Crude oil by rail discussed at Solano County Town Hall Meeting

Repost from The Reporter, Vacaville, CA

Crude oil by rail discussed at county Town Hall Meeting keeps Valero Benicia Refinery project in mind

By Melissa Murphy, 09/29/2014

A community conversation Monday night attracted about 50 people from the public, county staff and elected leaders to explore the topic of rail safety along the 73 miles of railway in Solano County, in particular as it relates to proposed increases in crude oil shipments.

Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert said the evening was aimed at having a community conversation about the county’s preparedness and the potential impacts from any incident along local railways.

County officials said the timing of the event was two-fold. September is National Emergency Preparedness Month. In addition, the city of Benicia is considering an application that would allow Valero Refinery to receive and process more crude oil delivered by rail.

While instigated by the Valero proposal, that project, according to Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert, is being thoroughly vetted and Solano County leadership does not have a say in the outcome.

Still, Seifert explained Valero isn’t the only refinery interested in the transportation of crude oil by rail so it’s still appropriate to discuss the possibility in Solano County.

“Hazardous materials travel through Solano County daily,” she said, adding that the government has had very little to say about the movement of that type of material by rail. “This reduces, significantly, the local ability to impose its own constraints.”

She explained that the earthquake in August that rocked the Vallejo and Napa region is just one example of how prepared and how ready the county’s first responders are when needed.

“We know emergency responders from across the county, including the Hazardous Materials Response Team, are prepared for a wide array of potential incidents,” Seifer has said. “Proposals to process crude oil delivered by rail will change the mix of materials coming into and passing through Solano County. It is only prudent for us to explore how to increase our capability to handle the risks associated with these changes.”

Chris Howe, Valero Benicia Refinery’s director of Health, Safety, Environment and Government Affairs, explained that the proposed crude by rail project would be a third means to deliver crude oil. So far, Valero receives the crude oil by marine deliveries and pipeline.

Howe explained that there are no other production changes proposed at the refinery.

“This project has the environmental benefit of lowering annual emissions including a reduction in greenhouse gases,” he said. “This project will provide flexibility to reduce the import of foreign crudes and increase the use of domestic crude oil.”

He added that preventing accidents is a “top priority” and that Valero already has exemplary safety programs, that they train for emergencies and are prepared today for emergencies inside and outside of the refinery.

Solano Office of Emergency Services also is prepared for emergencies and disasters. They already operate with a Emergency Operations Plan and Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan, according to Don Ryan, emergency services manager. Those documents are available on the county’s website,

Meanwhile, Antonia Juhasz, an author and investigative reporter, shed light on the actual impacts of a derailment of train cars transporting crude oil.

Photo after photo was shown of major accidents, fires and oil spills caused by crude oil train derailments.

The biggest in the country was an Alabama derailment that spilled 750,000 gallons of crude oil in November 2013 and the biggest in the world was a 1.6 million gallon spill after a derailment in Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people.

Juhasz said while transporting crude oil is a relatively new problem, it’s a serious problem. She said the crude oil coming from North Dakota is more flammable and combustible, a lot like gasoline, with a tendency to explode when derailed.

She said problems can be attributed to the train cars that are prone to puncture and the trains themselves.

The sticking point, she said, is the government doesn’t know how to regulate it. She also noted that Valero could expect a derailment every two years, with a major accident happening every 10 years. She also pointed to three derailments, two of which were carrying petroleum coke, since Nov. 4 2013 at the Valero refinery in Benicia.

Lois Wolk, D-Solano, also continues to push for increased rail safety.

“The volume of crude oil being imported into California has increased over 100-fold in recent years, and continues to increase,” Wolk said in a press release and noted that Valero’s plans to ship 100 train cars of crude oil a day would be through the heart of her district. “The recommendations I propose would help California keep in step with the growing risk to California’s citizens and environment posed by the significant increase in shipments of these dangerous materials.”

She has proposed reducing the recommended speed of trains carrying hazardous crude from 40 to 30 mph through all cities to reduce the risk of crashes. Wolk also proposes increasing the thickness of the shell of the car, adding top-fitting protections that can sustain a rollover accident of up to 9 mph, and installing Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brake systems to ensure faster braking for train cars.

Seifert said she was pleased with Monday’s turnout and reiterated the need for education about crude oil by rail.

“This was an opportunity for the public to learn and to start promoting the regulatory process,” she said and added that it also is an opportunity to make sure Solano County’s plan around emergency preparedness is sound.”

“This wasn’t about stopping the project, but to ensure the safety of the community,” Seifert added.