Another go-round: Valero environmental report due Monday, Aug. 31

Repost from the Benicia Herald
[Editor: CONFIRMED: the first Planning Commission hearing will be on Tuesday, September 29, 6:30pm at City Hall Council Chambers.  If additional speakers wish to offer public comments, subsequent hearings will be held on Wednesday, September 30, Thursday, October 1 and Thursday, October 8 (presumably at the same time and location?).  The 45-day public comment period will close on October 15.  – RS]

Another go-round: Valero report due

By Donna Beth Weilenman, August 26, 2015

Public to have 45 days to comment after Aug. 31 release of review of Crude-by-Rail Project

A revised version of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Draft Environmental Impact Report is due to be released Monday, Principal Planner Amy Million said.

The revision is the latest step in a series of actions that began in early 2013, when Valero Benicia Refinery applied for a use permit to extend Union Pacific Railroad lines into its property so crude oil could be delivered by rail car.

That oil would replace the same volume of barrels brought in by tanker ship, the refinery said, and no other operations would be changed.

The project involved other modifications, such as adding an off-loading rack that would remove oil from parallel rows of rail cars; adding pipeline; and employing other methods to reduce the chance of spillage.

The refinery said it expected 50 to 100 additional rail cars to arrive up to twice a day, brought in at a time of day when there would be little impact on traffic. The trains would carry 70,000 barrels of North American crude each day, replacing shipped barrels from foreign sources, the refinery said in its use permit application.

The refinery also said that increases in emissions from locomotives would be more than offset by the reduction in emissions from oceanic tanker ships.

At the time, Charlie Knox, the city’s former director of community development, said if the permits were approved quickly, the project could be operational by early 2014.

However, during subsequent Planning Commission and City Council meetings, enough members of the public asked for a more comprehensive environmental impact report (EIR) to dig deeper than the mitigated negative declaration report that had been presented as a way to comply with requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

The initial draft, or DEIR, of the document initially was expected to be completed before the end of 2013, but extensive public comment from those on both sides of the issue delayed its completion, and the document wasn’t released until June 17, 2014.

After many residents said 45 days wouldn’t be enough to examine and offer comments on the DEIR, the Planning Commission extended the official public review period on the hefty document.

That panel also conducted several hearings of its own, giving the public a chance to speak in person in addition to offering written comments. The hearings filled the Council chamber, and overflow seating was arranged in the City Hall courtyard, Commission Room and several conference rooms.

Nor were Benicia residents the only ones to weigh in on the topic. Representatives of cities uprail from Benicia told the Planning Commission that locomotives going through their communities en route to Benicia would emit greenhouse gases that wouldn’t be offset by reduced shipping.

Others expressed fear that rail cars weren’t strong enough to prevent explosions should those carrying volatile Bakken crude get overturned in a derailment, and questioned whether emergency preparations have been sufficient.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said Benicians were “wise” to demand the EIR, but said the first draft wasn’t adequate.

Writing a letter after the public comment period had closed, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris urged a rewrite of the DEIR, too.

While U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, hasn’t commented directly on the project, he and other members of Congress have asked Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to make crude shipments by rail safer.

Some residents used the opportunity to complain about conventional-fuel vehicles and the traffic the additional rail cars would create in Benicia’s Industrial Park. Others spoke about the importance of Valero to Benicia, as an employer, taxpayer and donor to community causes.

The controversial project also touched Mayor Elizabeth Patterson.

City Attorney Heather McLaughlin worried about the mayor’s email alerts, to which some residents subscribe, that Patterson used to provide information about the Crude-by-Rail Project and other subjects of interest to Benicians.

Last year, McLaughlin urged Patterson to recuse herself from participating in any decision-making on the topic, pointing to the potential of a later lawsuit on the basis of possible bias on the part of the mayor.

Patterson, citing advice from her lawyer, refused to recuse herself.

Since the original application and subsequent debate, both official and otherwise, environmental interest groups as well as the refinery have conducted public meetings about the project; those opposed have staged protests and assembled periodic marches that went through Pittsburg, Martinez, Richmond and other cities.

Such public participation isn’t unusual, Amy Million said: “I was not involved in prior EIRs with the city. I believe the Arsenal and Benicia Business Park generated a good amount of public interest.”

Public comments as well as answers to questions have been incorporated in the DEIR that will be released Monday, she said. The Recirculated DEIR (RDEIR) is a new document that only addresses the portions of the original DEIR that needed to be rewritten.

Million said it’s not a complete DEIR rewrite. In fact, it’s less than 300 pages, she said, including appendices that make up a third of the document.

The DEIR in total is 1,470 pages.

“The RDEIR includes additional risk analysis of transporting crude by rail and addresses comments regarding impacts beyond Roseville, which were not included in the DEIR,” Million said Tuesday.

It will be released for a new 45-day comment and circulation period, Million said. As with the original DEIR, this document will be presented to the Planning Commission for review, and that panel will accept comments at its public hearing and add observations of its own.

When those comments are collected, they’ll be incorporated into the final version of the environmental report, Million said.

“Once the Final EIR is ready, it will go before the Planning Commission for certification,” she said. “The use permit and EIR only go to the City Council on appeal.”

She said 20 paper copies of the document will be made available at no charge on a first-come, first-served basis.

Copies also will be placed at Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St., and at the Community Development Department at Benicia City Hall, 250 East L St., where individuals can read it.

In addition, a PDF copy that can be downloaded as well as read will be added to the city website,