Tag Archives: California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)

Senator calls on Jerry Brown to halt crude oil trains in ‘treacherous’ California mountain passes

Repost from the Sacramento Bee
[Editor: See also KQED News: Call for Suspension of Crude-by-Rail Shipments After Feather River Derailment (including an embedded copy of Senator Hill’s letter).  – RS]

Senator calls on Jerry Brown to halt crude oil trains in ‘treacherous’ California mountain passes

By Tony Bizjak, 12/02/2014
A crude oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way west through James, Ca., just outside of the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley on June 5, 2014.
A crude oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way west through James, Ca., just outside of the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley on June 5, 2014. JAKE MIILLE SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Sen. Jerry Hill on Tuesday called on Gov. Jerry Brown to halt the transport of crude oil on trains and other hazardous materials “through our most treacherous passes.”

The request by Hill, D-San Mateo, comes in reaction to a corn train derailment last week in the Feather River Canyon that sent train cars and corn spilling down an embankment into the river. The cause of the derailment is under investigation.

The Feather River route through Plumas and Butte counties is used by at least one train a week carrying up to 2.9 million gallons of highly flammable Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. More crude oil trains are expected to be coming into the state in the next few years, most of them traversing mountains passes deemed “high-risk” for derailments by the state Public Utilities Commission. State officials have said they do not believe California is ready to deal with the consequences of a major oil spill and fire.

“This incident serves as a warning alarm to the state of California,” Hill wrote in a letter to the governor. “Had Tuesday’s derailment resulted in a spill of oil, the spill could have caused serious contamination” in Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir, a source of drinking water for millions in the state.

Other “high-risk” derailment sections in Northern California include UP lines outside of Dunsmuir and Colfax.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said the state cannot stop interstate commerce, but said the state needs to continue to work with the railroads to assure safer shipments. “These trains are going to come through,” he said. “We need to work together with the industry to put every safety precaution possible in place.”

Several environmental groups filed a petition Tuesday in San Francisco federal court seeking to force the federal government to ban older railroad cars – DOT-111s built before 2011 – from transporting crude oil. The U.S. Department of Transportation last month rejected the groups’ demand. DOT says it’s developing new guidelines that will phase out the older cars.

KTVU News: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

Repost from KTVU 2 News, Oakland, CA
[Editor: an excellent investigative report, much of which was filmed here in Benicia.  Apologies for the video’s commercial ad.  – RS]

 2 Investigates: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

By Simone Aponte, Nov 17, 2014

RICHMOND, Calif. – California used to receive all of its crude oil imports by ship and pipeline, but trains loaded with tanker cars full of oil are rolling through Bay Area neighborhoods with increasing frequency. And it’s a growing safety concern among experts who say rail imports will become much more common in the next few years, bringing millions of gallons of crude to local refineries.  Much of that crude is a more volatile type of oil that has been linked to multiple derailments, fires, and deadly accidents.

2 Investigates followed trains rolling through neighborhoods in Richmond carrying millions of gallons of crude oil, in tanker cars that have been deemed unsafe by the federal government. And the railroad is not required to tell local officials how many of those cars are carrying a more volatile oil from the Bakken shale formation, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada.

The transport of Bakken crude by rail has been at the center of federal investigations and calls for increased safety standards. It’s delivered to the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond, but local officials complain that they receive no notification of which trains are carrying Bakken crude.

Increased deliveries and increased danger

“These are trains that have up to 100 tank cars and those are filled with Bakken crude,” said Kelly Huston, Deputy Director with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). “That’s an entire train full of a much more volatile type of crude oil than we typically see on rail.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a warning that Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil is prone to ignite at a lower temperature than traditional crude oils. Experts say lighter crudes contain more natural gas, and the vapors given off by the oil can ignite at much lower temperatures.

But the oil industry pushed back with its own study that disputed the government warning. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 oil companies operating in North Dakota and Montana, commissioned a $400,000 study of Bakken crude. It determined the oil’s characteristics are within the safety margin for the current fleet of rail tankers.

However, the state’s Rail Safety Working Group –convened by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) – wasn’t convinced. It released a report that warns about the dangers of increasing the shipments of Bakken crude to California refineries. The report points to at least eight major train accidents involving Bakken crude trains in 2013 and 2014 alone.

Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press / AP“Incidents involving crude oil from the Bakken shale formation have been particularly devastating,” the authors warn.

Some of the most notable accidents include a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. Sixty-three tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 42 people. Five other people were also presumed to be dead, but were never recovered.

In 2012, about one million barrels of crude oil were delivered to California by rail. But by 2013 that number had jumped to about 6.3 million barrels.  The California Energy Commission estimates that volume could increase by up to 150 million barrels, or 25% of total crude imports, by 2016.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the primary source of the crude oil coming into California was from North Dakota, in early 2013. But by the end of that year, the state was receiving a dramatic increase in imports from Canada.

Old tanker cars

For more than twenty years, the federal government has been aware of major flaws in one of the most common tanker car designs used to transport crude oil across America.

According to a 1991 safety study from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the DOT-111 tanker has a steel shell that is too thin to resist puncture during an accident, is vulnerable to tearing, and has exposed fittings and valves that can easily snap off during a rollover.

Torn DOT-111 Tanker Car And DOT-111s make up nearly 70 percent of oil tanker cars currently in use in the U.S., according to the NTSB. Critics say that shipping volatile Bakken crude in these tankers poses an “unacceptable risk” to public safety.

In his Congressional testimony in February, NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt cited multiple train accidents and derailments involving Bakken crude transported in DOT-111 tanker cars.

“The NTSB continues to find that accidents involving the rupture of DOT-111 tank cars carrying hazardous materials often have violent and destructive results,” Sumwalt said.

“Federal requirements simply have not kept pace with evolving demands placed on the railroad industry and evolving technology and knowledge about hazardous materials and accidents.”

This past summer, the DOT announced that it would propose stricter rules for transporting flammable materials by rail car, including Bakken crude. The plan calls for DOT-111 tanker cars to be phased out, unless they can be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

Last month, Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that his group and the Association of American Railroads would jointly ask the DOT for six to 12 months for rail tank car manufacturers to prepare to overhaul tens of thousands of cars, and another three years to retrofit older cars.

But critics say the government’s plan doesn’t act swiftly enough.
Devora Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, said the group has multiple concerns about Bakken crude trains coming into California, in particular in regards to the age of DOT-111 fleet.

“It is extremely alarming and the public should be concerned,” said Ancel. “It’s being carried in rail cars that are unsafe. They were designed in the 1960’s. They were not meant to transport highly volatile crude.”

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice submitted a petition to the DOT seeking an emergency order to ban the transportation of Bakken crude in DOT-111 tank cars. The petition acknowledges that the DOT’s proposal for stricter rules is a step in the right direction, but stresses that two years is too long to phase out the DOT-111 cars.

“The last few years have witnessed a surge in shipments of highly flammable crude from the Bakken region, mostly in unit trains with dozens and often more than 100 tank cars carrying explosive cargo. The growth in the number and length of trains carrying crude oil is staggering,” the petition said.

Modified DOT-111 Tanker Car in RichmondTwo trainloads of Bakken crude roll into the Richmond Rail Terminal every month, according to the city’s fire department. But the fire officials tells KTVU that they’ve been reassured by Kinder-Morgan that the DOT-111 tank cars that make deliveries to Richmond have undergone additional safety modifications. Every individual tanker car carries more than 28,000 gallons of crude oil.

Tracking routes

Trains entering the Bay Area carrying crude oil from Canada and North Dakota must pass through parts of California that are considered hazardous routes, according to Huston.  In the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) annual railroad safety report, released in July, the agency said California has had 58 train derailments in the last five years, and primary cause has been a problem with the track at so-called “hazard sites.”

MAP: Rain Lines and Hazardous Areas in California

The state’s OES report on rail safety also voiced concerns about risky routes being used to transport Bakken crude.  The Rail Safety Working Group complained that crude oil rail transportation is not regulated adequately.

The report states that crude oil is “not transported with the level of protection mandated for the degree of hazard posed,” and also stressed there are “inadequacies in route planning to avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas, and a need for auditing rail carriers to ensure adequate response.”

One of OES’s biggest concerns is that it receives very little information about the Bakken crude trains’ schedules, and none of the data it does receive is in real time.

“Just like you would know where an Amtrak train is and whether is late to a station or not,” said Huston. “We should be able to know that about volatile substances like Bakken crude coming across our rail lines.”

Emergency response

The growing worries over the volatility of Bakken crude are particularly important for firefighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with derailments and possible fires.
According to the OES, the biggest areas of concern lie in the rural areas of Northern California, where emergency response crews are far from remote rail lines and wouldn’t be able to respond to a spill or fire quickly.

The OES report states that while there are emergency crews prepared to handle a crude tanker disaster in urban areas, “none are located near the high hazard areas in rural Northern California.” And HazMat teams that are located in more remote regions “are equipped to perform only in a support rather than lead role during a major chemical or oil incident.”

“If you get one of those trains derail and that stuff goes into the river that could affect an entire population’s water supply, which is, in some cases, worse than having a derailment in a population center,” said Huston.

Valero-Benicia refinery firefighters simulate a leak on an oil tanker car and practice using foam to quell the vapors.Last month, the Valero-Benicia refinery Fire Chief Joe Bateman led a training session with local fire departments that focused on tanker car fires. They simulated a leak on an oil tanker car and practiced using foam to quell the vapors. A small group of Richmond firefighters will attend a similar training in December, according to the Richmond Fire Marshall.

The Valero-Benicia refinery is seeking a permit to bring in crude-by-rail shipments. They would join Richmond and a planned refinery in San Luis Obispo that would also be supplied with crude carried by train through the Bay Area.

But the idea is meeting resistance from worried neighbors.
Benicia’s city council must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on the proposal. The $70 million terminal would receive two 50-car trainloads, carrying a total of about 70,000 barrels of crude oil, every day. The company has said that it will use newer tanker cars instead of the aging DOT-111s that have been involved in past accidents.

Chief Bateman insists that his crews are prepared if the worst should happen with a trainload of Bakken crude traveling through the Bay Area.

“I understand that it’s a big increase. I understand the public is concerned by that,” Chief Bateman said. “If you look at some of the other rail cars that are already on the tracks today… we’ve been shipping commodities for a long time.” Bateman points out that some of those other substances are more volatile than crude oil, such as liquefied petroleum gas.

Placard 1267 Signifies Crude OilWhen first responders arrive at chaotic train accident scene, all the black tanker cars essentially look the same. The contents are distinguished by a red, diamond-shaped placard on the side of the car that displays a four-digit code. The code for crude is 1267, but there is no way for emergency crews to tell if the oil inside is the volatile Bakken variety.

In April, Canada banned the older tanker cars and ordered the controversial design be phased out within three years. Last month, another train carrying crude oil derailed in Saskatchewan, involving the same kind of rail cars. There were no casualties in that accident.

Railroads file suit against state of California

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor’s UPDATE: Download the complaint here.  – RS] 

Railroads say California lacks authority to impose safety rules on oil shipments

By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate, Oct. 8, 2014
A crude oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way through James, California, just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills of Sacramento Valley, on June 5, 2014.
Virginia emergency responders learn about the different types of railroad tank cars in a safety class at a CSX yard in Richmond, Va., on Oct. 3, 2014. About 66 first responders, including firefighters, participated in the daylong event. CSX has brought its “Safety Train” this year to communities in states where it hauls large volumes of crude oil. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy)

The battle over crude oil trains in California intensified this week, reaching into the legal sphere with potential national repercussions.

The state’s two major railroad companies, Union Pacific and the BNSF Railway, went to federal court Tuesday to argue that neither California nor any other state can legally impose safety requirements on them because the federal government already does that.

The lawsuit came days after California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined other officials in challenging one crude-by-rail project, in the Bay Area city of Benicia. In a letter to Benicia officials, Harris said the city has failed to adequately analyze the potential environmental consequences of Valero Refining Company’s plan to ship two 50-car oil trains daily through Northern California to its Benicia refinery.

Those shipments would run through downtown Sacramento and other Valley cities.

The Valero project and similar plans by other oil companies prompted the state Legislature this summer to pass a law ordering railroad companies to submit an oil spill prevention and response plan to the state, and to provide proof to the state that they have enough money to cover oil-spill damages.

Railroads fired back this week, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Their argument: Federal law pre-empts the state from imposing safety restrictions on the railroads.

The suit was filed by the two largest railroads in the Western United States, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. The industry’s leading trade group, the Association of American Railroads, is listed as co-plaintiff.

The fight involves a long-standing friction point between railroads and U.S. states and cities. Railroads contend that local governments cannot place requirements or restrictions on freight travel because federal laws cover that ground.

The railroads have used the federal pre-emption argument to stop states from trying to impose speed limits on trains and ban certain types of shipments. In one notable case, railroads got the courts to overturn a Washington, D.C., law that attempted to ban trains carrying hazardous materials from using tracks within 2 miles of the U.S. Capitol.

“Federal law exempts this entire regime,” the railroads declared in the California lawsuit. Citing “a sweeping set of intricate federal statutes and regulations,” the lawsuit argues that allowing states to impose a “patchwork” of requirements on railroads essentially interferes with interstate commerce.

In a separate email statement Wednesday, BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said, “The state gives the industry no choice but to challenge the enforcement of the new law so as to not inhibit the efficiencies and effectiveness of the freight rail industry and the flow of commerce.”

Officials at the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the state agency listed as the defendant in the case, declined comment Wednesday, saying the agency does not publicly discuss pending litigation. Harris’ office is listed as a co-defendant.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in July proposed a rule that would require railroads to have oil spill response plans for trains carrying large volumes of crude oil. But that proposal could be months away from becoming law.

National transportation law and safety experts say the onus may be on California to prove that it is not usurping federal law or impeding interstate commerce.

“The state has to prove it is tackling what is a local or statewide issue, that it is not incompatible (with federal law) and doesn’t unreasonably burden interstate commerce,” said Brigham McCown, an attorney and former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “That is a high bar.”

California might have an opening in a 2007 law Congress passed after the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations. The 9/11 Act required rail companies to develop security plans and share them with state and local officials. The requirement was not limited to planning for a terrorist attack, but for any rail disaster, including derailments and spills involving hazardous materials.

“Those plans are required to be done and required to be shared,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, the former senior counsel on the House Homeland Security Committee, who wrote the provisions.

The Transportation Security Administration has not enforced the requirement, Krepp said, partly because of its focus on aviation security. But now that the railroads have taken California to court, Krepp said the state could use the 9/11 Act as leverage to get what it tried to get from the railroads through legislation.

“It’s never been tested like this,” Krepp said of the federal law.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the railroads also are challenging the section of the California law that imposes a 6.5-cent fee on oil companies for every barrel of crude that arrives in California on rail, or that is piped to refineries from inside the state. The resulting funds, estimated at $11 million in the first full year, will be allocated for oil spill prevention and preparation work, and for emergency cleanup costs. The efforts will be focused on spills that threaten waterways, and will allow officials to conduct response drills.

Crude-oil rail shipments have risen dramatically in the last few years. Those transports, many carrying an unusually flammable crude from North Dakota, have been involved in several spectacular explosions, including one that killed 47 residents of a Canadian town last year. Federal officials and cities along rail lines have been pushing for safety improvements. California officials have joined those efforts, saying they are concerned by estimates that six or more 100-car oil trains will soon be rolling through the state daily on the way to coastal refineries.

Harris, the state’s top law enforcement official, sent a letter to Benicia city planners challenging that city’s conclusion in an environmental impact report that the Valero rail shipment plan poses an insignificant threat of derailment. The report, she writes, “underestimates the probability of an accidental release from the project by considering only a fraction of the rail miles traveled when calculating the risk of a derailment.”

“These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action” on the project, Harris wrote.

Harris’ letter repeats earlier criticism leveled by the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response and state Public Utilities Commission.

The letter is one of hundreds Benicia has received in the past few months in response to the city’s initial environmental study. Benicia interim Community Development Director Dan Marks said the city and its consultants would review the comments and prepare responses to all of them, then bring those responses to the city Planning Commission for discussion at an as-yet undetermined date.

Under the Valero proposal, trains would carry about 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily to the Benicia refinery from U.S. and possibly Canadian oil fields, where it would be turned into gasoline and diesel fuel. Valero officials have said they hope to win approval from the city of Benicia to build a crude-oil transfer station at the refinery by early next year, allowing them to replace more costly marine oil shipments with cheaper oil.

A representative for the attorney general declined comment when asked if Harris would consider suing Benicia to force more study of the project.

“We believe the letter speaks for itself,” spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said. “We expect it will be taken seriously.

Benicia Herald: Attorney General – Valero DEIR ‘inadequate’

Repost from The Benicia Herald

State AG: Valero DEIR ‘inadequate’

October 9, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman
■ Kamala Harris letter to city: Crude-by-rail report fails to address multiple key issues
CALIFORNIA Attorney General Kamala Harris. oag.ca.gov/
CALIFORNIA Attorney General Kamala Harris. oag.ca.gov/

In a letter composed Oct. 2, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris urged Benicia to revise the Draft Environmental Impact Report prepared for the proposed Valero Crude-by-Rail Project.

She and Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig wrote Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million, saying, “Unfortunately, the DEIR for this project fails to properly account for many of the project’s potentially significant impacts.”

The city released the lengthy DEIR June 17 and extended the public comment period on the document until Sept. 15 at the request of many members of the public as well as such agencies as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

Harris, in her letter, said the DEIR underestimates the chances of accidental chemical releases because it looks at “only a fraction of the rail miles traveled when calculating the risk of derailment, by relying on a currently unenforceable assumption that newer, safer tank cars will be used, by failing to adequately describe the potential consequences of an accident resulting in a release of crude oil, and by improperly minimizing the risk to public safety from increased rail-use.”

In fact, she wrote, the DEIR “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts” by limiting its scope to the 69 miles of rail between Benicia and Roseville.

She criticized the emissions baseline used to determine whether the project would affect air quality, and wrote that the document also failed to analyze the impacts from “the foreseeable change in the mix of crude oils processed at the refinery.”

The DEIR, moreover, “fails to consider the cumulative impacts on public safety and the environment from the proliferation of crude-by-rail projects proposed in California,” Harris wrote, saying that about a dozen such projects are in various stages of consideration and completion in the state.

She also wrote that the DEIR “employs an overly broad determination of trade secrets,” meaning the document didn’t provide enough information for an adequate analysis of safety risks and air quality impacts from refining the crude oil.

“The DEIR frustrates the purpose of CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) by not disclosing information regarding the particular crude oil feedstocks expected to be delivered upon project completion,” Harris wrote.

Missing information includes weight, sulfur content, vapor pressure and acidity of the crude, she wrote, adding that both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services have said specific characteristics of crude oil transported by train aren’t protected trade secrets, and that such information has been published about other projects.

“Benicia’s nondisclosure of this information deprives both the public and Benicia officials of the informed decision-making process that is the ‘heart’ of CEQA,” Harris wrote.

In her 15-page letter, the attorney general wrote that from 2012 to 2013 deliveries of crude oil into California increased from 1 million barrels to 6.3 million barrels, “a rise of 506 percent.”

That method of delivery is replacing crude oil transported by ship and pipeline, she wrote.

Harris wrote that about a dozen crude-by-rail projects are in various stages of development in California, and if all are approved, billions of gallons of crude oil could be brought into California by train.

“The trend shows no sign of abatement, and the California Energy Commission projects that by 2016, the state will import up to 150 million barrels of crude by rail,” she wrote.

Only recently has crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken shale and Canadian tar sands been arriving in the state, she noted, adding that “Bakken crude is unlike other crude being produced or shipped in this country, and it presents an ‘imminent hazard’ because it is more ignitable and flammable, and thus more likely to cause large, potentially catastrophic impacts from a train crash or derailment.

“On the other end of the spectrum, crude oil extracted from Canadian tar sands is a low-grade, high-sulfur feedstock that is not as volatile as lighter crudes like Bakken but contains chemical properties that make it particularly damaging to the environment when spilled and/or burned.”

Harris called the increase in oil delivery by “high-hazard flammable trains” a “new potential hazard to public safety and the environment.”

High-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) are those with 20 or more carloads of flammable liquids that Harris wrote would experience more frequent and more severe derailments because they are heavier, longer, less stable and harder to control than other rail traffic.

To back her contention, Harris wrote that in 2013 alone trains spilled more than 1.1 million gallons of crude, saying that represented a 72-percent increase in the amount of oil spilled collectively in the previous 40 years.

Of the nine major accidents she wrote were crude-by-rail-related, she listed four often-cited incidents: the July 5, 2013 derailment at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, in which 47 died when 72 tank cars on a runaway train crashed into the city’s downtown area; the Nov. 8, 2013 accident and fire in Aliceville, Ala., when 30 tank cars derailed; the Dec. 30, 2013 collision in Casselton, N.D., between an oil train and a grain train in which 34 cars derailed and crude exploded and burned for more than 24 hours; and the April 30, 2014 derailment in downtown Lynchburg, Va., in which three cars caught fire and some cars landed in a trackside river.

When Harris turned her attention specifically to the Benicia DEIR, she wrote that it “employs improper standards of significance, unenforceable mitigation measures and inadequate analyses to conclude that the project will not have a significant impact on ‘up-rail’ communities.”

The project needs a use permit to extend Union Pacific Rail into Valero Benicia Refinery property so two 50-car trains can deliver 70,000 barrels of North American crudes daily. According to the proposal, the oil delivered by rail would replace an equal amount currently brought to the refinery by ship.

Other elements of the project would be construction of offloading racks, rail spurs and supply piping, in addition to a few other changes at the plant.

Harris disagreed with the DEIR’s contention that the chances of a crude oil spill from a train is one in 111 years, in part because the document only looks at tracks from the Union Pacific’s Roseville terminal to Benicia.

“The tank cars containing crude oil do not originate in Roseville,” she wrote. “They are delivered by rail from particular sources, including North Dakota and Canada.”

Even if the odds are correct, Harris wrote, she disagreed that it would be “an insignificant impact,” and pointed out the 27 schools near that stretch of rail weren’t given consideration regarding public health and safety risks.

She also wrote that the DEIR assumes Valero only would use the newer 1232 tank cars for its oil transport.

Those cars are considered to be stronger and more reinforced than the DOT-111 models, designed in the 1960s, that have been involved in some of the recent high-profile derailments, but Harris noted the newer cars aren’t required by current federal regulations. The DOT is currently collecting comments on new tank standards, and is proposing to phase out the DOT-111 models by 2017.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry trade group, said 98,000 of the older DOT-111 cars remain in service and are carrying both crude and ethanol in the U.S. and Canada, and Harris said the DOT still allows their use for that purpose.

Meanwhile, the attorney general wrote, oil companies are asking to delay that change even longer.

However, not all participants in the industry feel that way. BNSF, the largest carrier of Bakken crude, announced in February that it would buy 5,000 new tank cars built with the most modern safety features — an unusual step for a railroad, since most do not own cars, but haul cars owned or leased by customers.

AAR has recommended phasing out or refitting the older model cars with improved valves and handles, thicker tanks and thermal protection.

Some Canadian companies have chosen to charge higher rates for older-model cars in hopes of accelerating the switch to newer cars.

According to the Rail Supply Institute, an organization representing shippers and tank car owners, 55,000 of the newer model cars have been ordered through 2015.

Some observers remain unconvinced that stronger cars are the solution. The Lynchburg, Va., crash involved cars built after 2011.

Harris wrote that the DEIR doesn’t assure that Valero has enough 1232 upgraded tank cars to avoid the use of the DOT-111 cars.

She also criticized the DEIR for considering only spills of more than 100 gallons as “significant.” She wrote that significant impacts could come from smaller spills.

Should a spill occur and ignite in an urban area, contaminate the Suisun Marsh or require a significant hazardous materials cleanup, “the costs borne by the California taxpayer from such a calamity could be substantial,” Harris wrote.

She explained that the DOT recently acknowledged that insurance policies carried by crude-by-rail transporters are often insufficient to cover even minor accidents.

The DEIR indicates risks of release on marine vessels traveling in the ocean would be reduced by the Valero project. Harris wrote that those risks “are fundamentally different than the risks associated with crude by rail traveling long distances through urban communities and environmentally sensitive lands.”

She did not elaborate about hazards to marine life from spills, collisions or equipment use. Some environmental groups have expressed concerns about those impacts, but their representatives have said accumulating data on those impacts can be challenging because whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other animals sink to the ocean bottom after being killed or injured, and thus can’t be documented.

Harris objected to the DEIR’s contention that the project would not have a significant impact on air quality even if emissions increased. The report said those increases wouldn’t exceed the maximum allowed under the refinery’s existing permits.

“Rather than using a baseline describing ‘existing conditions,’ Benicia incorrectly uses the maximum permitted emissions as the baseline, asserting that this is proper,” she wrote.

“There is no evidence, however, that the refinery has ever operated at the maximum permitted emissions level since the VIP (Valero Improvement Project) was completed.”

Harris also contended that the DEIR doesn’t adequately analyze potential air quality impacts from processing the new blended crude.

Million, City Manager Brad Kilger and Valero officials were asked for comment on Harris’s letter, but did not reply by press time Wednesday.

“We urge the city of Benicia to revise the project’s DEIR to address the deficiencies explained in this letter so that the City Council and general public are provided a full and accurate accounting of the project’s environmental impacts,” Harris wrote.