Benicia Herald covers Valero environmental delay

[Editor:  The Benicia Herald’s front page story  makes no mention  of the widespread criticism of the Department of Transportation’s inadequate new safety rules.  In fact, the article devotes 23 paragraphs (!) to the DOT’s trumpeting of the strengths of the new rules.  Nevertheless, the story serves as a thorough summary of DOT claims.   I hope my editorial adds some needed balance.  – RS]

News coverage: Crude-by-rail report delayed again

By Donna Beth Weilenman, 5/22/15

Long-awaited report pushed back to end of August by federal tank car rule

Principal Planner Amy Million said Friday the city would need an additional two months to finish the environmental report on a proposed project that would allow Valero to bring crude oil by train car to its Benicia refinery.

The Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) of the Valero Crude-By-Rail project, the latest version of a study of the environmental impacts of the proposed extension of railroad tracks into the refinery’s property, was expected to be released June 30.

However, Million said because of a May 1 ruling by the federal Department of Transportation, the new anticipated release date is Aug. 31.

She said the decision to delay the document’s release came because of the announcement of new regulations that apply to the types of tanker cars that can be used to transport crude oil by train.

“We were looking at the impact of rail travel, and we were assuming the use of the 1232s,” Million said. The new DOT rule would change that to DOT-117s, she said.

Crude oil had been carried by DOT-111 tank cars, but much of the oil now is the lighter, sweeter crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, which is considered more flammable.

Locally and nationally, public concern rose about the safety of crude-by-rail shipment after a series of accidents involving DOT-111 cars led to oil spills, explosions and, in the case of a runaway train that overturned July 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the death of 47 people.

Stronger tank cars, designated CPC 1232, have been introduced as a safer way to package and carry the sweeter crude.

However, some derailments, spills and fires have involved those rail cars as well. About 35 residents of Heimdal, N.D., were evacuated May 6 — just five days after the new rule was announced — when six tank cars caught fire after a BNSF train loaded with Bakken crude derailed two miles away. The cars were unjacketed CPC-1232 cars.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a statement May 1 that new tank cars built after Oct. 1 must meet new DOT Specification 117 design or performance criteria, and that existing tank cars must be refitted with the same key components.

In Benicia, “The delay will provide the city with the necessary time to include additional analysis of the new regulations,” Million wrote in an announcement posted on the city website.

“The RDEIR will have a 45-day comment period, beginning Aug. 31,” she wrote.

During that period, the city will conduct public hearings to accept community comments on the document. Once the comment period closes, city employees and Benicia’s consultant, ESA, will complete a final environmental impact report.

That document will provide responses to all comments, from those made to the draft environmental report as well as the recirculated environmental report, Million said.

“The Final EIR and the project will then be discussed at subsequent public hearings,” she said.

Valero Benicia Refinery submitted its application for the project early in 2013, when Charlie Knox was the city’s director of Community Development.

Construction of the rail extensions is an industrial use, and the refinery’s property is in an industrial zone, he said in March 2013, when describing the project to The Herald.

Normally Valero wouldn’t have had to apply for a use permit for such a compatible endeavor, he said. But the cost of the project was estimated that year at $30 million, exceeding the $20 million threshold that triggers the use permit process, he said, and Valero wasn’t allowed to break the project into component parts so it could be approved and built without making a presentation to the Planning Commission.

In the subsequent years, the city chose to subject the project to a full Environmental Impact Report to meet requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

In his May 1 announcement, Foxx said the DOT’s new rule was developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, in tandem with Canadian authorities.

He said it focuses on safety improvements that are designed to prevent accidents, mitigate consequences in the event of an accident and support emergency response.

Elements of the new rule as cited by Foxx are an enhanced tank car standard; an aggressive, risk-based retrofitting schedule for the older tank cars that carry crude oil and ethanol; mandatory braking standards for certain trains to reduce potential severity of accidents; new protocols for trains carrying large volumes of flammable liquids; and new sampling and testing requirements to improve classification of transported energy products.

Among the new operation protocols are new routing requirements, speed restrictions and informing of local governmental agencies about those operations.

Lisa Raitt, Canada minister of transport, issued a similar announcement, saying the new tank car standards there would align with the United States standards.

“Safety has been our top priority at every step in the process for finalizing this rule, which is a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and will make transporting flammable liquids safer,” Foxx said.

“Our close collaboration with Canada on new tank car standards is recognition that the trains moving unprecedented amounts of crude by rail are not U.S. or Canadian tank cars,” he said. “They are part of a North American fleet and a shared safety challenge.”

In Raitt’s announcement, the minister said, “This stronger, safer, more robust tank car will protect communities on both sides of our shared border. Through strong collaboration, we have developed a harmonized solution for North America’s tank car fleet. I am hopeful that this kind of cooperation will be a model for future Canada-U.S. partnership on transportation issues.”

Foxx said other federal agencies also are working to improve safety in transporting flammable liquids.

The Department of Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) as well as the Obama administration are collaborating on safety strategies, he said.

In particular, DOE has developed an initiative to research and characterize tight and conventional crude oils based on key chemical and physical properties, Foxx said, and to identify properties that could make combustion more likely or more severe during handling and transport.

He said the improved standards for new and existing flammable-liquid cars would be a 9/16-inch tank shell, 11-gauge jacket, half-inch full-height head shield, thermal protection and improved pressure relief valves and bottom outlet valves. Existing tank cars must be retrofitted with the same components.

The new rule sets a three-year deadline to replace the entire fleet of DOT-111 tank cars for Packing Group I, which covers most crude shipped by rail. All non-jacketed CPC-1232s in the same service must meet the new standards or be replaced in about five years.

Braking requirements for high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) include having a functioning, two-way, end-of-train device or a distributed power braking system.

High-hazard flammable unit trains (HHFUT), or trains with 70 or more tank cars carrying Class 3 flammable liquids with at least one tank car with packing Group 1 materials, must have electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking system by Jan. 1, 2021.

The rule requires all other HHFUTs to have ECP braking systems installed after 2023.

“This important, service-proven technology has been operated successfully for years in certain services in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere,” Foxx said.

The rule sets a 50-mph speed limit on all HHFTs in all areas. Any HHFT containing tank cars that don’t meet the required enhanced tank car standards are restricted to 40 mph in high-threat urban areas.

Railroads operating HHFTs must analyze their routes using at least 27 safety and security criteria, such as track type, class, maintenance schedule and track grades and curvatures. The railroad must select routes based on those findings, Foxx said.

In addition, the new rule is expected to assure that railroads provide state, regional, local and tribal officials with a railroad point of contact for information about routing hazardous materials through their jurisdictions.

Better sampling and testing programs for unrefined petroleum-based products must be developed, documented and employed, and products must be packaged according to those test results, according to the new rule. Information from those tests must be supplied to DOT employees upon request.

Foxx said the new rule addresses recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, including those for improved safety features for tank cars carrying ethanol and crude oil, an aggressive schedule to replace or retrofit existing tank cars, better thermal protection and high-capacity pressure relief valves for tank cars used to carry flammable liquids, better-planned routes for trains carrying flammable products, and stricter inspection of shippers to assure flammable liquids are properly classified and documented.

A summary of the new rule is available at

Forum: Valero report not likely to withstand further scrutiny

By Roger Straw, 5/26/15

THE CITY OF BENICIA issued an announcement on May 21, delaying its release of a revised draft environmental impact report on Valero Benicia Refinery’s proposal to construct an offloading facility for delivery of crude by rail. With this delay, the city will have spent more than two and a half years processing Valero’s proposal and responding to the objections of concerned residents, experts and nearby officials.

Valero’s application for a use permit came to city staff in December 2012. In May 2013, Benicia’s Community Development director issued a Notice of Intent and a Mitigated Negative Declaration, concluding that the proposal with mitigations was so benign as to not even need environmental review.

Following an outcry and organized opposition, the city commenced a full environmental review in August 2013. The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) was released, after several delays, in June 2014. That review received an avalanche of criticism, including expert local analysis, professional review and letters from residents and area governing bodies, as well as a highly critical letter from California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

After yet another lengthy delay, the city announced in February 2015 that, in response to the magnitude of public criticism, project consultants would revise the DEIR and release it by June 30 for recirculation and another 45-day public comment period. Now, according to the city of Benicia’s announcement last Thursday, the new two-month delay (until Aug. 31) will give consultants “time to include additional analysis of the new regulations announced on May 1, 2015 by the Department of Transportation to strengthen safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail.”

The city consultant’s analysis, seemingly favoring Valero’s proposal from the outset, will likely make the case that new federal safety standards strengthen environmental protections for this project and improve Valero’s chances for landing a use permit. This analysis, of course, will come under heavy fire because of the inadequacy of the new federal rules, and likely will not withstand the scrutiny of Benicia citizens, officials and regional authorities and stakeholders.

All along, leaders of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) have stressed that Valero’s proposal is fatally flawed as shown in a list of significant DEIR failures, including the longstanding lack of adequate federal safety regulations governing rail transport of high-hazard flammable liquids (see — especially Section 2, #3, pp. 13-15).

More recently, BSHC has joined a chorus of national and international environmentalists and elected officials who are dismissive of the new rules issued by the Department of Transportation, which fail to adequately govern oil train routing, speed, braking systems and public notification, and leave entirely too many years for retirement and retrofitting of unsafe tank cars and the design and manufacture of tank cars to newer, safer standards.

BSHC and others have called for an immediate moratorium on all shipment of crude oil by rail, and a speedy transition to clean and renewable energy sources that will “leave the oil in the soil.”

Roger Straw is a Benicia resident and member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community.