BENICIA HERALD LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Dr. James Egan: Deny Valero’s application

From The Benicia Herald (Benicia Herald letters appear only in the print edition)
[Editor:  Dr. Egan’s letter is a welcome contribution, expressing the growing conviction of many throughout North America, that crude-by-rail is simply unsafe under current conditions, and should be not be permitted at this time.  See also Dr. Egan’s 9/14/14 comments addressing the Valero Crude By Rail Draft EIR.  – RS]

Timely decision on crude by rail warranted: Deny Valero’s application

By James Egan, M.D., Benicia, March 10, 2015

The headline in the Feb. 5, 2015 edition of The Herald, “Another delay as crude-by-rail project debate enters 3rd year,” signals sympathy toward the Valero Benicia Refinery as regards its Crude by Rail (CBR) Use Permit Application, currently before the Planning Commission.  While it is difficult working up crocodile tears for a multi-billion-dollar international oil corporation, the energy and expense invested in forwarding this project bear acknowledgement, and a timely decision on the application should be made out of fairness to the applicant.  To that end, I would like to suggest that the Planning Commission and the City Council have enough information available to take action at any time.  The application should be denied on the basis of rail safety.

On Feb. 17 of this year a crude oil train derailed and exploded in Mount Carbon, W.Va.  Three million gallons of Bakken crude spilled from 26 ruptured tank cars, forcing the evacuation of two nearby towns.  Two days prior, another oil train derailed and caught fire in Ontario, Canada.  Last Thursday, March 5, 21 cars carrying Bakken crude derailed, split and exploded near Galena, Ill.  Another of the dozens of oil- or ethanol-train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant fuel spill reported in the U.S. or Canada since 2006 was the Lynchburg, Va. derailment and fire in April 2014.

The significance of this particular series of railway disasters to the citizens of Benicia is that they all involved CPC-1232 tank cars, the same cars that Valero would use for the transportation of crude to its facility in Benicia, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Report.

In a Feb. 23 editorial titled, “Get rid of exploding tank cars,” the San Francisco Chronicle states that “Valero Energy Co. has agreed to haul Bakken crude to its Benicia bayside refinery in the newer CPC-1232 cars as part of its city permit application to revamp its facilities to receive crude by rail rather than by oceangoing tanker.  But that promise now appears inadequate to protect the safety of those in Benicia as well as in other communities – Roseville, Sacramento, Davis – along the line.”

The same edition of the Chronicle details a report from the Department of Transportation predicting that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail 15 times in 2015 and average 10 times yearly over the next two decades, causing $4.5 billion in damage with potential fatalities of more than 200 people in a given accident.  This may actually be an underestimate based on recent major derailment rates.

Friends and foes of CBR alike agree that the transportation of crude oil by rail involves inherent risk.  Can’t we also agree that the risk should be reduced to the greatest extent possible before inviting these potentially explosive trains to Benicia?  Lowering the risk of tank car derailment, rupture and explosion now should translate into saved human lives and prevention of environmental disasters in the future.

The danger can, in fact, be mitigated.  The crude can be stabilized prior to its transportation by extraction of its most volatile components.  North Dakota has implemented standards making this mandatory for Bakken crude, but many feel that their new guidelines are overly lax.  New federal regulations due to be released in May could further address this, as would rail safety measures such as Positive Train Control and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.  New, safer tank cars designed specifically to carry this type of crude have been designed and are in production.

Unfortunately, the new federal guidelines will likely require years for full enforcement, and complete phaseout of the existing, unreliable tank car fleet by newer, stronger cars, such as the Greenbrier HM-251, will also require years of effort.

Accordingly, if we agree that the risks of transportation of crude by rail should be absolutely minimized prior to approving the CRB project, we have to acknowledge that this is currently beyond Valero’s reach and the Use Permit Application should be denied.

Those who would roll the dice and approve the current application should consider how comfortable they will feel with that decision once they find themselves in a front row seat at the Park/Bayshore railroad crossing watching fifty tank cars containing 1,470,000 gallons of potentially explosive crude rumble by on the same spur line that has seen derailment of five train cars since Nov. 4, 2013 (in addition to the two locomotives that derailed on Sept. 7, 2014 near the port).

Kudos to Planning Commission members for the time and energy spent on fairly evaluating this project.  It would seem that as time has passed the correct path forward has become much clearer.  At this point, the ongoing health and well-being of all Benicians should hold foremost importance in the decision-making process.  Their protection is the least we can expect from our city government.

James Egan, M.D.