Martinez News-Gazette: Hotly contested Valero crude-by-rail application denied by Benicia Commissioners

Repost from the Martinez News-Gazette

Hotly contested Valero crude-by-rail application denied by Benicia Commissioners

By Joseph Bustos, February 21, 2016Martinez News-Gazette

The Benicia Planning Commission rejected a permit application by the Valero Benicia Refinery on Thursday night that would have allowed the refinery to haul upwards of 70,000 barrels of crude oil on two 50 car trains along Union Pacific railroad tracks throughout various Bay Area cities.

Anticipating a large amount of speakers, Benicia’s Planning Commission fielded more than 70 comments from the public across four days of late night public hearings, beginning on February 8th and finally concluding on February 11th.

Against staff recommendation to approve the use permit and certify the project’s Environmental Impact Report, the Commission unanimously voted to reject the project application and did not certify the project’s environmental impact report.

The Commission cited that the project holds highly negative impacts to traffic in the industrial park and economic impacts to adjacent businesses that stand against city health, safety, and quality of life. They also cited the lack of provisions for clean-up costs in case of accidents in Benicia and other cities, creating potential economic strain on Benicia as well as uprail cities.

Other large concerns were the possibilities for rail cars to fall into Sulphur Springs Creek and the bay, as well as technology surrounding rail safety, increases in the cost of insurance coverage for the community, liability risk for property damage, and the construction of the unloading rack in Benicia causing significant traffic and emergency access issues.

The Planning Commission called all of these concerns directly contrary to the city’s general plan, and citied a responsibility to act for the other uprail communities that would be at risk.

Texas-based Valero Energy expressed disappointment with the decision, and are currently looking into a possible appeal. The company has until February 29 to file an appeal to the Benicia City Council.

The controversial proposal first took root in late 2012 and has seen a vast array of detractors from multiple environmental groups and cities through which the railways pass through, citing rail and environmental safety concerns.

Comments continued to pour in by a number of groups all week, demanding that the commission reject Valero’s proposed rail project. Barring action from the City Council, the decision would be a major win for environmental groups lobbying for rejection for the last three years.

In contrast, Valero officials and supporters claimed the installation of an oil by rail program would make the refinery far more flexible and competitive, strengthening Benicia’s economy with more than $350,000 in tax revenue and providing additional jobs. The refinery currently receives crude oil by ship and pipeline, and the proposed rail would have been an additional source of oil transportation rather than completely replacing the other methods.

Valero is currently the largest private employer for the city of Benicia, and constitutes more than 20 percent of Benicia’s general fund revenue.

Tamhas Griffith of the Martinez Environmental Group praised the decision of the Planning Commission and thanked them for listening to concerns of Bay Area communities.

“The Martinez Environmental Group is grateful for the exemplary work of the Benicia Planning Commissioners. In service to their community, each commissioner went above and beyond expectation to render a fair, compassionate, and unanimous judgement that people are more important than company profits,” expressed Griffith.

Griffith added that the denial of the application shows care and concern for communities through which refineries operate and travel through. “It was a hopeful decision for refinery corridor communities who absorb the brunt of daily massive pollution and constant danger.”

Just a few short weeks ago, Martinez was host to a rail incident that saw three tankers carry sulfuric acid derailed near Marina Vista Avenue under the I-680 overpass. Although the tankers fortunately did not leak, the accident again yielded concerns regarding rail safety and monitoring what hazardous materials pass through the city.