Category Archives: Valero Benicia Refinery

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson comes under fire, will stand firm

Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson
Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson

Benicia’s Mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, has been accused of a conflict of interest and asked to recuse herself from all comment and action regarding Valero Benicia Refinery’s crude by rail proposal.

Two City Council members, Mark Hughes and Christina Strawbridge, disclosed Tuesday that they initiated the inquiry with Benicia City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, acting on concerns of unnamed constituents that the Mayor is biased.  McLaughlin is said to have advised that California’s Fair Political Practices Commission would not be an appropriate venue to seek advice or action, in that there is clearly no material conflict of interest (financial gain).  McLaughlin then contracted with an outside consulting attorney,  Michael Jenkins, to write an opinion on common law grounds for recusal.

Jenkins’ opinion is inconclusive, but offers case law on bias, and suggests that it would be best for the City if Mayor Patterson would choose to recuse herself and cease all e-alerts and commentary on anything related to the issue.  “…in our opinion, a court likely would find that Mayor Patterson’s oft-expressed skepticism about transportation of crude oil by rail evidences an unacceptable probability of actual bias. The evidence is sufficient to warrant her preclusion from participation in the decision.”

In her defense, Mayor Patterson contracted the services of attorney Diane Fishburn, whose legal opinion, states in summary, “With respect to the application of the common law doctrine of conflict of interest, it is our view…that there is no evidence that you have a personal bias based on either a substantial pecuniary or personal interest in the outcome of the matter. As a public official, you certainly not only have ‘a right but an obligation to discuss issues of vital concern’ to your constituents and to state your ‘views on matters of public importance.'”

Fishburn also wrote a letter to City Attorney Heather McLaughlin, stating even more boldly the Mayor’s freedom of speech in the matter: “We have reviewed the matter with our client, and it is our opinion based on the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Fairfield v. Superior Court of Solano County (1975) 14 Cal.3d 768 that she does not have a common law conflict of interest in this matter, and that she not only has First Amendment rights as a citizen and public official, but she also has the right and duty as an elected official to participate in the public and City discussions regarding this important matter. Equally importantly, she has First amendment rights to communicate freely with her constituents and the public in general on any and all issues of public policy and concern, and any attempt by the City or city officials to curb those rights would be an unlawful restraint of her speech under the U.S. and state Constitutions.”

Mayor Patterson says she will not recuse herself, and will continue to exercise her constitutional freedoms and her responsibilities as Mayor.  In an email, she offered the following comment: “Right.  Seeking rail safety is biased?  Free speech becomes bias even before there is any action before city council?  And having an opinion about public safety, health and welfare is a mind made up?  …The message is that I should not do my job.”

Two local news media have covered this story.  For more see The Benicia Herald and the Vallejo Times-Herald.  For more background see Local Media Coverage.

    Derailment fireballs too hot to handle

    Repost from The Benicia Herald
    [Editor: I wrote the following for publication in the Benicia Herald to comment on our local version of a phenomenon taking place at cities across the nation.  I’ve lost track of the number of Google alerts in recent weeks about first-responder-crude-by-rail-training-events sponsored at great expense by the rail and refinery industries.  In nearly every case, the after-training press releases and interviews serve as pacifiers to public concerns, with assurances of adequate equipment and training should anything go wrong.  This is, of course, far from the case.  Our respected and heroic firefighters are caught in a catch-22: of course they want additional training, but their work should not be made into a pawn in the ugly game of industry painting itself as clean and safe.  – RS]

    Roger Straw: A straw man

    November 14, 2014 by Roger Straw

    THE HERALD’S RECENT TWO PART SERIES (click HERE and HERE) on the Union Pacific Railroad emergency training at Valero for a crude-by-rail accident suggested that someone, somewhere has claimed that “crude oil fires can’t be extinguished” and that “foam doesn’t put out fires.” Valero Fire Chief Joe Bateman called it a “fabrication,” and he’s right. No one I know has claimed this. (Classically, this is referred to as a “straw man” argument … and as you might guess, someone with my last name just can’t resist rising to the bait.)

    The fire at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, is out, so it surely was extinguished, though it took two days beginning with a period when it could not be approached. For a time there was, in fact, no alternative to just letting it burn. The same is true of the explosion in Casselton, N.D. In certain circumstances, firefighters do deliberately let a fire burn itself out. Sometimes this is a triage decision: First responders’ priorities are sometimes directed to saving lives and deflecting the flow of a spill. Other times it is because there is no other choice.

    It is accurate to state that foam puts out crude oil fires, but that statement loses its meaning in a worst-case scenario of a major catastrophic derailment and explosion. When there is a massive fire such as that in Lac-Mégantic or Casselton, firefighters have been unable to safely approach the inferno and have indeed been forced to let the fire burn. Foam puts out oil fires, but not when emergency personnel are a half-mile distance from a catastrophic explosion.

    I recently received a communication from Fred Millar, a well-known independent consultant and expert on chemical safety and railroad transportation. Millar gives convincing and documented testimony addressing the tactic of “letting it burn itself out.” He wrote, “…in several post-Lac-Mégantic forums (see the NTSB Safety Forum webcast) and in many media articles, the majority of fire service experts have been clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle. Even with an infinite amount of costly foam, letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in all the major crude oil disasters in North America).”

    Millar’s full statement and nearly a dozen other reputable sources confirm this as fact. (See Benicia Independent articles: Firefighters will sometimes stand back and let an oil train fire burn itself out and Expert on first responder decisions to ‘let it burn’.)

    A few questions remain. Did the Union Pacific training include preparation for a massive unapproachable explosion? Do our first responders know what to do (or not do) in the case of another Lac-Mégantic, Lynchburg or Casselton? Have our firefighters and emergency personnel considered how to protect Valero’s Industrial Park neighbors and residents within a 1-mile blast/evacuation zone of a potential major accident? Somehow, I don’t think Union Pacific’s shiny yellow training tank car did much to help our local heroes figure out what to do if a 50-car train carrying millions of gallons of volatile Bakken crude oil derails, punctures and sets off multiple massive explosions.

    Yes, I know … not likely. But few would disagree: When it comes to high-risk ventures, “well-prepared” means knowledge of, and readiness for, worst-case scenarios.

    For more information, see

    Roger Straw is a Benicia resident.


      SF Chronicle Editorial, The real crazy train: moving Bakken crude by rail

      Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

      Editorial: The real crazy train: moving Bakken crude by rail

      Chronicle Editorial Board, October 26, 2014

      GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari likes to deride Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail plan as the Crazy Train, but the loonier rail proposal is the one that would carry explosive Bakken crude 1,000 miles across the country to the Valero refinery in Benicia and other California refiners. Californians must have more assurances of safe rail operation before Valero’s oil-transfer-terminal plans proceed.

      The City Council of Benicia, a town of 28,000 on the Carquinez Strait, has debated for months a draft environmental impact report on Valero’s plan to modify its refinery to bring in crude by rail. Oil, mostly from Alaska, currently enters the refinery via pipeline from ships docked at the Port of Benicia. Bakken crude, however, must come by rail because no major pipeline runs to the West Coast from North Dakota where it is extracted from the oil shale.

      Community concerns include environmental risks but center on public safety because Bakken oil is more volatile than most other crudes. A derailed tanker train loaded with Bakken crude exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people in Canada and alerting transportation officials and the public to the real hazards of transporting this easily ignited oil. For Benicians, potentially explosive trains are no theoretical debate as two 50-car trains would pass daily through the north end of town.

      Nor is it an abstract discussion for the residents of Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis, where trains would roll through downtown daily. Davis Mayor Dan Wolk noted: “This may be technically a city of Benicia decision, but no city is an island in our interconnected region. Our community has real concerns about the potential safety impacts.”

      So does California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote Benicia officials earlier this month that “the DEIR fails to provide sufficient information for an adequate analysis of the safety risks from transportation or the air quality impacts from refining the new crude. These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action.” It is unclear whether the state would sue if the city failed to act.

      Valero representatives clearly have no interest in expanding the scope of the permitting process to the state. Valero spokesman Bill Day told The Chronicle, “This is really the city of Benicia’s decision.”

      Harris also wrote to Benicia that the draft report “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts by impermissibly limiting the scope of the affected environment analyzed to only the 69-mile stretch from Benicia to Roseville.” With so many communities affected, the state should stand firm and Solano County should use its authority over the refinery-expansion permits to persuade Valero to negotiate better public safety protections from the railroads, such as state-of-the-art train-control technology.

      What’s really crazy is the federal law that allows pre-emption of municipal and state law when it comes to critical decisions on rail safety. Affected communities deserve a say over what rolls through their towns.