Benicia Planning Commission & public weigh in on Valero CBR

The Benicia Planning Commission completed the third of its public hearing sessions on Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal last night, and closed the hearing at a decent hour, around 10:15pm.  Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed!

In an unusual move, the Commission chose to hear from Commissioners first, then the public.  City staff refused to allow commissioners to engage the EIR consultant or staff in questions and answers.  Commissioners’ comments and questions were to be added without response into the public record, just as any member of the speaking public.

(Editor: My review of Commissioner comments appears first.  See farther below for a summary of select citizen comments.)

Those in attendance opposing Valero’s proposal were highly encouraged by the quality and quantity of comments pointing out the many inadequacies and omissions of the Draft EIR.  Every Commissioner asked serious questions, as did members of the public.

The first to speak was Commissioner Steve Young, who read from prepared notes.  The Benicia Independent obtained a copy of Mr. Young’s 14-page written comments, downloadable here.  Young asked 35 penetrating questions covering in detail:

    • Environmental Impacts of Transporting Bakken Shale or Tar Sands oil
    • Possible Increase in amount of oil refined and associated increases in emissions
    • Lack of Disclosure of Documentation for Greenhouse Gas (GHG ) Calculations
    • GHG Emissions in Bay Area vs. GHG Emissions in Benicia
    • Calculation of GHG emissions for trains
    • Air Quality Impacts
    • Cumulative Impacts
    • Traffic Impacts
    • Impact on FAST Transit
    • Emergency Preparedness
    • Emergency Planning and difficulty in fighting oil fires of Bakken Crude
    • Financial responsibility of cleanup
    • Explosiveness of Bakken Crude
    • Rail Cars, Tracks and Positive Train Controls
    • Rail Cars – Positive Train Controls
    • Likelihood of Oil Spill

With apologies for any errors or misunderstandings to the other Commissioners, I will try to summarize their spoken concerns.

Commissioner Belinda Smith was openly disappointed that she was not allowed to engage the consultant and staff in questions and answers.  She raised questions about

    • the adequacy of the site description
    • the condition of roads on the site
    • groundwater runoff
    • numbers of trains that would share the rails
    • timing of train crossings
    • train deliveries during “turnarounds”
    • numbers of trains carrying other hazardous materials
    • the “no-project alternative”
    • tank car design from North Dakota to Roseville
    • noise impacts on birds and other businesses in the Industrial Park
    • bird count review after impact and mitigations if they don’t return
    • Indirect emissions: definition of “immediate” and “other” vicinities
    • rainwater protection from contamination, runoff and containment
    • Benicia firefighter training for emergencies
    • Lack of detailed analysis of cumulative impacts

Commissioner Suzanne Sprague agreed with many of Young’s and Smith’s comments and questions, adding only that, as an attorney, she had concerns about the DEIR’s omission of analysis of case law regarding outlying communities and federal preemption.

Commissioner Cohen-Grossman raised four issues:

    • What impact will the project have on the new bus hub on in the Industrial Park?
    • Why would the DEIR even mention a possible impact and then not discuss it because of federal preemption?  (Example: the alternate project analyses)
    • Traffic: Benicia’s General Plan calls for level of service D, but the DEIR only uses outlying roads in its analysis.
    • Huge increase in volume of hazardous materials shipments will require emergency readiness.  Sept. 29 Solano County meeting.

Commissioner George Oakes offered comments on financial issues:

    • Financial responsibility – who owns the crude at every step, from its source in the upper midwest to Valero?
    • Who indemnifies the product along the rail lines?
    • Who in the City is indemnified?
    • How much insurance does each person handling the crude (from offloading laborers to executives) need?
    • The railroad in the Lac-Megantic disaster had only $25 million insurance and went bankrupt quickly.  The people are paying.  How to guard against this here?

Commission Chair Don Dean listed several concerns:

    • Regarding cumulative impacts of hazardous materials in the event of accidents: the DEIR (§ 5-17) analyzes two accidents at the same time but doesn’t make sense.  Cumulative impacts are additive  not multiplicative.
    • How can we understand impacts or cumulative impacts without knowing the nature of the material being shipped?  Information in the document is not sufficient even in light of preemption.
    • Biological resources (§ 5-1) has more information in this section about hazardous materials than in the HM section…

Ten citizen comments critical of the DEIR and Valero’s proposal raised significant questions for the project consultant.  The Commission heard from Adela Fernandez, Charles Davidson, Greg Karras (Communities for a Better Environment), Dr. Jim Stevenson, Shiela Clyatt, David Jenkins, Paul Reeve, Shoshana Wechsler (Sunflower Alliance), Donna Wapner (public health educator) and Linda Lewis (local realtor).  Especially significant comments included the following:

Greg Karras, for 30 years Senior Scientist for Communities for a Better Environment:

    • The proposed offloading racks would be located too close to onsite refinery hazards, for instance, only 50′ from a large storage tank, 100′ from another.  Multiple tank fires would be a possibility.  It is highly unusual these days to see a project proposed with such onsite refinery hazards.
    • False assumption that ONLY marine emissions will be offset by local train emissions.  Offsets not real.  Significant local impacts AND global climate impacts.
    • California pipeline crude will also be replaced by North American crude.  This is a tar sands project with huge impacts, ignored by DEIR.
    • Hidden information on the mix of crude sources.

Dr. Jim Stevenson spoke on the nature of risk.  Risk has to be understood both quantitatively and qualitatively.  The DEIR discusses cumulative risk in quantitative terms but does not analyze the potential for catastrophic (qualitative) impacts, involving chemical releases and massive explosions.

Shiela Clyatt spoke about the economic impacts, including the possibility of businesses leaving the Industrial Park due to traffic congestion issues and safety concerns.  Other economic impacts would include a general drop in property values as Benicia takes on a riskier image for home buyers.

David Jenkins, a business owner in the Industrial Park, spoke very personally about the impact Valero’s proposal would have on his business.  He outlined concerns including possible storage of tank cars while not offloading; traffic congestion; lack of control over Union Pacific (including the distinct possibility of MORE than two trains per day; massive spills and explosions.  He also called for signed warranties by Valero and UP guaranteeing financial coverage of all damages in the event of accidents.

Shoshana Wechsler gave the most inspiring speech of the night, raising significant and detailed technical questions about the DEIR while setting Valero’s proposal and Benicia’s decision-making into a wider global context.  Read it here.

Donna Wapner offered comments from her perspective as a public health educator (Health Science professor at Diablo College).  She highlighted the DEIR’s lack of mention of potential earthquake impacts, and pointed to the massive and lingering economic impacts following Three-Mile Island and Love Canal, mentioning that there are STILL 1000 lawsuits in play today over the Love Canal toxic waste dump disaster.

Linda Lewis, a Benicia realtor, agreed with the comments expressed earlier by Dr. Jim Stevenson, and simply asked, “Can you guarantee I will be safe?  And my community?”