FIRST-HAND REVIEW: Benicia Planning Commission hearings Wednesday night

By Roger Straw, February 11, 2016

Wednesday’s meeting was all public comment.  Comments were overwhelmingly in opposition to Valero’s proposal.

Comments included powerful remarks by attorney Elly Benson of the Sierra Club and two exceptional speakers from the Stanford Law School representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Claudia Antonacci and Rylee Kercher  These three echoed and reinforced comments made on Tuesday by attorney Jackie Prange  of the Natural Resources Defense Council and attorney Rachael Koss of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo (on behalf of SAFER California).  All took exception to Benicia’s contract attorney Brad Hogin, who has promoted a view of federal law that would preempt Benicia’s Planning Commission from considering mitigations for onsite or offsite impacts, and would virtually tie the City’s hands from denying Valero its use permit.

Commissioners heard in-person comments by Berkeley Vice-Mayor Linda Maio,  City of Davis planner Eric Lee, and Yolo-Solano Air District Planning and Air Monitoring Manager Matt Jones.

Other regional experts and advocates opposing the project included Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment, Chris Brown of Chris Brown Consulting in Sacramento, Amiee Durfee and Tamhas Griffith of Martinez Environmental Group and Janet Johnson of Sunflower Alliance and Richmond Progressive Alliance.

In addition, overwhelmingly anti-project testimony was given by 25 informed and often eloquent residents of Benicia, and at least 8 from Davis/Sacramento.  Only 6 pro-Valero speakers offered comments. 

The closing comment, nearing midnight, was spellbindingly mysterious at first.  A Benicia homeowner and businessman, Ehren Herguth, came to the mic and introduced himself.  Helguth is highly credentialed as a clinical lipid specialist (CLS) and described himself as an “advocate for energy production, oil analyst, lube specialist.” He owns an oil, gas and chemical services lab in Vallejo and has extensive experience in testing hazardous materials including various kinds of crude oil. After setting us up at length with detailed technical comments – we were holding our breath, pretty much presuming he’d be for the project – he described Valero’s proposal as “desperate” and urged the Commission to vote no! He was the last speaker.

Wow.  A climactic finish on an exhilarating night of testimony.

Under Benicia rules, the last word in public testimony was given to the proponent as rebuttal, which meant five more minutes for Valero’s Don Cuffel.  Cuffel pointed out that Valero cannot begin exporting crude oil without a new permit.  He didn’t mention that there would be nothing prohibiting Valero from applying for such a permit, nor did he promise that they wouldn’t.  And he didn’t dispute that the new facility Valero is proposing and the less frequently used marine port would serve such purposes well.

Cuffel obfuscated truth by stating that with oil train explosions and fires, firefighters don’t need to “let them burn out.”  Note Cuffel’s use of the word “out.”  Of course firefighters don’t wait until the fires are completely out – but it is indisputable that first responders have on many occasions recently waited for hours and even days before getting near enough to safely apply foam.

Cuffel continued with a repetition of claims that noxious emissions would be lower, and he defended the use of seriously deficient CPC 1232 tank cars, claiming that Valero would always stay a step ahead of federal safety requirements.  He said nothing to assure Commissioners that new stronger federal requirements would be in place anytime soon, nor that Valero would take any new steps to purchase or lease tank cars that are safer than CPC 1232s.

It must’ve been a long hard night for City staff, contract attorneys, EIR consultants, and Valero executives, all of whom suffered severe criticism for their work in analyzing the project’s potential impacts, recommending approval, and developing the proposal in the first place.

For what comes next, see YET ANOTHER Planning Commission meeting – what to expect on Thursday.