Category Archives: Davis CA

First oil, now coal: More fears of trains coming through Davis

Repost from the Davis Enterprise

First oil, now coal: More fears of trains coming through Davis

By Felicia Alvarez, March 25, 2016

The railways are rumbling with controversy once again as state agencies examine a coal train proposal that could send an additional 9 million tons of coal destined for export across California each year.

Four to six 100-car-long coal trains could travel through Davis each day under the plan, delivering coal from mines near Salt Lake City to a new cargo terminal in Oakland. The train route runs roughly parallel to Interstate 80, through Sacramento and Davis and onward to the Bay Area.

“It would more than triple the amount of coal coming out of the West Coast,” said Ray Sotero, communications director for state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland. Hancock introduced several bills in February to block the coal’s transportation.

The exports hinge on the construction of a new port in Oakland, which is receiving state funding for infrastructure and redevelopment in the surrounding areas. Development on the site has been underway for the past three to four years, led by developer Phil Tagami of Bowie Resource Partners, a Kentucky-based coal company with coal mines in Utah, Sotero said.

The coal train controversy arrives amid ongoing debate over Valero’s proposal to expand its refinery in Benicia and increase crude oil shipments by rail through Northern California.

The proposal — which would send 50-car-long crude oil shipments through Davis and nearby cities twice a day — was rejected last month by the Benicia Planning Commission, but the City Council will hear Valero’s appeal in April.

Coal is far less likely to explode or poison watersheds — unlike tar sands or crude oil — but it still poses an environmental threat, said Lynne Nittler, a Davis environmental advocate.

“It’s a little safer … but air quality-wise it’s nasty,” she said.

About 18,300 tons of coal dust per year could be released into Northern California’s air, affecting cities from Sacramento and Davis to Emeryville and Oakland, according to an environmental health and safety report by the Sierra Club. The report takes a lower-end estimate with the assumption that three coal trains could travel along the rail route each day.

Coal dust includes lead, mercury and arsenic, as well as fine particles that can contribute to asthma and heart disease, the report states. It also can contaminate air, water and soil, and homes and other buildings adjacent to the railroad tracks.

Local air quality is already below state safety standards, said Tom Hall, a spokesman for the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District. The region is currently at the “severe non-attainment” level for ground-level smog, he said.

Right now, railroad transport accounts for about 7 percent of nitrogen oxide — a key component of smog — in the area.

“Any extra nitrogen oxide is kind of a problem,” Hall said.

The notion of increasing coal shipments runs contrary to national trends on this greenhouse-gas-producing fuel. President Barack Obama took a stand against coal earlier this year, halting new coal mining leases, effectively putting a stop to new coal production on federal lands.

“We’ve become such short-term thinkers. … That thinking is deadly to us at this point,” Nittler said.

Meanwhile, the political battle rages on.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed a deal last week for a $53 million loan to support construction of the new terminal in Oakland. Proponents of the port project say it will bring new jobs and a consistent market for Utah’s struggling coal industry, the Los Angeles Times reports.

California legislators are igniting their own push against the coal trains through the four bills introduced by Hancock.

Two of the bills are directly geared at the Oakland port. SB 1277 would prohibit shipping coal through the port, which is publicly funded in part. SB 1278 would require an environmental impact review for agencies that have authority to vote on any part of the project.

SB 1279 and SB 1280 would prohibit the use of public funds to build or operate any port that exports coal, and require port facilities that ship bulk commodities and receive state funds to prohibit coal shipments or fully mitigate the greenhouse-gas emissions with coal combustion.

A hearing on the bills is scheduled for April 5 at the state Capitol.

Daily crude oil through Davis… Averted for now

Repost from the Davis Vanguard
[Editor:  See also the February 16 follow up in the Vanguard by Elizabeth Lasensky, Phillips 66 and Valero – A Tale of Two Oil Train Projects.  – RS]

Daily crude oil through Davis… Averted for now

By Lynne Nittler and Jean Jackman, February 14, 2016
Protesters of Oil Trains in Benicia / Courtesy Photo
Protesters of Oil Trains in Benicia / Courtesy Photo

It has been an exhausting and dramatic week for Davis activists and those from Sacramento and other cities uprail from the proposed Valero Refinery expansion in Benicia.

Ten of us have traveled from Davis in two carpools to testify on the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project.   We have participated actively in the stages of a complicated public review process that began in 2013. Now a final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) came up for a last public hearing before the Benicia Planning Commission.

A city of Davis official and a representative of the 7 regional Air Quality Management Districts also spoke.

We’ve been here before, and we were met with grateful hugs from our friends in Benicia, though we came to protect our own vulnerable city as much as theirs.

The Valero Refinery wants to bring two 50-car trains through Davis daily carrying highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota and other places. That would be 1.5 million gallons daily. It all hinges on whether or not Valero can get a permit to build a rail loading station.

Fortunately, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) gave our region legal standing, and our governmental agencies and individuals used it fully with letters when the draft EIR failed to include any mention of uprail impacts. The CEQA process protects people and the environment! Without it, the uprail communities like Davis would have had no voice at all. We will defend it fiercely from those who would weaken or dismiss this legal recourse.

The Revised DEIR recognized 11 “Significant and unavoidable Impacts” uprail but dismissed them all as “impacts without mitigations” by claiming “federal preemption” of the railroads.

For the third time, our Davis Council and Yolo County Supervisors sent letters and urged the Planning Commission not to certify the Final DEIR. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) which represents 22 cities and 6 counties sent a letter severely critical of the FDEIR, calling for the Benicia Planning Commission to “provide full and adequate responses to our comment letters,” and “to fully evaluate all measures to mitigate the significant environmental impacts that this Project will inevitably have on our communities and our residents.”

The sticky big issue is the interpretation of federal preemption. The contract attorney for Benicia insisted that it is illegal to raise objections to anything regarding the trains because that is all governed by the feds. The Benicia staff and the contract attorney recommended allowing the refinery to go forward.

Last week, the San Luis Obispo staff demonstrated a different take on the federal preemption issue. They recommended denying an expansion of the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery stating that the benefits were outweighed by safety concerns. Their Planning Commission is now opposing the project.

Fortunately, among those who testified were two lawyers from Sierra Club, two speakers for the Stanford Law School representing Center for Biological Diversity and two attorneys from Adams Broadwell Attorneys on behalf of SAFER California. All six of them put forward strong cases that the FDEIR does not meet CEQA, cannot be certified, and that the Benicia staff interpretation of federal preemption is not correct.

A Washington Post article was titled “Trains are carrying — and spilling —a record amount of oil.” It stated that “more than 141 unintentional releases were reported from railroad tankers in 2014…a nearly six-fold increase over the average of 25 spills per year during the period from 1975 to 2012 according to records of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Record.”  Neighbors who witnessed 14 tanker cars derailed and exploded near Mount Carbon W.V. likened the fireball to a scene from the apocalypse.  We are all familiar with the grizzly Canadian Lac-Mégantic wreck that wiped out the downtown near the Maine border and killed 47 people.

Public comment ended at 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday night. The Planning Commissioners listened politely and attentively to five-minute public comments by over 70 people, often personal, sometimes brilliant, and all but 6 opposed. They also allowed visual power points such as the one put together by Davis resident Elizabeth Lasensky which showed oil cars rolling past hordes of people at Picnic Day, tank cars traveling over the Sacramento River (a drinking water source for many communities), and the path of oil cars through downtown and next to the Mondavi Center. In Sacramento, 13,000 children attend 17 schools in the blast area—the area vulnerable to an accident. Our California State Capitol is also in the blast zone.

 After four nights of deliberation, the Benicia Planning Commission unanimously chose not to certify the FDEIR and denied a project permit. It is likely that Valero will appeal the commission’s decision to the Benicia City Council. For detailed reporting see  Read our testimony at

We activists let out a big sigh of relief…for now. And feel immense gratitude to the public service, endurance and respect demonstrated by the volunteer Benicia Planning Commission.

From Davis to Benicia: Lives are on the Line!

This is a PDF adaptation of a Powerpoint presentation prepared for the 2/8/16 Benicia Planning Commission hearing.

From Davis to Benicia: Lives are on the Line – a public hearing presentation

By Elizabeth Lasensky, Yolo MoveOn ( and Yolano Climate Action (

UPRR tracks in Davis 386
Click on the image to view the PDF presentation.



KCRA: Residents voice concerns over proposed rail transport in Benicia

Repost from KCRA News, Sacramento
[Editor:  This report suffers from a few errors of fact, but is a welcome bit of coverage.  Very few news reports have surfaced following last night’s important hearing.  I wasn’t able to embed the video of reporter Tom Miller.  Go to KCRA to watch.  – RS]

Residents voice concerns over proposed rail transport in Benicia

Two 50-car trains would move through cities like Sac, Davis

By Tom Miller, Feb 08, 2016 11:58 PM PST

KCRA 2016-02-08BENICIA, Calif. (KCRA) —A push to bring crude oil on trains through Northern California to the Bay Area has many residents in the towns and cities it would pass through worried about the environmental and safety risks that go with it.

Valero Energy Corporation is asking the Benicia Planning Commission to approve $55 million in upgrades to its local refinery.

The project would allow two 50-car trains, each carrying 35,000 barrels of crude oil, to unload at the refinery each day.

The crude would come from all over the continent and would be carried through major urban centers like Sacramento, Roseville and Davis.

“We are not confident that the cars that are being used for this transport will safely transport them through our communities, our sensitive habitat, along the rivers and streams in our region,” Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor said.

According to Saylor, 500,000 people live within a half-mile of the tracks in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.

An environmental impact report found eight “potentially significant impacts” that could be addressed with mitigation measures and 11 “significant and unavoidable impacts.”

Both categories include environmental effects on air quality and biological resources.

However, in the unavoidable impacts section, the report lists greenhouse gas emissions in addition to hazards and hazardous materials.

The report states the project could pose a significant threat to the public or environment in an accident involving a spill.

The report goes on to say, “Although the risk of such an occurrence is extremely low, the potential consequences of such an event could be extremely high.”

In 2013, 47 people were killed in Quebec, Canada, after a crude oil train derailed there.

Saylor is worried a similar incident could happen in Northern California.

“The highly volatile substances included within this transport could be very damaging to our communities, to our businesses (and) to our homeowners,” he said.

Valero insists that’s unlikely in Northern California. The company plans to use upgraded train cars and said its crude oil is less volatile.

“Some of the early concerns about rail safety are based on scenarios that wouldn’t exist in our project,” Valero’s Heath, Safety and Environment Director Chris Howe said.

The company, which contributes 20 percent of the money in Benicia’s general fund, currently employs 500 people within the city.

Howe said the upgrades at the refinery would create 120 temporary jobs during the anticipated five months of construction and 20 new, permanent jobs.

However, Howe said ultimately it is not Valero’s responsibility when it comes to assuring the public a disaster would not occur in Northern California.

“We look to the railroad to safely deliver that material to our refinery, but I point out that marine deliveries in the bay, much larger volumes, will be reduced in risk through the delivery of crude by rail,” he said.

Despite the environmental concerns, Benicia city staff recommended the planning commission approve the Valero project.

On Monday, Benicia City Hall was filled with more than a 100 people, hoping to weigh in on the proposal.

Elizabeth Lasensky carpooled from Davis with nearly a dozen others, hoping her anti crude-by-rail stance would be heard by the commissioners.

“Every time a train goes through, our probability is increased, and that’s just for an explosion,” Lasensky said. “We still have to deal with the air pollutants and the noise pollution.”

Because of the number of residents hoping to voice their concerns, the planning commission has scheduled public comment sessions every day through Thursday, when it’s expected to vote on the project.