Benicia Herald: Comment period on crude-by-rail extended to 90 days

Reprint from The Benicia Herald

Comment period on crude-by-rail extended to 90 days

July 11, 2014, by Donna Beth Weilenman
OPPONENTS of Valero’s Crude-by-Rail Project rallied in front of City Hall on Thursday, holding sunflowers to honor the residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, who died in a fiery train accident in 2013. Donna Beth Weilenman/Staff
OPPONENTS of Valero’s Crude-by-Rail Project rallied in front of City Hall on Thursday, holding sunflowers to honor the residents of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, who died in a fiery train accident in 2013. | Donna Beth Weilenman/Staff

Benicia Planning Commission decided Thursday to double the amount of time the public will be able to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, to 90 from 45 days.

And rather than keep Thursday’s meeting going until those who filled City Hall had a chance to speak, the panel also extended its public hearing on the report to its next regular meeting, Aug. 14.

About 300 attended the meeting, filling the City Council Chamber, the commission room, a conference room and the City Hall courtyard. Some attended a rally in front of City Hall beforehand, many hoisting placards that called for an end to crude oil deliveries by rail.

Of these, 74 carried and waved sunflowers in memory of those who were killed one year ago in the fiery derailment of a runaway train that was carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada.

A smaller number of Valero supporters handed out brochures explaining the project.

Valero Benicia Refinery applied early last year for a use permit that would allow the company to build three sections of track so Union Pacific Railroad could deliver crude on its trains that travel through Roseville to Benicia.

After an initial study, the city chose to have the Environmental Impact Report composed to meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements in determining how the project would affect multiple facets of the environment.

The initial draft of the EIR has been circulating since June 17, and the public comment period originally was to last 45 days. But by a 4-2 vote, with Chairperson Donald Dean and Commissioner Belinda Smith opposing, the commission agreed with the majority of 31 speakers who asked for more time to study the thick report.

During Thursday’s four-and-a-half-hour meeting, many of the speakers advocated for or against the project. The commission’s primary duty was to listen. Its only decisions Thursday were about how long to give the public to comment on the DEIR, and whether to continue the meeting when it became clear that not all in attendance would have time to speak.

The commission won’t decide whether to certify the environmental report or issue a use permit for the project until public comments and questions are addressed in the document’s final version, which is being prepared by San Francisco-based consultant ESA.

Artist Jack Ruszel, who said his woodworking company at 2980 Bayshore Road employees 25 who work near the proposed project site, called the draft environmental report “distorted,” and a “travesty and an insult.”

“They want you to be their stooges,” he told commissioners during his passionate speech. “They want you to rubber stamp it. You are in their way.”

Though Dean tried to limit Ruszel to the five minutes other public speakers had been given, the artist pressed his case. “It’s our duty to be stewards,” he said. “I implore you to examine this morally and see this as a global issue.”

Admitting he had become emotional about the project, he said, “Don’t damn us with this for years to come.”

In contrast, Pierre Bidou, Benicia’s former police chief, a City Council member and member of the Benicia Unified School District Board of Trustees, spoke quietly to the commission before handing over 100 signatures of those favoring the project.

“Valero is a true friend of this community,” Bidou said, cautioning against taking action that could be detrimental to the refinery, which provide 25 percent of Benicia’s General Fund revenues through taxes.

Bidou, who said he has lived in Benicia for 52 years, described Benicia’s condition when the refinery was built by the Humble Oil company a few years after the U.S. Army closed the Benicia Arsenal, a major employer.

“When Humble came here, this city was starving,” he said. “You really need to think deep and hard about this.”

He wasn’t the only Valero supporter. Rich McChesney described how his employer, Performance Mechanical Inc., was involved in the refinery’s massive maintenance turnaround and its fluescrubber project, which McChesney managed.

He praised Valero for its “culture of safety, quality and integrity,” and said, “We like it when we go there.”

McChesney said the refinery’s highest concern was safety for employees, contractors and community, and that its quality “is second to none.” He urged the commission “to move this thing along.”

Maria Teresa Matthews also called Valero a responsible company that had provided Benicia the information it requested in formulating the DEIR, and urged the panel to consider only facts of the report when deciding whether to issue a use permit.

KATHY KERRIDGE, standing, and Marilyn Bardet. Donna Beth Weilenman/Staff

Jim Riley of Operating Engineers Local 3 said that Californians can’t yet set aside all their combustion engine vehicles. “We’re not ready.” Until then, he said, “the Valero plan is valid. It makes sense.” Like Bidou, he handed to the commission 100 signatures of project supporters.

Many of the 13 who spoke about the DEIR before the meeting closed at 11:30 p.m. came from Davis and Roseville, communities through which crude-carrying trains would to travel on their way to Benicia, should the project be approved.

At an audience member’s suggestion, the commission gave those who had traveled from outside Benicia the first opportunity at the microphone during the limited meeting time.

Most of the visitors joined Ruszel in opposing the project and criticizing the DEIR.

Barbara Burr, of Davis, disagreed with the document’s contention that trains could not be regulated by state or local agencies. “The California Public Utilities Commission has the authority to control the speed of trains,” she said.

Burr criticized the report for failing to address cumulative effects of the project and others, and she called for a moratorium on crude-by-rail terminals.

Elizabeth Lasensky disagreed with the report’s expectation of few to no derailments. She cited a 2003 incident in Davis in which a speeding train collided with another, resulting in a cleanup that disrupted Amtrak’s passenger trains.

Another incident in 2009 involved the turnover of two cars that spilled tons of wine into a residential area, Lasensky said.

Reminding the commission that Davis and other uprail communities would receive no benefit but could experience some hazards from the Valero project, she said, “We like Davis, and we would like it to stay the way it is.”

Others asked whether Valero would have enough liability coverage to address the impacts of spills or crashes, and expressed frustration that CEQA allowed the refinery to submit trade secrets to the city for use in developing the environmental report, even though that information was then withheld from the public.

During the first half of the meeting, speakers were asked to express whether the report’s public comment period should remain at 45 days or be expanded.

Many asked for more time, reminding the panel that the draft’s release coincided with family vacation time. In fact, Commissioner Belinda Smith said she would be on vacation a few hours after the meeting closed.

Jon Van Landschoot, a member of the Historic Preservation Review Commission who spoke as a resident Thursday night, said the report had been expected by mid-2013, and only was finished and made public last month.

To read its 1,450 pages in 45 days, the original public comment period, would require digesting 32 pages a day, he said. Expanding the comment period to a total of 90 days would reduce that to 16 pages a day.

“You need as much time to review this as they had to make it,” he said.

Though most commissioners agreed, Dean and Smith opposed, suggesting that the project had been subject to several public meetings and extending the comment period might generate more quantity, but perhaps no greater quality of comments.

The public also heard from Benicia staff and consultants, including those representing ESA.

Valero’s fire chief, Joe Bateman, and Benicia Fire Department Chief Jim Lydon described how their two departments have trained to handle fires, spills and hazardous materials, addressing some of the public fears that Benicia could experience a Lac-Megantic-type incident.

“We are prepared today to respond to any emergency,” Bateman said, explaining that his employees already have helped Benicia fight fires and have assisted in neighboring refineries’ emergencies.

Kat Wellman, who had presented a longer explanation at a Planning Commission workshop on the CEQA and environmental reports, gave an abbreviated version Thursday.

Bradley Hogin, special CEQA counsel, confirmed that under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, the federal government, not regional or city agencies, regulates railroads, and explained how the applicant’s trade secrets can’t be made public in the DEIR, even when they are used as part of the environmental study that has led to the document.

Leaking that information would benefit Valero’s competitors, he said, and could lead to unintentional violations of antitrust laws.

Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery manager of the Environmental Engineer Group, addressed another public concern, that the project would increase emissions in the Bay Area.

Delivering crude by rail instead of by ship would reduce emissions by 225,000 tons every year, or 10 percent of the current emissions, the DEIR noted.

It also said reducing oil shipments by tanker ship more than compensates for locomotive emissions, but uprail communities would experience locomotive pollution and risks without any benefit.

Cuffel said that increase was the equivalent of 10 round trips by diesel recreational vehicle from Benicia to Tahoe.

He added that the refinery has 700 cards from those who like the project, and said the DEIR was “a tremendous amount of work for a valuable project.”

Because of the commission vote, the public has until Sept. 15 to submit questions and observations to Principal Planner Amy Million in the Community Development Department of Benicia City Hall, 250 East L St.; fax them to her at 707-747-1637; or email her at