State officials say Benicia underestimated oil train risks
Officials urge city to redo Valero refinery project safety analysis
By Tony Burchyns, 09/25/2014
State officials say Benicia has underestimated the risks of running oil trains through Roseville and other parts of Northern California to the Valero refinery.
In letter to the city last week, officials from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the Public Utilities Commission called on the city to redo its safety analysis before allowing the refinery to receive two 50-car oil trains a day.
The letter follows similar critical comments from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the cities of Davis and Sacramento and the University of California at Davis. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and San Francisco Baykeeper also have sent letters to Benicia expressing concerns about the project.
The state officials’ letter said that total potential derailments attributable to the plan, including those outside California, should be considered in the risk study. Officials also said that the city’s draft environmental impact report paid insufficient attention to train accidents other than derailments.
“The analyses of environmental impacts, including the risk and consequences of derailments, should not be limited to the section of track between Roseville and Benicia, and track at the refinery itself,” officials wrote. “The analyses should also cover the many miles of track, the distance of which will vary depending on entry point into the state, between the state border and Roseville.”
Valero’s project description identifies North America, Texas and other locations as possible sources of crude, but direct routes through Southern California and other areas of the state and country are not analyzed.
City officials have said their analysis was limited to the Union Pacific line between Benicia and Roseville because the other rail routes are unknown or haven’t been disclosed.
The letter also criticized the city’s finding that the risk of train spills of more than 100 gallons between Rosville to Benicia would be once in 111 years. Critics have said the analysis is flawed because it relies on rail safety data that predates the nation’s crude-by-rail boom.
The letter asserts that the city’s derailment and accident rate calculations are problematic and the legal enforceability of Valero’s commitment to use tank cars that meet that highest safety standards is unclear.
Benicia has declined to comment thus far on the numerous letters received during the report’s public comment period that ended Sept. 15. However, the city plans to respond to the comments before the project’s next public hearing, which has yet to be set.
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…
The DEIR comments for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project in Benicia closed on September 15, with a final landslide of important letters critical of the project arriving on the last day. Attorneys and others who have looked at the quality and quantity of the comments submitted believe at the very least the DEIR will have to be significantly revised to address the many serious issues raised, and then recirculated. They expect the analysis to take many months.
This is an example of an entire region coming together to respond to a serious threat to our safety and taking advantage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process to voice our many concerns before the project proceeds. The process is respectful and orderly, and allows governmental agencies, environmental organizations, and individuals all to respond. The responses range from detailed technical analysis of many pages according to the expertise of the agency, often relying on expert scientists and sometimes policy, to more personal or general concerns from the public at large. In addition, public testimony was taken at three lengthy Planning Commission meetings in July, August, and September, all of which can be accessed at the city site below. Finally, the Benicia Planning Commissioners themselves submitted written comments.
CEQA is a stunning example of democracy in action, and in the case of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, all concerned parties utilized the channel available to them to look closely at the short and long-term impacts of Bakken Crude and tar sands bitumen entering the state of California via rail.
All comments are added to the public legal record and incorporated as part of the review of the DEIR, and thus all concerns must be addressed in the final EIR. Furthermore, any item entered in the record can be used in future litigation.
The comments can all be read by order of the dates they were submitted at here In each batch posted, the organizations are listed first, followed by letters from individuals. Be patient, as the large files are slow to open. An easier, faster site to view the submissions can be found here
A few highlights of the hundreds of pages of commentary follow.
In the Sacramento region, our governmental agencies stepped forward on our behalf. Yolo County addressed the concern of the magnitude of an accident should one occur, among a range of other considerations about transport over the causeway. Read them here.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) on behalf of 22 cities and 6 counties raised a series of concerns including advance notification to emergency operations offices of crude oil shipments, limitations on storage of crude oil tank cars in urbanized areas, funding for training and outfitting emergency response crews, installing the best brakes to minimize risks, funding for rail safety projects, installing Positive Tran Controls to prevent accidents, and prohibiting shipments of unstabilized crude oil that has not been stripped of the most volatile elements (including flammable natural gas liquids). Read the full letter here.
The City of Davis concurred with the SACOG and County of Yolo letter concerns and added some specific considerations for trains passing through Davis. In particular, the letter states that the DEIR’s Project description is incomplete and misleading as written, given information about the use of 1232 tank cars and assumptions about “just-in-time” supply chain and the significant sidings that could be used for storage.
The letter also states that the DEIR inadequately describes the project setting as it gives no details about all the uprail cities the trains must pass through with their crude oil loads. Next, the DEIR improperly truncates its description of the project setting by ending the description at Roseville, when at the least the route should be studied to the California borders or better yet to the source of extraction. Clearly the source of the crude does pose a significant hazard to uprail communities that must be addressed in the DEIR.
The Project’s Significant Hazard Risk Requires Feasible Mitigation Measures which are not explored in the present version, and the Davis letter presents a list of possible mitigations. Finally, the City insists that the DEIR fails to analyze the cumulative impacts of the Project given the imminent plans for more daily crude oil trains. Read the full letter here.
The California Public Utilities Commission in conjunction with the Office of Spill Prevention and Response also commented at some length on the DEIR, submitting their letter on Governor Brown’s letterhead. Read the full letter here. The letter addresses issues about the length of track analyzed, the derailment and accident calculations, the legal enforceability of the Valero commitment to use CPC- 1232 tank cars, the total derailments attributable to the project, insufficient attention paid to potential consequences, assumption regarding the number of cars expected to derail and other areas.
Many other governmental agencies including several Air Quality Management Districts wrote letters examining aspects of the DEIR. Just browse the commentary postings.
Environmental Groups The Natural Resources Defense Council Document is a must read for the environmental group letters submitted! It clearly lays out so many of the flaws with the DEIR! Rather than a summary, go right to the document here!
For a technical review, check in to Communities for a Better Environment or read the San Francisco Baykeeper’s review, or technical reviews by other experts here.
Last but not least, read the letters from Cool Davis on Greenhouse Gas emissions and from 350 Sacramento at the link above.
Finally, many dozens of residents did their best to add their voices commenting on their personal concerns, whether or not they attended the five workshops offered. Some wrote of living close to the railroad tracks and their worries of a derailment and explosion. Others pointed out the noise and vibrations of the daily mile-long trains of heavy tank cars. Others wrote about the potential danger of crude oil trains on tracks that run through areas with earthquake fault lines, and many asked probing questions about the liability and who would cover the costs of accidents and spills. Many were concerned about our water supply as trains cross the mountains and our major rivers. A few raised questions about the cumulative impact of the Valero daily trains in the context of the proposed daily train to Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery in San Luis Obispo County whose DEIR is to be released this month.
The review period for the federal Department of Transportation proposed safety rules remains open to public comment through September 30. A petition from ForestEthics is available for signatures through September 21.
The DEIR for the proposed recirculated DEIR for the Phillips 66 Rail Spur Project for the Santa Maria refinery in San Luis Obispo that will bring 80 tank cars of crude oil through Davis each day will be released mid-September for a 60-day review period. Watch Cooldavis.org and Yolanoclimateaction.org for ways to respond during the comment period.
Check out these AMAZING critiques of Valero’s Draft EIR.
Here in Benicia on Friday, September 15, the final day of the public comment period, we congratulated Benicians For a Safe and Healthy Community’s DEIR subcommittee for their extraordinary effort – it’s long, but you have to at least scan through it a bit. Incredible detail and thoroughness, representing untold hours of expert volunteer labor!
If that wasn’t enough, as the day went by we were astounded when we received copies of critical comments from nearby environmental groups. In light of these studies, no one will be surprised if the City and Valero choose to re-write and recirculate the document. Some are saying Valero might simply withdraw the proposal. These highly technical reviews are overwhelming, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Valero’s DEIR is fatally flawed. See below… (note: many of these are very large downloads – please be patient!)
A number of individuals also submitted comments and questions at the close of the comment period. These will be made available on our Project Review page when they are collated and published by the City.