dredging project. Afterwards spokespeople for the project said that although the official public comment period has closed “the Corps maintains an email address at SFBaytoStockton@usace.army.mil for comments related to this action. Responses to comments received through September 2019 will be included in the Final Report.”

Townsley said the Army Corps “goes through a fairly rigorous process of coordinating with other agencies and collecting comments.” All the comments and letters on this project show “exactly the way the system is supposed to work.” He added that the Army Corps plans to hold another public hearing on the dredging project, probably in late September or early October. The final report is expected after the first of the year.

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    LETTER SERIES: Pat Toth-Smith – Vote for the Environment (Sierra Club endorsements)

    [Editor: Benicians are expressing themselves in letters to the editor of our local print newspaper, the Benicia Herald. But the Herald doesn’t publish letters in its online editions – and many Benician’s don’t subscribe. We are posting certain letters here for wider distribution. – RS]

    A Vote for the Environment, Sierra Club endorses Elizabeth Patterson for Mayor, Steve Young & Tom Campbell for City Council

    By Pat Toth-Smith
    October 16, 2016

    The election is upon us and it’s been a complete disappointment where global climate change is concerned. After having signed three petitions to have a question about climate change specifically put to the presidential and vice presidential candidates during their debates, it sadly did not happen. To my disappointment in researching the candidates’ positions on climate change I discovered that Donald Trump doesn’t believe in the science of climate change and went so far as to say, “that it is a hoax put out by the Chinese Government”, in one of his tweets. Mike Pence, as I understand, won’t accept climate change as real. I feel it is important if you’re a believer in the science of climate change and want to move the United States to a clean energy future, to be aware of which candidates are most committed to that.

    Thankfully, the Sierra Club has completed a list of environmental endorsements, which I want to share, starting with our local city government election.

    The Sierra Club endorses:

    • Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson,
    • Benicia City Council Steve Young and Tom Campbell
    • District 2 Supervisor Mike Ioakimedes
    • Assembly District 14 Mae Torlakson
    • Fairfield City Council Pam Bertani
    • Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan
    • Vallejo City Council Liat Metzenheimer
    • President Hillary Clinton
    • Senator Kamala Harris
    • Congressman Mike Thompson

    The state propositions that the Sierra club endorses are as follows:

    • Prop 56, cigarette tax: YES
    • Prop 58, multilingual education: YES
    • Prop 59, oppose Citizens United: YES
    • Prop 67, plastic bag ban: YES

    As a Benicia resident, I’ve had the unique opportunity of seeing Mayor Elizabeth Patterson in action. She was tireless in her effort to keep the public informed about the Valero Crude By Rail permit process as it progressed, whereas her opponent, publically attacked her for it. She is also a big proponent of the Community Sustainability Commission which promoted Marin Clean Energy (MCE) and gave a grant to study any risk to our city. My family and I are grateful because we now pay to power our home with 100% renewable energy from MCE. MCE also gave a check for over $100,000 to the city this year for net energy from the city’s solar panels.

    During my three year process of participating to stop the Valero crude by rail project, I was able to observe Planning Commissioner Steve Young’s outstanding commitment to doing his due diligence in researching all aspects for the permit request. He did a very thorough job of questioning all concerned and it made me content in his abilities to protect Benicia from all future dangerous projects. I am also grateful to Mayor Patterson and council member Campbell for publicly stating their rejection of this dangerous project the day the city council was supposed to vote on it. In my estimation, they were putting our community’s safety first, regardless of the Surface Transportation Boards ruling.

    Pat Toth-Smith
    Benicia
    Sierra Club link:
    http://content.sierraclub.org/voterguide/endorsements
    Local Sierra Club Chapter link: https://www.facebook.com/SierraClubRedwoodChapter/
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      U.S. Sued Over Refusal to Ban Older Rail Cars for Crude

      Repost from Bloomberg News
      [Editor: See also the Earthjustice press release, “Groups Bring New Legal Action for Federal Ban of Dangerous Oil Tank Rail Cars”.  Here is the December 2 Petition.   Here is the original July 15 Petition.  – RS]

      U.S. Sued Over Refusal to Ban Older Rail Cars for Crude

      By Andrew Zajac, Dec 2, 2014
      Crude by Rail California
      A train with DOT-111 tanker cars. Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

      Earthjustice and other environmental groups asked a federal court to force the U.S. Transportation Department to reconsider its rejection of an immediate ban on the use of rail tank cars lacking updated safety features for shipping Bakken crude oil.

      The tank cars’ safety was questioned after a July 2013 explosion that killed 47 people when an unattended, runaway train hauling 72 carloads of Bakken crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

      The transportation department is managing tank car safety issues through a series of directives, short of a ban, and rules are being drafted to phase out the older rolling stock, the agency said in November, declining the groups’ request for an emergency ban.

      That response fails to consider the risks posed by the cars, including “past findings that the surge in crude-by-rail shipments of Bakken crude in dangerous tank cars poses imminent hazards and emergency unsafe conditions,” according to the complaint, filed today in federal appeals court in San Francisco.

      The rail vessels in question are older models, collectively referred to as DOT-111 tank cars, that lack safeguards needed to improve crashworthiness, according the environmentalists’ original request for a ban, filed in July.

      Oil from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota tends to be more volatile and flammable than other crude, according to a Transportation Department study released in July.

      Production of Bakken crude is soaring beyond the capacity of pipelines, leading to an increased use of trains.

      The Sierra Club and ForestEthics joined Earthjustice in the lawsuit.

      The case is Sierra Club v. U.S. Department of Transportation, 14-73682, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, (San Francisco).

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        Central Valley Business Times: Oil company abandons plans to handle Bakken crude in Sacramento

        Repost from Central Valley Business Times

        Oil company abandons plans to handle Bakken crude in Sacramento

        SACRAMENTO, October 22, 2014

        •  Cites lawsuit filed by environmentalists
        •  “This is a victory for the health and safety of the people of Sacramento”

        InterState Oil Company says it is surrendering its air pollution permit that lets it transfer highly volatile Bakken crude oil from railcars to trucks at its transloading facility located at 4545 Dudley Boulevard in the McClellan industrial park in Sacramento.

        The decision comes a month after Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sierra Club challenging the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District for issuing permits allowing the project without public or environmental review.

        Now the air agency says the permit was “issued in error because it failed to meet District Best Available Control Technology requirements.”

        The agency and the company have agreed that the transfers will stop by Nov. 14.

        “This is the first crude transport project that has been stopped dead in its tracks in California,” says Suma Peesapati, Earthjustice attorney. “This is a victory for the health and safety of the people of Sacramento, for communities along the path of the trucks hauling this dangerous product to the Bay Area, and for the refinery communities where the crude is eventually processed.”

        Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club on Sept. 23, holding the air district and InterState Oil accountable for neglecting to consider the risk to public health and safety of the project. The lawsuit also challenged the air district for deliberately avoiding its obligations for review under the California Environmental Quality Act despite the fact that the project would have significant increases in air pollutants, including toxic air contaminants.

        The air district first issued a permit to InterState to trans-load crude from rail to truck on March 27, however according to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee, the company had been trans-loading crude without a permit as early as six months before that date. No notice was given to local fire and emergency responders or other officials about the handling of the highly flammable substance just seven miles north of the California state capital.

        “This is a huge victory for Sacramento residents and communities across California who are put in harms way by trains carrying volatile, hazardous crude that are known to derail and explode,” says Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club staff attorney. “Local, state and federal governments must take further immediate action to notify the public when hazardous crude is railed through their communities and to ban the use of unsafe DOT 111 tank cars.”

        As a result of today’s decision, Sacramento Superior Court is expected to dismiss the lawsuit, Earthjustice says.

        Bakken crude, a type of shale oil, is more volatile than other kinds of crude oil. It has been blamed for some spectacular — and tragic — accidents, the worst of which was the July 2013 derailment of a train of oil cars carrying Bakken crude in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. The explosion and fire killed nearly 50 townspeople and leveled more than 30 buildings.

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