BENICIA HERALD: Crude by Rail hearings approaching climax

Repost from the Benicia Herald
Front page headline story in today’s Benicia Herald (not online, no link)
[Editor: This article quotes an unnamed speaker, (Joe Miesch), who stated of Benicia Planning Commissioners, “I was told that a number of them placed anti-Crude by Rail signs on their front lawns.”  This claim is false as far as I know.  I regret that Mr. Miesch and the Benicia Herald spread this unsubstantiated claim.  – RS]

Crude by Rail hearings approaching climax

By Elizabeth Warnimont, April 8, 2016

In the second of three currently-scheduled public hearings at City Hall Wednesday, speakers presented further thoughts and concerns to the City Council regarding Valero Benicia Refinery’s Crude by Rail (CBR) project. The next hearing, continued from Wednesday, will be held on Monday, April 18.

Many of the speakers Wednesday offered further clarification regarding long-standing issues like federal preemption, or presented further detail regarding things like vicinity, crude oil properties and accident statistics. While a few individuals presented heart-felt support of Valero and the project, public opinion continues to appear heavily weighted toward denying the permit.

Compared with the previous session Monday, this one brought forth more information regarding the flaws in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and perhaps less new information regarding the legal preemption issue. A prevalent theme was the broader importance and impact of what would be perceived by some as a community victory over “big oil.”

Another emerging theme Wednesday, one that has been present throughout the hearing process but was previously dwarfed by other issues, was the respect and appreciation that residents, and even members of environmental groups and cities and counties outside of Benicia, have for Valero, the vital role the company has played in Benicia’s economy and the integrity and professionalism of its employees.

“Valero is a good neighbor,” said one speaker. “I have a high regard for Valero as a neighbor. I don’t doubt the competence and integrity of our neighbors who work there, but I do believe the EIR is flawed and the Council should stand by your Planning Commission and their opinions.”

The overall tone of the session was relatively mellow. Perhaps because most issues of high concern have already been so thoroughly examined, as the hearings draw to a close, more speakers Wednesday expressed the broader quality-of-life aspects.

“I’m going to talk to you from my heart today,” one speaker began. “We have to think about the future of the community for our children and our grandchildren.

“Oil is not the future,” she continued. “Valero will (eventually) leave Benicia, and our staff should be deciding what the future is going to be for Benicia. Where we are going to get the money.

“You need to be leaders of the future. Lead us into a clean and healthy future.”

“We shouldn’t have to live in fear,” another speaker said. She and several others Wednesday stated that they lived or worked within the “blast zone,” meaning that in the event of a derailment and explosion, they would be incinerated.

“I have lived in Benicia for 37 years,” one speaker stated. “My family has always felt safe. My grandchildren will attend Robert Semple school in a few years. The school is well within the blast zone, as well as our home. How does one deal with the very real thought of a blast occurring at any given time, and the loss of lives that would occur? There will be no peace of mind. This is not what I would choose for our city.”

One speaker suggested that Valero could elect to become a part of society’s transition away from fossil fuels and actually lead the community in that transition.

“We are on the front lines of a global struggle to either make a swift and equitable transition to renewable energy, or to pay the increasingly dire costs of not doing so sooner,” the speaker began. “Many of us here would favor positive incentives to get Valero and other petroleum interests to take leadership in transitioning us to renewable energy.

“Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t do it,” the speaker concluded. “We must do it.”

New information

At one point during the hearing, Mayor Elizabeth Patterson inquired of City Attorney Heather McLaughlin how the Council could address any new information, specifically “new impacts” presented by one speaker in particular. McLaughlin indicated that she and City staff would address that issue.

“The question is whether or not we need to address it in the EIR,” McLaughlin clarified.

Another apparently new piece of information was presented by Greg Karras, senior scientist with Communities for a Better Environment. Citing his expertise and more than 30 years experience in refinery pollution prevention engineering (credentials presented in writing), Karras offered that the project “is essentially about changing the refinery’s basic feed stock. The project details require that the refinery shift from getting oil it can only get by pipeline or ship, to oil it can only get in project volume from sources in the Bakken, tar sands and Alberta, delivered by rail.”

Yet another new twist actually had nothing to do with the merits of Valero’s application. One 30-year resident accused the Planning Commission of impropriety, and another had some equally harsh words for Council members.

“I question the objectivity of some Planning Commission members,” the first resident stated. “I was told that a number of them placed anti-Crude by Rail signs on their front lawns. A public official who puts a sign on his or her front lawn is a strong advocate and demonstrably biased. Those advocates should not be making major policy decisions. (They) should have recused themselves from voting on the measure.”

“The City Council and the City staff have a responsibility to safeguard the citizens and the community fairly, without favoring one business over the others,” another speaker began. “The staff has been accommodating towards this Valero project from the beginning, starting with a draft mitigated negative declaration that the staff brought to the Planning Commission in June, 2013. The Planning Commission disagreed and asked for a draft EIR. The staff did not issue a request for a proposal for a consultant to prepare the EIR, which is customary, but instead without consulting the Commission or the public, retained ESA (Environmental Science Associates), the same consultant that prepared the EIR for Valero.

“The draft EIR hearings revealed many deficiencies. The City staff again retained the same consultant, ESA, to revise the EIR, instead of a new consultant.”

One of the last people to address the Council Wednesday night identified herself as a Benicia resident and a physician who treats many patients from Benicia at her practice in Vallejo.

“I’m worried about my family. I know this is a difficult decision, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my work as a physician, (it is this:) I have the honor of being with people at the ends of their lives, as they are looking back. One thing I see over and over is people who regret the decisions that they made for money, that they made for work, and wish they had made more that supported their families and their communities.

“We (in Benicia) are good people. We’re good neighbors. I see presentations like this and I get worried. I’m worried about my sister in Sacramento. I want us to be good neighbors.”

The next hearing on the Crude by Rail application will be Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. at Council Chambers, City Hall, 250 East L St. Proceedings also stream live on Benicia TV, Comcast and AT&T. For more information visit the City of Benicia web site at or call them at 746-4200.