Tag Archives: Benicia Independent

Headlines in search of stories… coronavirus in Benicia & Solano County

By Roger Straw, April 23, 2020

Those of you who are familiar with the Benicia Independent know what it is and what it isn’t.

I’m a one-person journalist.  For over 13 years here on the BenIndy, I have published news and opinion from a Benicia California perspective.

I am NOT an investigative reporter.  Mostly I repost interesting and important stories written by others.  I am an environmental advocate and an old time liberal on issues of race and gender, peace, justice, poverty and more.  I tend to focus on a single issue for weeks or months – or even years – at a time.  I’ve reported at length on hazardous oil trains, gun violence and the need for gun control legislation, local and national electoral politics, and so on.

Recently I’ve  taken on the COVID-19 pandemic here in Solano County.  And that’s where I want to take you today.

Every day now since the second week of March, I’ve posted Solano County’s numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths.  Most days I spend hours combing through local, regional and national news about the virus and posting it here on the BenIndy.

Your response has been amazing.  At the height of our successful effort to stop our local refinery from importing dirty and dangerous crude oil by rail, almost 1,800 of you paid a visit to my pages one day – a record for the BenIndy that lasted for about 5 years.  Since I started reporting on COVID-19, more than 3,000 of you have checked my pages on 9 occasions, and on April 1 you set a new all-time record of 8,105 views.  A huge and unexpected leap!

Thank you!

Now what does all that have to do with the title of this piece, “Headlines in search of stories… coronavirus in Benicia and Solano County”?

Here’s the deal: every morning I get up and flip back and forth through about 7 local and national news channels on the tv.  I spend about an hour like that while I drink too much coffee and lean my sore back on an electric heating pad.  And I take notes – ideas about important stories that I really SHOULD cover on the Benicia Independent.

Now if I were an editor in chief with staff, I’d assign reporters to make phone calls and conduct interviews and come back with stories, important stories that really should be written.

Alas, that’s not me, and that’s not the BenIndy…

So, with all that lengthy introduction, here is my list of headlines in search of stories.  Please.  Someone out there – please get on the phone or otherwise track down the information that the public needs to know, for instance…

  • There’s a NATIONAL crisis in nursing homes – how many are sick in Solano County’s congregant facilities?  Where ARE our nursing homes and retirement facilities?  (None here in Benicia – so where do Benicians go when we get old and in need of care?  And how are those facilities doing???)
  • Testing in Solano County long term care facilities – numbers, results?
  • Solano has recorded 3 coronavirus deaths, 2 among those aged over 65.  Did they die in a hospital?  And before that, were they living at home or in a long term care facility?
  • Solano County is testing fewer than 50 per day – why?!!!
  • Today’s news: Contra Costa, Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco are expanding testing – why not expanded drive-through testing in multiple cities in Solano?
  • Unemployment numbers in Solano and Benicia?  Local numbers on those unemployed? And local numbers of unemployed with no health insurance?
  • Bolinas and SF Mission District are testing EVERYONE – why not here in Benicia?  (Yes I know Bolinas is tiny and wealthy, but can’t we think big?  Who are a few philanthropists and billionaires with ties to Benicia who could fund such a project?)
  • Reopening moves are beginning to appear in Bay Area counties.  Who is planning the reopening of Solano County, and what are the plans?  And will they be open to public comment?
  • Coronavirus and guns – with schools closed, March was the first month with NO SCHOOL SHOOTINGS in the US since 2002.  Rather a bittersweet statistic – do we celebrate, or weep?  (This despite an uptick in gun purchases.  And what’s that all about?!)
  • Surely there is a dire fiscal impact of the coronavirus lockdown on Benicia and Solano governmental cash flow and operations.  Details needed, and possible solutions.

Etc., etc…  You get the idea.  But who can take it on?  The huge problem with all this is the horrific times our local news media, journalists and reporters were suffering even before the pandemic.  Too many cutbacks, too few local journalists, too few local newspapers, and now too many absences, too much loss of revenue during these historic pandemic times.  (So yes, there’s another headline in search of a story.)

Roger Straw
The Benicia Independent

Yes, they are “Bomb Trains.” Even more importantly, they are “Global Destruction Trains”

Our Earth Day refocus on the larger issues

By Roger Straw, Editor, The Benicia Independent, April 22, 2015
This Sierra Club before-and-after photo of tar sands strip mining appeared with my 6/14/13 opinion in the Benicia Herald, “Do Benicians want tar-sands oil brought here?” – Roger Straw

My initial alarm over Valero’s proposal to build a crude-by-rail offloading facility here in my hometown came almost two years ago now, when I learned of the destruction in Alberta Canada caused by the mining and processing of tar sands.   It was plain to me that a decision to permit Valero Crude By Rail here, thousands of miles from those dirty bitumen mines, would position my hometown as a valued partner in the world’s most toxic oil extraction and transport operation.  I joined with others here in Benicia to organize so that we would have no part in that dirty game.

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec
Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

For me and for many along the rails in the U.S., our focus shifted gradually – or in some cases suddenly – to public safety issues surrounding Bakken shale oil train derailments and the resultant catastrophic explosions and fireballs.

Lately, I’m thinking that even though these safety concerns will not go away with the eventual passage of a few new laws and long-delayed safety regulations, we all might want to consider renewing and strengthening our original focus.

What we decide here along the tracks and in refinery towns has EVERYTHING to do with the situation in Alberta and the Upper Midwest where tar sands bitumen and shale oil is being produced.  People there, the land there, the wildlife, the air and water … these are the first and lasting victims of our thirst for cheap oil.

We hear so much about the oil boom’s contribution to “energy independence.”   Well, let’s focus on REAL energy independence: leave the oil in the ground, tax carbon, invest in clean energy.

The Benicia Independent has always been concerned with climate change, the air we breathe and the water and land that sustains life.  But our focus, like that of much of the media, has been primarily on the oil train derailments that have understandably shocked and frightened the public since July, 2013.  As editor and publisher, I’m serving notice this Earth Day, that the Benicia Independent is taking on a renewed commitment to cover the ongoing environmental damage and the increased risks of pollution if we permit oil trains.

You will begin to see more stories about proposed carbon taxes, polar ice, the destruction of land and lives in Alberta and the Upper Midwest and more.

Note that I fully expect my work to be dominated from time to time by the NEXT BIG EXPLOSION, and the NEXT ONE….  As long as oil trains rumble through our neighborhoods, city centers, mountains and wetlands and into our refinery industrial centers, we WILL see derailments.  And no matter the new federal safety rules and the efforts of the rail and oil industries, NOTHING can prevent the massive weight of a moving chain of these monstrous tank cars from coming off the tracks occasionally, accordion jackknifing, flipping and puncturing, setting off horrific explosions, and endangering human life and our natural world.  It will happen, and I will cover the news.

But for every day that you DON’T see a news report with fiery skies and black billowing smoke, please understand that the not-so-silent killer strip-mines and the fracking and horizontal drilling continue, too often unreported.  Far from most of us, but up close and real to the people who live there, our earth is groaning under the weight of our permitting decisions and our corporate desire for continued crude-oil profitability.

Here in Benicia, we will say NO to crude by rail.  It’s a tangible way to have a small say in the welfare of our town, our state, our nation and our beautiful planet earth.

Leave the oil in the ground.  Tax carbon.  Invest in clean energy.


Sightline Daily

Understanding the North American Tar Sands
Jan 14, 2015 Last year, Portland’s KBOO Community Radio profiled what is “the largest industrial project on Earth”: the North American tar sands. Typically, one hears of the “Canadian tar sands,” as if the issue is one that lives only north of the US national border and need not concern American citizens. But reporter Barbara Bernstein’s documentary, “Fighting Goliath,” revealed an alarming and very real threat…

Oil Change International

Tar Sands
Tar sands are found underneath Canada’s great boreal forest and consist of heavy crude oil trapped in a mixture of sand and clay. To extract oil from tar sands, companies must destroy fragile forest ecosystems and then use a very energy-intensive upgrading and refining process to turn that sludge into transportation fuel….

Natural Resources Defense Council

Stop Dirty Fuels : Tar Sands
In Canada, the oil industry is transforming one of the world’s last remaining intact ecosystems into America’s gas tank….

Forest Ethics

Canada’s tar sands is one of the largest industrial projects on the planet, and its environmental footprint is growing by the second. At a time when the world needs to transition to cleaner energy, the tar sands is the poster child of what we should not be doing. It’s time to put a healthy environment above corporate profit and the endless drive for more oil….

[More Google links on tar sands …]

Tar Sands Basics

Argonne National Laboratory
Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay,
sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can
be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is
then refined into oil.

Oil sands – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Oil sand is either loose sand or partially consolidated sandstone
containing a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, and water,
saturated with a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum
technically referred to as bitumen  (or colloquially tar due to its
similar appearance, odour, and colour).

Stop Dirty Fuels: Tar Sands


Extracting tar sands, and turning bitumen into crude oil, uses vast amounts of energy and water, and causes significant air and water pollution, and three times …

What are the Tar Sands? | Rainforest Action Network

Rainforest Action Network
The Keystone XL pipeline is a disastrous project of tar sands oil
companies that will do serious damage to our country and
climate.  If built, the spill prone …

Canada’s oil sands: The steam from below | The Economist

The Economist
Sep 6, 2014 – ONE of the bleakest scenes of man-made
destruction is the strip mining of oil sands in the forests of
Alberta, Canada. The sand is permeated …

Tar sands – Friends of the Earth


Tar sands are found underneath Canada’s great boreal forest and consist of heavy crude oil trapped in a mixture of sand and clay. To extract oil from tar sands, …

Canada’s tar sands: Muck and brass | The Economist

www.economist.com/node/17959688‎ – The Economist

But golf courses and suburban housing make the place liveable, and some locals have grown attached to Alberta’s tar sands and Fort McMurray, the town at the centre of them. “I’d like …

Unconventional Crude – The New Yorker

www.newyorker.com/magazine/…/unconventional-crud…‎ – The New Yorker

The tar sands begin near the border of Saskatchewan, around the latitude of Edmonton, and extend, in three major deposits, north and west almost to British Columbia. All in all, they …

How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?

www.scientificamerican.com/…/tarsands-and-keyston…‎  – Scientific American

The Opposite of Mining: Tar Sands Steam Extraction Lessens Footprint, but Environmental Costs Remain · Oil Sands Raise Levels of Cancer-Causing Compounds in Regional Waters.

What are Oil Sands? – Canadian Association of Petroleum …


Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. They are found in several locations around the globe including Venezuela, USA, Russia and Canada.

No Tar Sands | UK Tar Sands Network | What are tar sands?


Canada’s tar sands are the biggest energy project in the world,
currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Largely located
in Alberta, the tar sands …

OPEN LETTER: Crude by rail unsafe; Valero should withdraw its application

By Roger Straw, March 12, 2015

Crude by rail unsafe; Valero should withdraw its application

To the Editor of The Benicia Herald, and published there on Mar. 12:

Many thanks to Dr. James Egan for his thoughtful letter of March 10, “Timely decision on crude by rail warranted: Deny Valero’s application.”  His local voice amplifies a growing national sentiment, that crude by rail is simply too dangerous at this time.

As Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity wrote this week, “Before one more derailment, fire, oil spill and one more life lost, we need a moratorium on oil trains and we need it now.  The oil and railroad industries are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and our environment, and the Obama administration needs to put a stop to it.”

Even as officials in Washington DC are dealing with this crisis (much too slowly), Benicia has a powerful role to play.  We can do our part by denying Valero’s permit.  In fact, Valero can do its part – by acknowledging the horrendous piling up of recent derailments and explosions, the failing infrastructure and the unsafe tank cars, and withdrawing their application for the time being.  That would show real leadership in the oil industry.

Dr. Egan covered most of the issues extremely well, but didn’t mention that the tar-sands crude produced in Alberta Canada has proven volatile on trains as well, with two recent derailments resulting in spills and huge fires within 23 miles of each other outside Gogama, Ontario.  Tar-sands crude starts out as a sticky thick bitumen, and must be diluted with volatile and toxic fluids in order to be pumped into rail cars, a mix that can explode and burn just as Bakken crude explodes and burns when a tank car is ruptured.  The first train exploded outside Gogama on Feb. 14, and the second on March 7.  Those poor folks in Gogama are holding their breath, as the track runs right through town, and the First Nation people who live even closer to the derailments are in shock.  Valero has admitted that it wants permission to ship Bakken crude and tar-sands dilbit by train.

In addition to those two crashes in Ontario, we have seen conflagrations in West Virginia on Feb. 16 and in Illinois on Mar. 5.  You can’t have missed those.  Four “bomb train” explosions in three weeks!

In January 2014, I started a personal blog to keep an eye on crude by rail in the news.  At first, there wasn’t much beyond our local efforts to stop Valero’s proposal “in its tracks.”  Increasingly, the regional and national media have awakened to the health and safety issues that can destroy communities along the rails.  You can’t imagine the absolute flood of media coverage this last three weeks.  I can’t keep up anymore.  I’m picking and choosing which stories to repost [at BeniciaIndependent.com].

The economy of Benicia may very well take a tumble if Valero’s proposal is permitted: housing values may fall and businesses may look to safer locations and relocate.  According to Valero’s own analysis, the few jobs created by introducing oil trains here will be taken up by residents of other Bay Area towns.  New hires will spend most of their money where they live, not here in Benicia.

We need to take the long view – Valero can continue to process crude oil brought in on ships.  The multi-billion dollar industry will weather this minor setback.

Benicia Valero Crude-by-Rail comment period closes with a landslide of criticism

By Roger Straw

The Benicia Independent makes it easier for you to read comments of INDIVIDUAL state and regional agencies and organizations. See our updated Project Review page (or just see below).

Something UNUSUAL happened in Benicia on September 15, the final day of the public comment period on the Draft EIR on Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal. I understand that opponents of a project will almost always wait until the last day to submit public comments. But not only did a remarkable NUMBER of critical comments arrive in the City of Benicia’s inbox on September 15 – there was a dramatic landslide of comments from significant governmental agencies and environmental organizations, including…

Also highly significant on September 15 were written comments from four of Benicia’s Planning Commissioners: Steve Young, George Oakes, Susan Cohen Grossman and Belinda Smith.

Prior to September 15, the City also received critical comments from the

These documents are also downloadable from Project Review.