Pittsburg: WesPac oil-by-rail storage project remains on hold

Repost from The Contra Costa Times

Pittsburg: WesPac oil-by-rail storage project remains on hold

By Paul Burgarino, 08/02/2014

PITTSBURG — The brakes remain on a massive $200 million plan to transport domestic crude oil by railroad cars and ships, store it in refurbished storage tanks and pipe it to refineries throughout the Bay Area.

And after almost six months of no action, it may stay that way for a while.

Pittsburg officials said it will be at least early 2015 before the project is brought before city decision-makers — if it ever is.

“Right now, we’re kind of in a holding pattern and waiting for a green light from the applicant,” City Manager Joe Sbranti said.

In February, city leaders — prompted by a letter from the office of state Attorney General Kamala Harris urging further scrutiny on air quality and the risk of accidental spills, as well as fierce community opposition — told WesPac Energy that it would be reopening the public comment period on its draft environmental documents.

The WesPac project calls for an average of 242,000 barrels of crude or partially refined crude oil to be unloaded daily and stored in 16 tanks on 125 acres once used by Pacific Gas & Electric to store fuel oil two decades ago.

Since earlier this year, Pittsburg planners and a hired consultant have briefly discussed some of the issues raised, but that has ceased until WesPac decides whether it will put more money toward continuing the process, Sbranti said. All costs for studies of development projects are covered by applicants, he said.

The earliest a revised contract would be considered by the City Council is September, Sbranti said. After that, he estimated additional studies could take anywhere from six to 10 months.

“If and when they decide to come forward, they are entitled to and deserve a fair hearing,” Mayor Sal Evola said. “As it stands today, as far as we know, they’ve put the project on hold.”

Art Diefenbach, project manager for WesPac, said in an email, “We have nothing new to share about our project at this time.”

The facility, located on the western edge of town near homes, schools, churches and the Pittsburg Marina, would handle an estimated 88 million barrels of domestic and imported crude oil and partially refined crude. Its capacity is massive, and 20 percent of the state’s processed oil could pass through it over the course of a year, according to the Jan. 15 letter from Harris’ office.

Supporters of the $200 million project say it will bring jobs and revenue to the city, make use of a dormant industrial parcel, and help refineries meet their future needs at a time when oil production in California is declining and existing storage is near capacity.

The Pittsburg Defense Council, along with several environmental groups, is fighting the project over concerns about air quality, environmental issues and safety concerns involving the transportation of crude by rail.

“We’ve been keeping an eye out for when it comes back on city agendas, and being vigilant,” said longtime resident and Defense Council member Lyana Monterrey. The group has also been keeping an eye on crude-by-rail issues in Berkeley, Richmond and Benicia, she said.

The Pittsburg critics point to a train carrying Bakken crude that exploded in July 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, and other derailments and explosions have occurred in the past year in Alabama and North Dakota.

Crude shipments by rail from the Midwest and Canada into the state have increased from about 1.1 million barrels in 2012 to about 6.3 million barrels in 2013, according to the California Energy Commission. One thing the WesPac issue has brought forward is a “heightened sense of awareness” about rail safety, as both the Union Pacific and Burlington North Santa Fe lines cut through Pittsburg, Evola said.

Pittsburg, he said, is lobbying for a bill currently in the state Assembly requiring railroads to report details of transports of hazardous materials on a quarterly basis to the state Office of Emergency Services.