Category Archives: Tar sands crude

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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IN MEMORIAM: Benicia’s Joel Fallon: Is Crude by Rail really do or die?

Is this really adios?

[Re-posting today in memory of Joel Fallon, who died on August 11, 2016 (obituary). Joel was Benicia’s first and most beloved Poet Laureate, an inspiration to all who knew him and a thoughtful, visionary activist. Originally reposted from The Benicia Herald and here on the Benicia Independent.]

April 25, 2014 by Joel Fallon

WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? Are Benicians just kittens in a burlap sack, down by the riverside, resigned to the inevitable?

Let’s see if I’ve got this right.

(a) We’re in earthquake country (see evidence of the Green Valley fault in terrain on the way to Cordelia);

(b) We’re next to fragile wetlands (for spectacular views, click Google Maps/Benicia, hybrid setting, find rail line and follow to Sacramento);

(c) We’re contiguous with an important commercial waterway;

(d) We host an outfit whose headquarters has fought attempts to safeguard our environment (see Valero Energy Corporation’s position and funding regarding Proposition 23);

(e) A local outfit, under direction from its far-off headquarters, plans to process a dangerous, toxic product;

(f) The outfit is served by a rail system with a recent history of tank car derailment;

(g) Parts of this railroad system (built by Central Pacific RR in 1877), running through marshland to the Carquinez Strait, repeatedly sank into unstable marshy terrain, requiring hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, gravel and other materials to stabilize it;

(h) Other parts of the antique rail infrastructure seem poorly maintained and may be unsafe, e.g., the Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, built between 1928 and 1930 for Southern Pacific RR to replace the train ferry to Port Costa;

(i) Old tank cars are a problem — an area newspaper reports that BNSF railway officials told federal regulators in March of concerns that older, less robust tank cars will end up transporting crude oil because of Canadian rail pricing policies;

(j) Emergency responders are unprepared to handle spills or fires in the event of derailment of cars headed to any of five Bay Area refineries. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to testimony from emergency responders, said, “There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems.” Chief of the Contra Costa Fire District is quoted saying, “… with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.” The 2007-08 Solano County Grand Jury, after investigating the county’s fire districts, reports a general need for more funding, heavy dependence on dedicated volunteers and the preponderance of old fire trucks, while noting the high cost of HAZMAT suits and problems with communications caused by incompatible equipment and radio frequencies.     

And yet, despite this unbelievably horrific backdrop, certain elements in town warn us to hush lest Valero be forced out of the competitive (i.e., tar sands crude) market, destroying its “desire to remain in Benicia.”

Clearly, Valero Benicia Refinery cannot be faulted for all of the foregoing. Good workers deserve good jobs; they should be able to tell their grandkids they helped, rather than harmed, the environment. Valero Benicia is just one of many links in a chain of factors that could lead to the disaster so many in this community fear.

Am I “agenda driven” as charged? Bet your raggedy backside I am. My agenda involves doing homework to find threats to my home, my town, my state and my nation, and advising others of my findings (just in case they might care). If you detect it, yell “GAS” to alert the rest of the platoon; then put on your mask, while you can still breathe.

For a glimmer of the scope of Big Oil’s operations from sea to shining sea and beyond, see the astounding number of outfits similar to Valero Energy Corp. in the U.S and Canada. Find ’em in Wikipedia (“independent oil companies — Americas”). Select a company to see its history of oil spills. Wonder why the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to extend to Texas? Check out which corporations own the pipeline and the benefits associated with Foreign Trade Zones (32 FTZ in Texas compared to 17 in California, and 15 in New York).

If folks look around a bit they may discover that Big Oil, like Big Coal and other corporate behemoths, extends powerful influence throughout the land of the free and the home of the brave. Many were hoodwinked by Operation Iraqi Liberation, in which Big Oil colluded with Big Government to achieve absolute power of life and death over us and our enemy — the one with phantom WMDs and a vast, very real amount of oil.

Is this really adios, Pilgrim? — or just “I double-dog dare you”? I don’t believe it’s Valero’s style to leave town. It’s not in the corporation’s best interests and shouldn’t be its preferred option.

What are those options? They include:

Option 1. Stay put, but back away from risky tar sands crude and focus on products involving minimum environmental risk. Backing away for good business reasons is not the same as “backing down.” CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes. The firm considered it “the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company. The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose — helping people on their path to better health.” Barrons online says, “We think that CVS — like anyone who quits smoking — is making a good long-term decision, even if it makes things rough short-term.” Others consider it a PR coup! CVS gained the respect of millions of customers for what is perceived as a moral and ethical decision. I shop CVS more often since they made that brilliant call; so do my friends.

Backing away from tar sands crude would take similar corporate guts; but the public would be pleased with the image of a moral, ethical, highly principled corporation — a Valero that gives a damn. Sales at Valero service stations might even increase.

Option 2. Continue to pursue tar sands crude; seeking high profitability despite increased environmental risk. The downside: prices at the pump are too high. Californians are already angry; they may avoid Valero service stations and products. I’ll urge my friends to do so. Word of mouth is powerful and spreads quickly. Contempt for an outfit that doesn’t respect its customers or our environment could lead to loss of sales in the country’s most populous state. Cesar Chavez showed us boycotts work. Most folks I know didn’t buy grapes.

Option 3. “Re-purpose” Valero’s operations in Benicia (and elsewhere) to enhance instead of degrade the environment while remaining profitable. Valero is an energy outfit. Turning to alternate sources of energy is ultimately inevitable. Valero should expand its vision and not limit itself to fossil fuels. Farmers in Ireland who grew only potatoes learned about diversification too late.

(a) Pursue wind farming if feasible and profitable. A recent Mother Earth News article about mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia cites a 2007 study that determined placing wind turbines on Coal River Mountain would provide power to 70,000 West Virginia homes while generating $1.7 million in local taxes each year. Better than ripping off the tops of mountains and dumping enormous amounts of debris into streams and rivers.

(b) Pursue solar energy if feasible and profitable. Produce solar products for sale and/or operate a solar power facility to resell power. See an article by Don Hofmann, president of RegenEn Solar LLC, looking at mountaintop removal mining and suggesting solar power instead. He recognizes there are challenges but is optimistic about lower-cost solar cells and technology in the future. He notes that the U.S. fossil fuel industry received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002 to 2006 and asks us to imagine that kind of money put into solar development.

(c) Pursue other approaches (geothermal, tidal, et al.) if appropriate and profitable.

Option 4. Determine feasibility of combining 3a, 3b and/or 3c. If appropriate and profitable, pursue the combination.

Option 1 would be the easiest and would be enthusiastically supported by most folks in Benicia, applauded by most Californians and recognized as a principled business decision.

Option 2 is the least desirable from an environmental standpoint. While profitability is high, it may incur the contempt and wrath of the public, possibly leading to damaging boycotts and a decline in profitability.

Option 3a thru 3c may seem starry-eyed, wild and outside the box. They would require imagination, foresight and courage. It can be done. CVS is showing the way and TESLA is succeeding with electrically powered cars. Examine pluses and minuses — Valero could take a quantum leap and be regarded as an industry trailblazer. Its reputation would be enhanced. Envious competitors might scoff and want Valero to take a pratfall but ultimately they would have to follow suit.

In conclusion the priority order of Valero’s options should be:

Option 1 — Most desirable (preferred)
Option 3/4 — Most “outside the box” (defer initially, but plan for the future)
Option 2 — Least desirable (avoid).

If Valero is really in the long-term energy game, it should choose Option 1 and start thinking seriously about Option 3. If, instead, its focus is on short term — high profits while risking irreparable harm to the environment — then Option 2 is their ticket.

If Valero wants to be recognized as rich, principled, brave and famous instead of rich, unscrupulous and infamous, then it should open door No. 3 as soon as possible.

Finally: I don’t believe it is “adios” for Valero Benicia Refinery. Unfortunately, I think Valero will not choose a clean path. They will probably press on with dirty tar sands crude. After that, “¿Quien sabe?”

I don’t intend to “go gentle into that good night.” Instead I prefer to “rage against the dying of the light.”

This whole thing could be like a colonoscopy, but a lot less fun.

Joel Fallon is a Benicia resident.


The Benicia Herald’s Poetry Corner was recently dedicated to Joel Fallon…

“For Joel Fallon” by Ronna Leon

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

You called them “dead Mother poems”
and scorned their cloying sentiment, easy forgiveness.
Your poem about your Mother named her Kali.
You hungered for life – anger, difficulty, competition, sex.
You insisted that wringing a tear from a stone
was superior to opening well oiled floodgates.

 

Now you are dead and my tears come unbidden
looking at the bookshelf, pulling a stubborn weed,
eating a pastry.
“Keep smiling” you’d instruct,
but I don’t want to brush these tears away,
each glistens with memory, swells with loss.
You are in them, like it or not.Ronna Leon was Benicia’s third poet laureate from 2010 to 2012


“Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Dedicated to Joel Fallon)” by Johanna Ely

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops-at all”
-Emily Dickinson

 

If such a tiny bird,
perhaps left for dead,
or suffering from an injured wing,
its feathers matted and torn,
finds refuge in your broken heart,
then reach inside yourself
and touch this living thing called Hope,
gently bind its limp and useless wing
with Love’s tattered cloth,
and press it to your shattered heart
until it heals,
until this lovely creature sings again,
then let it fly,
and nest in someone else’s heart,
the stranger,
the neighbor,
the old friend,
the one who just like you,
needs to hear its song.
Johanna Ely is Benicia’s current poet laureate

“Joel’s Passing” by Mary Susan Gast

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“So, I may have been wrong after all – this damn cancer may indeed be the death of me.”
-Joel Fallon, in an email of June 30, 2016

He died on the morning of August 11.
That night, meteor showers dazzled the skies:
The Perseids, at their peak.
No reason to doubt that Joel hitched a ride
On that celestial glory train,
Meeting up with all the other streaming luminaries,
Fireball to fireball.

Mary Susan Gast served as Conference Minister of the Northern California Conference United Church of Christ, now retired, and is a member of Benicia’s First Tuesday Poetry Group
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Nearly a year and a half later: Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

Repost from CBC News

Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

Small town pushing Ministry of the Environment to require CN to continue clean-up
By CBC News, Aug 10, 2016 7:33 AM ET
Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015.
Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015. (Erik White/CBC )

The fencing around the site of the Gogama train derailment is coming down today, as the clean-up from the oil spill has been declared complete. But residents say their local waters are still contaminated with oil.

Sheens of oil are commonly seen on the Makami River, over which the oil train derailed in March 2015, as well as lake Minisinakwa, on which the town is built.

People have also found several dead fish in recent weeks and wondered if it’s connected to the spill.

“I understand it’s never going to be pristine again,” says Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson. “There was no sheen, there was no dead fish, there was no oil spill on Mar. 6, 2015.”

“So, we got to try to get it closer than that. Let’s get it to the point that there’s no fish dying. And I’m not going to die of throat cancer in five years because I’ve been eating the fish out of this lake.”

Benson said CN rail is willing to continue the clean-up, but has been told by the Ministry of Environment that the work is satisfactory.

CN has agreed to let more soil samples be taken from the site and be sent away for independent testing, along with some of the dead fish, at the company’s expense.

In a statement the railroad said that “CN recognizes that local citizens have identified areas of concern, where they believe further clean up should be done in order to protect human and fish populations. CN is today on the ground in Gogama, working with local residents to identify specific areas.”

Gogama derailment site
After a year and a half, the fencing around the site of the train derailment and oil spill near Gogama will come down and it will once again be open to the public. (Erik White/CBC )

Benson said he was surprised to find out over the last year and a half that the railroad was responsible for the environment testing, not the Ministry of the Environment.

“I can’t believe our government tells the fox to test the chickens,” Benson told a public meeting of over 100 people at the Gogama Community Centre, which ministry officials were invited to attend.

“Because that’s basically what they were doing. They were saying ‘OK, you got a mess. Tell us when it’s clean.'”​

Benson said Ministry of Environment officials are aware of the oil slicks in the water, but don’t seem concerned.

“We were going down the lake and we saw oil and he said ‘Well, just because there’s oil doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dangerous,” he said.

Ministry officials may not have been at the meeting on Tuesday night, but they were in Gogama the following day to take water samples on Lake Minisinakwa.

In a statement, the ministry said it “takes the concerns expressed by the citizens of Gogama and Mattagami First Nation very seriously and greatly appreciates direct reports from the citizens of their observations.  These reports enable our staff to respond in a timely manner to collect further information that can be used in guiding further action as appropriate.”

The ministry statement also said that further fish testing in the Gogama area is planned for the fall, but reiterated that the fish tested last fall showed no signs of contamination.

oil sheen in Makami River
Gogama residents regularly see oil floating in the Makami River and other waters downstream from the oil spill. (Erik White/CBC )

Band councillor suggests a protest to shut down the railroad

CN officials had planned to attend the meeting, but were called away at the last minute.

After expressing their frustrations for over an hour, the crowd erupted in applause, when Chad Boissoneau suggested that one way to get attention would be to “shut down” the railroad with a protest.

He is a band councillor in the nearby Mattagami First Nation and has headed up efforts to keep up in the pickerel population in area lakes.

“The clean-up shouldn’t be determined by what MOE feels is satisfactory, the clean-up should be determined by the community members and what’s satisfactory to them. Because we’re the ones that have to live here,” says Boissoneau, adding that oil has yet to be sighted in the waters by the first nation, which is downstream from the spill.

Several people from Timmins, which draws its drinking water from the Mattagami River downstream from the spill, also attended the meeting and there was mention of how these waters run all the way to the James Bay Coast.

public meeting
Over 100 people attended a public meeting at the Gogama Community Centre on Aug. 9 to express their frustrations with the oil clean-up. (Erik White/CBC )

Towards the end of the meeting there was talk of circulating a petition that Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas could table at Queen’s Park and including these downstream communities.

Gelinas said until now people in Gogama were always hesitant to draw too much attention to the oil spill, fearing it would hurt the local tourism industry. But many lodges are reporting a drop in business anyway.

“There was always this reluctance to talk about it too much outside of Gogama,” she says.

It’s hard to get Toronto politicians to care about a little town called Gogama

“If you’re ready to sound the alarm bells, I have no doubt that the people from Sudbury will support you, the people from Timmins will support you and the people from everywhere in Ontario will support you if you’re ready to reach out and speak loud.”

Gelinas said she too has had trouble getting government officials to give time to the concerns of a small town called Gogama.

“If this environmental disaster had happened closer to Toronto, things would have been handled very differently,” she said at the meeting.

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