Benicia Herald: Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year

City announces five-month recirculation of environmental report for Valero proposal first announced in February 2013

February 5, 2015 by Donna Beth Weilenman

The first draft of a lengthly environmental impact report on the proposed Valero Crude-By-Rail Project will be rewritten, and the revised document may be available for public viewing June 30, the city announced in a prepared statement.

The window for commenting on the revised report, once it is released, is 45 days, according to the city.

“After the comment period on the Recirculated DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) closes, the city will complete the Final EIR (Environmental Impact Report) which will include responses to all comments on the original Draft EIR and the Recirculated Draft EIR,” the statement said.

Valero Benicia Refinery originally applied for a use permit for the $30 million project Dec. 20, 2012, submitting additional drawings Feb. 18, 2013, and a project description in March 2013.

The project was publicly announced in February 2013.

The cost of the proposed project triggered the necessity of a Planning Commission public hearing on the permit. Had the endeavor been smaller and less expensive, a city employee could have made the decision over the counter.

The company is asking to extend three Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can accept North American crude oil it said would resemble the composition of the oil it currently receives from Alaska and foreign countries by maritime oil tanker. All construction would be on appropriately zoned land.

The refinery has contended the change not only would help it remain competitive, but that the project would reduce dependency on foreign fuel and result in a net reduction of greenhouse gases in the San Francisco Bay Area, since trains produce fewer emissions than tanker ships.

Trains would bring in 70,000 barrels of crude daily, replacing the same volume currently delivered by ship, according to the application. Other elements of the refinery’s operations would not change.

Refinery officials had hoped the permitting process would go smoothly, and that the rail operations would be started well before 2013 ended.

But before the matter got its first public airing, residents and environmental groups began meeting to air their concerns.

Those worries were heightened after a crude-carrying train, left idling and unattended July 6, 2013, in the Quebec, Canada town of Lac-Megantic, became a runaway that derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying a significant portion of the city’s downtown area.

Initially, local meetings focused on pollution blamed on heavy, sour Canadian tar sands oil. Attention soon shifted to the preponderance of trains carrying the sweet North American crude, particularly from the American Bakken fields, and meeting conversations turned to the volatility of the lighter crude and whether federal standards for tanker rail cars are adequate.

Those concerns, and whether plans were adequate to cope with possible rises in water levels, earthquakes, nesting birds and marshland plants and wildlife convinced city officials to seek the more comprehensive EIR to comply with California Environmental Quality Act requirements, instead of the less intense mitigated negative declaration.

That decision was praised by Benicia’s representative in the state Senate, Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat who called the move “wise.”

The weighty first EIR draft was released June 17, 2014, and the Planning Commission decided July 11, 2014, to give the public additional time — until mid-September of that year — to submit questions and comments. That panel also set aside multiple meetings to accept comments and observations from those who wanted to do so in person.

Among those weighing in were Wolk, who said, “I seriously question whether the EIR has adequately evaluated the true risk of an accident or a spill involved with this project.”

After the formal commentary period had closed, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig sent an Oct. 2, 2014, letter that said, “Unfortunately, the DEIR for this project fails to properly account for many of the project’s potentially significant impacts.”

The pair wrote that the DEIR “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts” by limiting its scope to the 69 miles of rail between Benicia and Roseville, adding that it failed to look at the cumulative impacts of multiple crude-by-rail projects on public safety and the environment.

Supporters of the project, including members of organized labor associations, Valero employees and others, disagreed, particularly at the public meetings.

They reminded the Planning Commission that Valero officials had committed to using reinforced rail cars, and that the refinery continues to earn one of the highest industrial safety designations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can award. They also noted that Benicia gets a significant portion of its revenue from the refinery, a major local employer, and that the project would add both temporary construction and permanent operations jobs.

The report itself noted the refinery would have to meet requirements of existing rules that govern oil refining, including the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006; and that the project could displace as many as 73 ships annually and trade their 25,550,000 barrels for an equal amount brought by train, which would reduce maritime deliveries by as much as 82 percent.

The project calls for about 8,880 track feet of new railroad, and would realign about 3,580 existing track feet. New rail spurs and parallel storage and departure spurs would be built between the east side of the lower tank farm and the west side of the fence along Sulphur Springs Creek.

Also part of the project are crude oil offloading pumps and pipeline, and associated infrastructure, spill containment structures, a firewater pipeline, groundwater wells and a service road. It includes the construction of 4,000 feet of 16-inch crude oil pipeline.

The project, if approved, is expected to take about 25 weeks to complete, and the refinery would eventually be able to accept up to 100 tank cars of crude daily in two 50-car trains, according to the initial report draft.

Those trains would be asked not to cross Park Road during commuter hours, 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m.

Trains would come to Benicia through Roseville, where cars would be assembled into a train, the report said. Uprail communities would experience “significant and unavoidable” air quality impacts as a result, without receiving the benefit of reduced tanker ship deliveries, the report said.

The first draft of the report said such elements as noise generation and likelihood of spills would be less than significant, though any such spill would be “a significant impact,” particularly in the vulnerable Suisun Marsh and other wetlands.

The report said it wouldn’t conflict or obstruct applicable air quality plans, and would comply in particular with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Bay Area 2010 Clean Air Plan.

However, locomotive engine emissions are regulated at the federal level, and Benicia isn’t allowed to impose emissions controls on them, the report noted.