Sacramento leaders: Risk of oil train explosions must be acknowledged

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento leaders: Risk of oil train explosions needs to be acknowledged

By Tony Bizjak, Aug. 5, 2014
An oil train derailment and explosion in Quebec last July prompted Canadian officials to impose tougher safety regulations. | Paul Chiasson / AP/Canadian Press

Sacramento area leaders say the city of Benicia is failing to acknowledge the risks of explosions and fires that could happen if the Bay Area city approves Valero’s plan to run crude oil trains through Northern California to its refinery.

The accusation, in a draft letter released Tuesday by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, comes in response to a Benicia report that said twice-daily rail shipments of 70,000 barrels of crude will pose no significant threat to cities on the rail line, such as Roseville, Sacramento and Davis.

The Sacramento group is calling that finding “fundamentally flawed,” and points out that the federal government issued an emergency order in May saying new volatile crude oil shipments are an “imminent hazard” along rail lines.

“I don’t know how you can conclude there is not a significant hazard,” said Kirk Trost, an attorney for SACOG, a planning agency of the region’s six counties and 22 cities. “The (environmental report) never looks at the risk of fire and explosion in one of these situations.”

Trost said the letter has not yet been endorsed by the SACOG, but was written by SACOG staff in consultation with regional leaders.

It urges Benicia to redo its analysis and provide a clearer picture of the risks the project imposes on up-rail cities. It also says the project, proposed by Valero Refining Co., should not be approved without new funding to train firefighters to deal with oil spills and for rail safety improvements.

It also calls for limits on the amount of time crude oil tank cars are stopped or stored in cities. “Our view is they should not be stored in any of our communities along the line,” Trost said.

Valero, which receives most oil at its Benicia refinery via ship, plans to begin taking deliveries by train from various sites in North America, including potentially from the Bakken fields of North Dakota. Bakken trains have been involved in several recent explosive fires, including a derailment in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic that killed 47 residents. Federal officials said last month that studies show Bakken oil is more volatile than other crude oils. The oil industry disputes that assertion.

The Benicia report concluded that an oil spill between Roseville and Benicia can be expected to happen once every 111 years. It acknowledges “if a release in an urban area were to ignite and/or explode, depending on the specific circumstances, the release could result in property damage and/or injury and/or loss of life,” but doesn’t expand on that statement. Instead, it says rail transport is becoming safer.

The SACOG letter challenges the once-in-111-years figure, noting it was calculated using data from 2005 to 2009, and disregards a dramatic surge in crude oil rail spills and fires in the last two years. Benicia city planners did not respond to a Bee request for comment.

Benicia’s analysis stops at Roseville. Several local officials, including Plumas County supervisor Kevin Goss, say they want it to include likely routes to the north and east, including the Feather River Canyon and the Dunsmuir areas, both of which have been designated by the state as high-hazard areas for train derailments.

“I think it should be studied all the way out to where (the shipments) originate,” Goss said.

Benicia officials have said they did not study beyond Roseville because they do not know which route crude oil trains might take beyond that point.

Several attorneys, unassociated with the case, say state environmental law lays out what cities should study, but has gray areas.

Environmental law attorney Andrea Matarazzo, a partner with the Pioneer Law Group in Sacramento, says case law makes it clear that a city can’t draw a line around its project and study only local impacts. But she said the city can make a judgment call on where to stop, if it has a reasonable explanation.

Another environmental law attorney, Jim Moose, partner at Remy, Moose, Manley in Sacramento, said that CEQA does not require a city to look at the “Armageddon” or worst-case scenario, but cities are obligated to look at reasonably foreseeable impacts. “It seems to me a good EIR would lay out the consequences and not just say the probability of it, especially since the time frame in question is not all that long” from a legal perspective. “But it is a gray area of the law.”

SACOG attorney Trost said the draft letter will be reviewed by the SACOG board later this month. Benicia has set a Sept. 15 deadline for receiving comments and questions to its environmental analysis. Yolo County sent Benicia a similar complaint letter last month.