Category Archives: Track maintenance

LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

::

These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.

::

Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD: Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

By Matthew Adkins, 09/20/16, 9:54 PM PDT
Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall.
Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall. Matthew Adkins — Times-Herald

BENICIA >> Environmentalists hoping to defeat Benicia’s crude-by-rail project scored a huge victory Tuesday night, handing Valero Refining Company a significant defeat in the process.

In a unanimous decision from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Benicia City Council, Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility was denied.

Vicki Dennis, who moved to Benicia two years ago, was one of many present at City Hall and said she was “just delighted” with the decision.

“I’m so proud of this city,” Dennis said. “Our council people are very thoughtful. This process has been a long one, but I think they handled it in a wonderful way.”

The City of Benicia’s Planning Commission first began considering the issue in December 2012 when the refinery submitted an application seeking permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.

In March, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the application and to not certify an accompanying environmental impact report. The decision was made against the recommendation of city staff who said the project’s involvement with rail-related issues made the decision a federal issue.

Valero representatives submitted an appeal looking to reverse the commission’s decision to deny their application, and the matter was postponed until Sept. 20.

As part of the appeal, Valero sought a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board on the issue of federal preemption in regards to the project.

During this time, many governmental agencies, private organizations and individuals publicly opposed the city council’s decision to transfer authority on the matter to the federal government.

At the city council meeting Tuesday, however, public comment on the topic was officially closed.

“We are eager to hear from you about any item that is not on the agenda,” Patterson said. “I know it’s a little difficult right now. We have an item on the agenda that I know a lot of you are interested in, but there is no public comment on that tonight.”

This drew a few hushed laughs from the crowd of approximately 150 people who had shown up to witness the landmark decision at Benicia City Hall.

Mayor Patterson’s warning didn’t stop a few concerned citizens from indirectly talking about the issue.

“I originally put in my request to speak before I knew you were not accepting public comments about Valero,” said one man. “If the council decides to change their mind and re-open public comment on the issue, I would be glad to come back up and speak.”

“Since I can’t talk about what the Surface Transportation Board has just done, I would urge the council to support the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline,” said another man.

After public comment was closed, a brief recap of the project’s journey though Benicia’s civic system was put forth along with two resolution findings, one for approval and the other for denial,

The denial resolution highlighted specific issues that city council members had with Valero’s proposed project, including the unclear traffic impacts of having an unregulated shipment schedule, spill risks associated with shipping by rail and the project’s uncomfortable proximity to the city’s waterways.

Before making a judgement, Council members took turns voicing their concerns about health, safety and the project’s effect on the environment.

“When we first started considering this, there seemed to be little risk involved,” said Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “After four years, the community has endured numerous public hearings with hundreds of people speaking about the project. During this time, there have been 13 derailments around the country involving multiple carriers.

“The derailment in Oregon was a game-changer for me,” she continued. “Union Pacific was the same carrier and the railroad cars involved were the same ones Valero is offering. The strongest car didn’t withstand a puncture and crude oil came in contact with fire and burned for 13 hours. Union Pacific failed to maintain its track, resulting in its derailment. The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards regarding the transportation of crude. I’m going to vote to deny the project in hopes that the community can begin to heal after such a divided process.”

After the council’s comments, Councilmember Tom Campbell put forward a motion to deny, and was seconded by Patterson.

A quick vote was taken and the motion to deny Valero’s presence in Benicia was decided.

Misao Brown, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Alameda, was thrilled with the council’s decision and was seen embracing her friends outside of Benicia City Hall.

“If there were any spills where we are in Benicia, it would be in the Bay and go all over the place,” she said. “Benicia is concerned about the greater good and it’s just wonderful. It was really hard sticking it out for so long, but they gave every chance to Valero. In the end, we’re really talking about life on earth. So, when the decision comes through like this under tremendous pressure, I’m really grateful to every member of the planning commission and city council.”

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Gogama fire chief asks for more than DOT-111 tanker phase out

Repost from CBC News, Sudbury
[Editor: Significant quotes: “This week, the federal [Canadian] government announced DOT-111 rail cars will be phased out sooner than expected.” …and “Marc Garneau, the federal transport minister, said by 2025 no flammable liquids will be permitted to be transported by rail car.”  – RS]

Gogama fire chief asks for more than DOT-111 tanker phase out

Tankers that carried crude oil in recent derailments will be phased out or scrapped by 2025
Martha Dillman & Casey Stranges, CBC News Jul 27, 2016 8:57 AM ET
By 2025, flammable goods will no longer be permitted to be transported across the Canada.
By 2025, flammable goods will no longer be permitted to be transported across the Canada. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

This week, the federal government announced DOT-111 rail cars will be phased out sooner than expected.

DOT-111 rail cars were involved in the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec three years ago.

A similar model of rail cars transported crude oil in derailments near the northern Ontario community of Gogama — including two last year that spilled more than 100,000 litres of crude oil.

Although he was critical of CN and their handling of local derailments, Gogama fire chief Mike Benson said he believes rail companies and the federal government want to make it safer to transport goods.

“The financial aspect is what’s holding everything back here,” Benson said, “but certainly, CN recognizes that it’s in their best interest not to have derailments. The federal government certainly understands that.”

In March, Benson said that CN was keeping his people from seeing the derailment site during its investigation, which bred mistrust in the community.

And considering that his community has seen two derailments in a short period, Benson said that phasing out the rail cars is a step in the right direction, but other aspects of rail transportation need to be considered.

“I think the infrastructure, the [rail] track system, the maintenance that they’re doing on the track system, and I think they really have to look at the speeds when [the trains are] going through municipalities,” Benson said.

Marc Garneau, the federal transport minister, said by 2025 no flammable liquids will be permitted to be transported by rail car.

Garneau said about 28,000 DOT-111 railcars are still in use, travelling between Canada and the United States. He said the cars may be upgraded, used to transport other goods or sold to be scrapped.

Trains coming from the U.S. will be monitored to ensure they comply with the new rules.

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