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
There 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.
Benicia City Council has unanimously denied a use permit for the controversial Valero Crude-By-Rail project, citing a federal board decision as well as a June 3 derailment that spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil and caused a fire that burned 14 hours.
But the matter didn’t end Tuesday with the vote. The Council has asked its legal staff to rephrase its findings in a document the panel will see for approval Oct. 4. Valero Benicia Refinery will have 30 days after that to decide how to proceed.
Valero had appealed to the Council a Feb. 11 Planning Commission decision to deny both an environmental report on the project as well as the use permit the refinery had sought.
After several meetings, several members of the Council said they needed answers to their questions, some posed by constituents, before they were ready to vote.
Meanwhile, Valero sought a declaratory order from the federal Surface Transportation Board, and the Council agreed to wait until Tuesday to give the Board time to respond.
At 2 p.m. Tuesday, city staff learned the federal board denied the refinery’s request and instead issued guidelines. While Benicia has little say in the governance of railroads, the board concluded the Planning Commission decision “does not attempt to regulate transportation by a ‘railroad carrier.’”
Because Valero isn’t a rail carrier and its employees, rather than those from UP, would be offloading the crude into the refinery, the board said the Planning Commission’s decision had not tried to regulate the railroad.
“If the offloading facility were eventually to be constructed but the EIR or land use permit or both, including mitigation conditions unreasonably interfering with UP’s future operations to the facility, any attempt to enforce such mitigation measures would be preempted,” the Board’s decision said.
Scott Lichtig, California’s deputy attorney general, expressed a similar opinion in his April 14 letter.
“Because the project applicant Valero is not a rail carrier and not acting pursuant to STB authorization, ICCTA (Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act) simply has no application to Valero and its proposed refinery upgrades,” he wrote.
Councilmember Christina Strawbridge, who said she had been doing her own “homework” about the matter and who had been carefully weighing both sides, said it was a derailment in late spring that made her reject the refinery’s application. Later, the other councilmembers joined her in voting against the refinery’s project.
The Council decision is the latest step in the project that proposed extending Union Pacific Railroad track into Valero Benicia Refinery land so than up to 70,000 barrels of oil could be brought in daily by train rather than by tanker ships.
The refinery, which produces about 10 percent of the gasoline consumed in California, originally applied for the use permit in late 2012. It not only proposed the rail extension, but also replacing and moving tank farm dikes and a concrete berm and moving underground infrastructure. The project also called for new roadwork.
A mitigated negative declaration was written and circulated between May 30 and July 30, 2013, but the city decided that document wasn’t thorough enough to meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements for such a project and ordered a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) instead. That document was circulated between June 17 and Sept. 15, 2014.
After hearings and public comments, that report was revised and circulated Aug. 31 to Oct. 30, 2015, and a final environmental report was given public airing this year at Benicia Planning Commission meetings Feb. 8-11.
During that time, those who opposed the project citing environmental concerns staged protests, including walks to the five Bay Area refineries on both sides of the Carquinez Strait.
They argued that a derailment could damage Suisun Marsh, sensitive lands, such as Sulphur Springs Creek, the marshland between Benicia Industrial Park and the Carquinez Strait near Valero’s property and small and large towns next to tracks uprail from Benicia.
Detractors also insisted that the project would affect Benicia Industrial Park traffic, particularly on Park Road and ramps on Interstate-680.
They cited nearly two dozen train derailments, in particular the July 6, 2013, Lac-Megantic tragedy in which a runaway unattended Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway train loaded with Bakken Formation sweet crude oil overturned in the small Quebec city.
During the derailment, the fuel caught fire and exploded, killing 47 and destroying 30 buildings.
Union Pacific and Valero representatives stressed UP’s safety record. UP spokespersons said the railroad has stronger safety practices that, among other things, requires employees to remain with an idling train. The refinery promised it would use improved, reinforced rail cars to carry its crude blend.
Refinery emergency personnel trained with Benicia municipal emergency responders to learn about the rail cars’ configuration.
Supporters reminded the Council that Valero employs about 500, and backs community projects. In addition, its projects mean jobs, not only at the refinery but for contracted industrial workers.
They also worried that denial of the project might cause the company to close the refinery, which could harm Benicia’s economy. Valero sales and utility user taxes represents more than 20 percent of Benicia’s General Fund.
Train and refinery spokespersons kept reminding the Council that because railroad operations are part of interstate commerce, they are under federal regulation, not local control.
Then a train, traveling below the area’s speed limit, derailed June 3 near the Oregon-Washington border. Although the Union Pacific locomotive was pulling the improved oil cars, the accident spilled 42,000 gallons of crude rail and ignited a fire that lasted 14 days. That began raising new questions about the safety of the reinforced tank cars and Union Pacific’s track inspection methods.
Federal investigators said Union Pacific was to blame, since it didn’t find broken bolts along the track, although a UP spokesperson, Justin Jacobs, had said the railroad’s May 31 inspection had detected no broken or damaged bolts.
During the long consideration of the divisive issue, Councilmembers themselves found themselves under fire. In previous months, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who sent emails about her personal findings about related matters, had her “e-alerts” and her objectivity questioned.
Tuesday night, Councilmember Alan Schwartzman responded to a recent Benicia Herald letter from project opponent Andres Soto, who had suggested Schwartzman had taken Valero money for his campaign. Schwartzman denied the accusation and criticized Soto’s behavior at past meetings. ”It’s disrespectful,” he said.
Councilmember Mark Hughes supported Schwartzman, saying he, too, had had his integrity questioned.
“Show a reasonable level of respect,” he urged, adding that Benicians didn’t like that style of campaigning.
But in Tuesday’s vote, they were unanimous.
After Councilmember Tom Campbell moved to deny the use permit, Councilmember Christina Strawbridge described the depth of her own research of various sides of the issue. What finally led her to oppose the permit was the June derailment and fire in Oregon.
Saying others, including those voting on the Phillips 66 Santa Maria rail extension, were waiting to see how Benicia would vote, she said railroads and those regulating them weren’t addressing derailments.
“This is a safety issue,” she said, adding that she would vote to deny the use permit.
Schwartzman said the matter was complex, and he had wanted to make a decision that wouldn’t embroil the city in a lawsuit. While he appreciated Valero’s decision to use safer tanker cars, he said, he couldn’t ignore the Oregon derailment. “I can’t vote for the project.”
Hughes said he agreed with the Surface Transportation Board’s guidance that the city couldn’t address railroad operations. He observed there was no such thing as a perfectly safe project. He said risk management consisted of looking at the probability something bad would happen, then at the consequences resulting from that happenstance.
Given UP’s and Valero’s safety record, especially the refinery’s plant-wide culture of safety, Hughes suggested the chance of a catastrophe was low. However, the consequences of an incident made him uncomfortable.
“There is too much uncertainty for me,” he said. The recent derailment gave him a signal.
“It was not something I could live with.”
Patterson said she, too, had made an extensive study of the matter, and said she was vilified when she tried to share her research. She said she had concerns about who would pay for a disaster cleanup, and worried how it would affect the city’s small businesses.
“I could not certify a flawed EIR,” she said, suggesting the Council deny the appeal and approve its findings at a future meeting.
In addition, she asked city staff to urge state and federal regulators to improve the way they regulate rail safety.
“That’s exactly what I want to do,” Campbell said.