Benicia Herald: Panel, public talk rail safety

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Panel, public talk rail safety

■ Experts from area agencies give views on oil-carrying trains at Fairfield meeting; residents offer input, seek more answers

Government, health and safety experts offered their perspectives about the delivery of crude oil by train on Monday, and 50 residents who heard them in Fairfield offered lists of what they said else needs to be explained more clearly or examined more thoroughly.

Neither the panel nor the officials who organized the meeting, officially titled “Solano County Community Conversation on Rail Safety,” addressed the citizens’ inquiries or comments. Instead, the written responses were to be posted on the county’s website.

Rather than a back-and-forth discussion, after hearing the panelists residents assembled into three groups to have their say about safety, environmental and legislative matters related to crude deliveries by rail, then share their observations with the panel, officials and the rest of the audience.

District 2 Supervisor and Chairperson of the Solano County Board of Supervisors Linda Seifert said the meeting wasn’t about the proposed Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, in which the Benicia refinery is asking to expand Union Pacific Railroad operations into refinery property so crude oil can be brought in by train.
Valero, Seifert said, isn’t the only refinery interested in rail-delivered oil. “Oil by rail is likely to happen,” she said. “We must be ready.”

The audience heard Solano County Emergency Services Manager Don Ryan, Dixon Fire Chief Aaron McAlister, Valero Benicia Refinery Director of Health, Safety, Environment and Governmental Affairs Chris Howe, and Union Pacific Railroad Director of Public Affairs Corporate Relations Liisa Stark speak on emergency infrastructure and preparedness.

Paul Hensleigh, deputy air pollution control officer for Yolo Solano Air Quality Management District, and Antonia Juhasz, investigative writer, spoke on crude by rail’s impact on the environment.

Brandon Thomson, deputy district director for U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, and Danny Bernardini, field representative for state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, talked about regulatory and legislative initiatives, and the panelists’ remarks were summed up by Bill Emlen, director of Solano County Resource Management.

Ryan praised the county’s readiness and how various safety agencies readily help each other. “The (recent Napa) earthquake is an example of what the OES (Office of Emergency Services) does,” he said.

The county stands ready to help cities through mutual aid, just as cities stand ready to help the county handle emergencies in unincorporated parts of the county, he said.

McAlister said fire departments and other emergency responders stay ready through planning, preparation and training.

Howe said the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project is strictly logistics, and told the audience, “Preventing accidents is our top priority. We handle explosive materials every day.” His company has its own fire department, he added, which it sends off refinery property to participate in mutual-aid efforts as far away as Placer County.

SUPERVISORS, agency experts and the public discussed rail safety, and specifically oil-carrying train safety, in Fairfield Monday.

Stark said, “Safety is number one” at Union Pacific, too, adding that her company delivers 99.997 percent of its hazardous cargo safely to its destination. She reminded the audience that railroads, which are governed primarily by the federal government, are mandated to carry any cargo, including hazardous materials, as long as it is packaged properly.


Computers and sonar are used to uncover railroad and car defects, Stark said; sonar can find a flaw as small as a grain of sand. In addition, every mile of track is checked twice a week, she said, and bridges are checked at least twice a year.

Hensleigh said his agency governs stationary sources of air pollution, but not mobile ones such as trains. However, he worried that additional emissions without mitigation could increase Spare the Air days in Solano and Yolo counties.

Juhasz brought slides of multiple train car derailments, including the fiery and fatal Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailment on July 6, 2013, in which 47 people died after employees left a train that eventually rolled toward the city, where it caught fire and destroyed several downtown buildings.

She said the number of accidents has gone up because train oil delivery has increased from 81,000 barrels in 2003 to 900,000 barrels in 2013.

Yet the primarily domestic crude hasn’t reduced gasoline prices, Juhasz said, because the five Bay Area refineries export their products. She also warned that North Dakota crude is more volatile than crudes transported in the past.

Thomson said crude by rail is a new issue for the federal government, but added that Garamendi has sought increased regulation, from compliance with emergency orders to reducing volatility of Bakken crude and phasing out the weaker DOT-111 tanker cars, similar to those destroyed in the Quebec tragedy.

Bernardini said even though railroads are governed at the federal level, state governments still have a say on certain matters such as safety reform, and said California Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) has issued an 18-page response to the Valero Crude-by-Rail Draft Environmental Impact Report, disagreeing with its low expectations for oil spills and urging a 30-mph speed limit for trains traveling through cities.

“It’s clear this is an essential conversation,” Emlen said. “Clearly there are many perspectives.”

Speakers were limited to 10 minutes each, and in the breakout sessions audience members said they hadn’t heard enough.

Katherine Black, who has spoken in Benicia hearings on the Valero project, said crude by rail shouldn’t be “a foregone conclusion,” and suggested rejecting the practice altogether so no mitigation would be needed.

Mary Frances Kelly Poh, a 20-year member of the former Emergency Care Committee and a Benicia resident, said emergency responders need “unique training” as well as specialized equipment to cope with any derailments and spills.

She said railroads also need the same type of safety equipment and training used by California bay responders who handle oil spills on water.

Wendy Ginther of Fairfield expressed concern that Solano County isn’t ready to handle explosions or contamination of the Delta, a fertile agriculture area and important waterway and wildlife habitat.

Ed Ruszel, a Benicia business owner, asked whether the railroad’s hazardous materials plan had been updated from 2009, and urged Union Pacific provide a local contact to handle calls from the public, rather than to insist callers make reports to the company headquarters in Omaha, Neb.

Other participants suggested remaining in contact with state and federal officials to speed up legislative action. Many said more transparency is needed, including more public information about current operations.

Ryan answered one question about underground pipelines that carry jet fuel from Benicia to Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield.

Because of security concerns, he declined to say where those pipelines are, except to say they are 20 feet underground. Modern ones have automatic shutoff capabilities, he said.

He said area fire chiefs are aware of the potential for danger with oil-carrying trains, and have met to discuss the matter.

Valero Fire Chief Joe Bateman said his company has been providing other departments with training, and added that another weeklong session using a Union Pacific car is scheduled to take place later in October.

Foam is used to extinguish Bakken crude fires, he said, and his company alone has 22,000 gallons ready for deployment. Other departments have smaller amounts of fire suppressant foam, he said.

While many spoke on safety and infrastructure, Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson was among those in attendance who sought information on crude by rail and legislation.

“It was informative,” Patterson said. “It covered a broad spectrum.”

She said Stark became frustrated at those who didn’t understand the role of the railroad, the federal mandates and how that has led to safety practices.

However, local governments are able to adopt some safety regulations that trains now observe, Patterson said.

“It ran rather seamlessly,” Seifert said. In the end, various community segments will need to “work collaboratively to solve the problem,” she said.

“We do collaboration really well.”