Long-awaited Valero crude-by-rail EIR delayed again

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: See also coverage in The Sacramento Bee  – RS]

Long-awaited Valero crude-by-rail EIR delayed again

June 9, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman

A draft of the city’s environmental impact report (EIR) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail use permit request was due to be released Tuesday, but a last-minute staff decision has delayed the report by a week, Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million said.

“City staff determined that additional information was needed to more completely address potential air quality impacts in the Draft EIR,” Million said late Monday. “As a result, the release of the document has been delayed by one week.”

When the report is released June 17, it will be available online from the city’s website, www.ci.benicia.ca.us, but viewers shouldn’t use the website’s search box to find it, Million said.

“The best way to find the most recent CBR (Crude-by-Rail) page is to go directly to the department,” she said. In this case, a viewer would look for Community Development under the “City Departments” bar.

This will give viewers options for “Planning” and “Current Projects,” where they will find a listing for “Valero Crude-by-Rail.”

“Unfortunately, the search box can pull up old versions of the Web page, so we are working on fixing that today,” Million said Monday.

Those who want copies of the document on disk may call Million at the Community Development Department, 707-476-4280. A limited supply of paper copies — 20 — also will be available at no cost, she said.

“Pursuant to the Benicia Municipal Code, the city will provide 20 copies on a first-come, first-served basis at no cost, available immediately,” she said.

After that, those wanting paper copies will have to pay, she said, but how much hasn’t been determined.

“I am still waiting for confirmation on the cost after that and the turnaround time,” she said. As of Monday, she said the number of pages of the document hadn’t been determined.

Paper copies, available for reading by the public, will be available at the Community Development Department at City Hall, 250 East L St., as well as in the Benicia Public Library, 250 East L St.

The city originally drafted a mitigated negative declaration as its response to requirements by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

But extensive public comment, both favoring and opposing the project, heard at several city meetings led the city to undertake the more extensive environmental report, which originally was expected before the end of last year.

The public will be given 45 days to read and comment on the document, Million said. State law requires a minimum of 45 days for the review, though it limits the maximum days to 60.

She said Monday, “Staff intends on releasing it for a 45-day review period. If the Planning Commission believes that a longer review period is needed because of articulated unusual circumstances, the Planning Commission may decide to extend the comment period.”

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, organized to block the Valero project, has asked for a 90-day review period.

“As part of the process for any discretionary action, public comment is accepted until the final decision,” Million said late last year, though she said CEQA is “a concurrent but separate process and has specific guidelines for public input.”

Thoughts and opinions shared after CEQA comment periods have closed are incorporated into the record for the project, even though the comments aren’t considered “official,” she said. “This distinction is important for insuring consistency and diligent processing of development applications.”

Those interested may offer their comments before the Planning Commission July 12 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. But the commission won’t be voting on the project’s use permit that night.

As proposed in December 2012, Valero Benicia Refinery has asked permission to build the $30 million project of three railroad track extensions, each a quarter-mile long, so 70,000 barrels of crude oil could be brought in daily by rail instead of through pipelines or aboard ocean-going tanker ships.

Proponents, including Union Pacific Railroad, have said the project would be more environmentally friendly than tanker ships and pipelines.

Bill Day, Valero Energy’s director of corporate communications, has pointed out the project would reduce Valero’s shipments of foreign-source oil.

“It would allow the refinery to offset supplies of foreign crude brought in by ship with increasing supplies of North American crude oil,” Day said. North American crude has few transport alternatives other than by rail, he said.

While the refinery has only hinted at the source of the domestic crude, many expect that it’s the North Dakota Bakken fields, which has been producing up to a million barrels of a light, sweet crude.

However, while tar sands is too heavy and sour to be processed at the Benicia plant, the Bakken crude is too sweet and light to be processed alone.

At a public meeting in March, refinery officials explained that to meet the sulfur and gravity parameters of what the Benicia plant can refine, the oil arriving by train could be a blend of the two.

“Any viable crude we can safely refine, we will,” said Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery manager of the Environmental Engineer Group, though he added that the refinery’s permits won’t let it produce more emissions.

“Locomotives emit less than ships,” Cuffel said that night, explaining that on a per-barrel basis, emissions would decline during delivery.

Nor would refinery emissions themselves increase during processing, because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District restricts how much emissions the refinery can produce, he said.

Originally, opponents of the crude-by-rail proposal spoke out against the air polluting hazards of dealing with tar sands, anticipating the oil would be coming from Canada.

But several fiery incidents during the past year turned their focus to the greater volatility of the Bakken crude as well as federal standards for the tanker cars that carry the oil, since 60 percent of it travels by rail.

Nearly a year ago, a 72-car oil train carrying 2 million gallons of flammable crude was left unoccupied in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. It came loose and began sliding downhill so fast that it derailed, caught fire and killed 47 in the small town.

The accident spilled 1.5 million gallons of crude and caused more than $1 billion in damages.

An oil train derailed in November 2013 and caught fire in Alabama; a month later another train erupted in flames after derailing in North Dakota. More tanker cars caught fire after a derailment in Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads that operate trains carrying large amounts of Bakken crude to tell State Emergency Response Commissions about those trains’ operations in their states.

DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration both have urged shippers, particularly those selling Bakken crude, to use tank cars with “the highest level of integrity available in their fleets.”

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who represents Benicia, asked legislators Friday for their support for a proposal to strengthen the state railroad safety inspection force, especially where crude shipments go through heavily populated areas.

Rail shipments of crude oil in California like those proposed by Valero are slated to increase 25-fold in the next few years, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and California Energy Commission, Wolk said.

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” Wolk said in a letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee.

That committee is scheduled to hear Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the PUC’s railroad safety staff.

That’s not enough for Wolk, who said, “Additional oversight is needed to provide some assurance that these shipments are made safely and in compliance with federal and state regulations, as well as other known safety practices.”

Valero’s proposal “has elicited concern from public and elected officials regarding the safety risks of transporting crude oil through Benicia and other densely populated areas of Northern California,” Wolk said.

“An event such as Lac Mégantic could have catastrophic effects if it occurred in any populated area of California. Other concerns include the potential for increased commuter traffic.”

Fears about fiery crashes and pollution have led to marches and other protests on both sides of the Carquinez Strait by those who want to see the Valero project halted and shipments of crude by rail stopped or made safer as more oil-filled cars pass through the Bay Area.

Normally, railroads don’t own the cars used to carry various products. They’re owned or leased by the client.

However, BNSF Railroad is in the process of ordering thousands of tanker cars it says would exceed federal standards, and Valero officials have said they would be using the stronger cars as well.

Valero’s project is on refinery property, and normally wouldn’t need a use permit for construction and operation that fits what is allowed in the zoning district.

However, the cost of the project exceeds the $20 million threshold that triggers the use permit process, according to Charlie Knox, who at the time was Benicia’s director of community development.

Nor is Valero allowed to break the project into segments to avoid seeking the permit, Knox said.

The refinery is asking permission to build two offloading rail spurs, a parallel engine runaround track and a “wye,” or triangular connector track, on refinery property so it can receive the rail cars at the offloading tracks.

If the project is approved and built, the refinery could receive between 50 and 100 additional rail cars twice a day.

In addition to examining any impact to Sulphur Springs Creek, the draft report also is expected to address how the trains would impact Benicia Industrial Park traffic.

The project is being reviewed for the city by CSA, a Michigan firm, with Valero paying for the review, as well as Environmental Resources Management, a global company with offices in Sacramento and Walnut Creek.