Benicia’s Stan Houston: a host of safety concerns – preserving Valero’s future and Benicia’s

Repost from The Benicia Herald

Crude by rail: An opportunity to lead

March 26, 2014 by Stan Houston

THE VALERO REFINERY WANTS TO BRING IN A NEW FORM OF CRUDE OIL to process in their refinery here in Benicia. Union Pacific Railroad will be the transporter. There is a host of safety concerns, not the least of which is the volatility of this newer crude. Should a mishap in transportation cause any one of the tank cars to rupture, the resulting explosion and fire could destroy Benicia. The gravity of this situation and my personal experiences in the railroad industry demand I convey my assessment and participate in a conversation that may lead to a solution that works for everyone.

I was only 3 1/2 years old but can still remember my first steam-locomotive trip. My parents and I stood patiently at Southern Pacific’s Oakland terminal and watched the oil-fired locomotive billow out steam while the engineer reset the brakes and moved the engine forward a bit. It seemed an eternity before the conductor waved to my parents and we were allowed to board my grandfather’s private car on Southern Pacific’s Daylight train to Portland, Ore.

Ten years later I would find myself packaging freight car lubricant after school for one of my dad’s railroad customers. In another 20 years, I celebrated having worked at every roundhouse and rail yard in the United States, Canada and Australia. By the age of 37, I was a highly regarded plastics engineer whose father’s company was leading the railroad industry in replacing metal bearings and components with high-tech plastic materials. In the 40-plus years I spent “working on the railroad,” I was an invited guest speaker to the Association of American Railroads, a frequent presenter at the Facility for Accelerated Service Testing in Pueblo, Colo., a board member and keynote speaker of the Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association, and a recipient of the first Quality Assurance Award from General Electric under then-CEO Jack Welch.

I cut my teeth in the industry at the Southern Pacific and Western Pacific railroads. I spent most of my early years visiting SP’s Sacramento Locomotive Works, where I’d oversee the testing and installation of our new products. The shops had been home to my grandfather when he was master mechanic there in the 1940s and ’50s. And, it didn’t hurt that Southern Pacific’s vice president of research and development was my godfather; I was given a lot of access to the railroad many others only dreamed of. As I grew into my late 20s, I’d venture to the Midwest to visit the Union Pacific or Burlington Northern railroads, or I’d go back east and call on the C&O and B&O (CSX), or the Southern Railway System. I travelled almost every other week for the next 20 years, helping redesign parts on freight cars and locomotives. It was a busy time in my life and very rewarding. I learned how the locomotives and the freight cars and rails work together. And, suffice it to say, I know the people who make those freight cars, and build those locomotives, and lay those rails.

During the last half of the 20th century, railroads shifted from carrying almost everything we consumers bought to what is today a streamlined mix of industrial and consumer goods. The railroads are extremely agile in producing freight cars that look like they are designed to handle very specific products when, in fact, their agility and mechanical engineering prowess — along with the help of their supply industry — can quickly adapt a standard freight car into a specific commodity freight car with little alteration to its structural integrity. It wasn’t long ago that, as seasonal demand of grain cars oscillated wildly during harvest in the Midwest, standard box cars (the kind you see the homeless pictured riding in) were overnight turned into grain cars by inserting a cardboard barricade in the door openings and cutting a grain chute hole in the top. Not very space-age technology, but it worked extremely well.

Today the railroads are being tasked with carrying increasing amounts of oil in tank cars. In their heightened and predictable response to demand, they have rebuilt and built new tank cars at an unprecedented rate, yet still they have fallen short of what the growing demand requires. Because there are no government regulations requiring a specific type of tank car modification or a specifically designed car to address the newer types of crude now being carried, the railroads are carrying the newer materials in standard tank cars, some of them well over 50 years old. These cars are what the industry refers to as the DOT-111 class cars. Even the very newest modification to the DOT-111 class, made in 2011, does not adequately address the volatile nature of some of the newer crudes when under impact through derailment or collision. In addition, there has been no investigation into developing a far safer delivery system that employs tank car transport. It has been well documented that as a result of a derailment and collision, the subsequent breach of a tank car would cause an explosion of the newer crudes and destroy Benicia as we know it.

The Valero refinery has asked Benicians for their support to be able to bring these newer crudes to their Benicia refinery. It is irresponsible to close our eyes and NIMBY our way out of this predicament. It is in our best interest to do everything we can to insure the profitability and volume of output from Valero, as they provide a significant amount of money to our General Fund and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to needy Solano County enterprises. In fact, we should be encouraging Valero to make as much product as they can and working with them to facilitate an increase in their margins so that we reap sustainable benefits, too. Isn’t that what we already do for our other businesses? Isn’t that what tourism does for the First Street businesses and the Economic Development Board does for our other businesses? Shouldn’t we treat Valero the same as any other contributor to our welfare? Shouldn’t we insist that any threat to Valero’s ability to operate is hereby not acceptable?

In the absence of government mandates that would require a safer tank car or a safer delivery system for newer crude, it is up to Benicia to safeguard Valero’s cash flow to us so that our livelihoods continue. In our conversation with our benefactor, Valero, we must insist they deliver this message to the railroad industry: “This is not the time to fabricate a piece of cardboard and retrofit a boxcar. Rather, this is a time of great opportunity that will require the cooperation of the stakeholders of the Union Pacific Railroad and the tank car companies to look into the future and develop a brand new product and delivery system. Round up your best ME’s (mechanical engineers) and maintenance-of-way gurus and put together a delivery system that includes a modern, high-tech tank car with a robust safety factor and a delivery system that insures the continued operation of the Valero Refinery and the health and welfare of every township your system touches.

“And, until you can provide us with testing data that shows the newer car and newer delivery system is adequate, you can’t ship into Benicia anything that threatens the current cash flow of Valero funds to our stakeholders and the city of Benicia.”

Stan Houston lives and works in Benicia.