Roger Straw: Crude by rail is dangerous — and dirty!

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Crude by rail is dangerous — and dirty!

By Roger Straw, August 2, 2015
Roger Straw

BACK IN JUNE OF 2013, I was alarmed to discover that Valero had plans to make me and all of Benicia complicit in the massive destruction taking place in the pristine forests of Alberta, Canada. With city Planning Commission approval, Valero planned to purchase crude oil taken from strip mines in Canada that are the dirtiest producers of oil on earth, then ship it on dangerous trains all across the West to our back yard.

Since then, Benicians have learned much more about Valero’s proposal. We’ve learned that Valero would also like to ship volatile Bakken crude oil, taken from fracking facilities in North Dakota and the Upper Midwest, on these trains. Bakken oil has proven different from most other crude, based on the eight accidents since July 2013 involving derailed trains that carried Bakken oil and resulted in massive fires and explosions. Several explosive train derailments have also been loaded with diluted tar sands crude.

Benicians have also learned much more about the trains themselves. Now we know how weak the train cars are, and how the federal government has established new rules that give industry years to strengthen them. Old DOT-111 tank cars still roll down our tracks. Updated — but still highly inadequate — DOT-1232 cars continue to roll, and retrofits of the older cars are to be spread out over the next decade. The railroads circumvent reporting requirements on their shipments to our state and county emergency responders by assembling trains that carry less than a million gallons of crude oil. And even when everything else goes right, aging railroad ties and rails will break, bridges will fail, and there aren’t enough inspectors. The accidents will continue.

Americans are sick of seeing the huge balls of fire on TV. We pray that the next BIG ONE will not be in a highly populated area — but we can’t reasonably pray there will be no next BIG ONE. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Finally, even if all the public safety issues could be solved, Valero’s proposal does far more harm to the environment than the company would have us think. Beginning at the source, production of these North American “extreme crudes” is beyond ugly: oil companies strip and gouge and pollute the soil, destroy wildlife habitat and contribute to soaring cancer rates in human communities. They foul the social fabric of small towns and farming communities with a disruptive boom-and-bust economy. Then come the trains, polluting the air from the upper Midwest all the way to Benicia, clattering over mountains and through gorgeous river passes and right through the hearts of our cities and towns, rattling and clattering near our schools, retirement villages, commercial and industrial centers and homes. In all this (if we give our permission), at every step along the way, the oil and rail industries contribute mightily to the warming of planet Earth.

Valero would like us to think that crude oil trains will save on air pollution by cutting back on the number of marine oil tankers. This may hold for a small region like the San Francisco Bay Area, but the city of Benicia’s own study showed that there would be “significant and unavoidable” impacts to air quality outside the Bay Area. Experts add that there would be “toxic plumes” all along the rail lines: “This thing called ‘crude shrinkage’ happens during transport, where entrained gases escape, leading to a 0.5- to 3-percent loss of crude oil. It’s a big problem for volatile crude oils like Bakken, and coupled with the high benzene levels found in some North American crudes (up to 7 percent) …we estimate over 100 pounds per day of excess benzene emissions from the Valero proposal in the Bay Area (or 1800 times more than the draft EIR reports),” said NRDC Senior Scientist Diane Bailey. Read her blog here:

In short, oil trains are dangerous AND dirty.

The city of Benicia will release a revised draft environmental impact report on Valero’s proposal at the end of August. Everyone should stay tuned. Be prepared to study the document, read critical reviews, and share a comment with our Planning Commission. Together, we can make a difference.