Sen. Lois Wolk calls for stronger safety inspection regulations

Repost from The Vacaville Reporter
[Editor: See also coverage in The Daily Democrat, The Davis Vanguard.  – RS]

Wolk urges more regulation on rail crude oil shipments to Solano refinery

By Reporter Staff  |  06/09/2014

The battle over local crude oil rail shipments moved to Sacramento late last week as Senator Lois Wolk, D-Solano, called on legislators Friday to support a proposal to strengthen the state’s railroad safety inspection force.

Wolk is seeking the inspection upgrade in light of the growing volume of crude oil shipments through heavily populated areas of California and numerous crude oil rail accidents in recent years.

In a letter sent in advance of today’s scheduled release of a draft Environmental Impact Report on a proposal to transport crude oil through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the city of Benicia, Wolk laments a lack of increased regulatory oversight for such shipments. 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.

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” Wolk wrote in the letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee, scheduled to hear Governor Edmund G. Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the PUC’s railroad safety staff. “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.”

Several destructive crude oil rail accidents have taken place in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, including the July 2013 derailment of 72 tanker cars loaded with 2 million gallons of flammable crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that resulted in 47 deaths, more than $1 billion in damages, and 1.5 million gallons of spilled crude oil, Wolk noted.

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. Other concerns include the potential for increased commuter traffic.

“An event such as Lac Mégantic could have catastrophic effects if it occurred in any populated area of California,” Wolk said.

The Valero proposal seeks to add three rail tracks and an off-loading track on Valero’s property to allow crude oil to be transported into the refinery. Currently, crude oil is delivered into Valero Benicia through pipeline and ships.

During a meeting in Benicia earlier this spring, company officials said that the railroad addition would make the refinery more competitive by allowing it to process more discounted North American crude oil. They insisted that the railroad traffic up to 100 tank cars per day would not affect the region’s air quality, and safety standards would be met.

“It would not increase crude delivery, just make it more flexible,” John Hill, vice president and general manager of the refinery, told citizens at the meeting.

Another point of contention was the type of crude oil that would be transported into Benicia by rail.

An opposition group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said the project will allow the delivery of the highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota. Concerns also have been raised about the possible use of Canadian tar sands oil, regarded as more polluting than other crudes.

However, officials said there will be no change in the delivered type of crude. They said the refinery can, and will be able to, handle any blend of crude oil as long as it meets density and sulfur requirements for its facility. They did not disqualify Bakken crude as a possible part of a blend.

Times-Herald, Vallejo staff contributed to this report.