Category Archives: Draft EIR

Benicia Planning Commission special session on June 30



The City of Benicia just announced that they will be holding a special meeting of the Planning Commission on Monday, June 30th, “a general training session on the California Environmental Quality Act and more specifically reviewing a DEIR.  Kat Wellman, Special Counsel, will provide the training. “ The meeting is open to the public and will be held at at 7pm in the City Hall Chambers.   The AGENDA states that they will not be discussing the Valero CBR Project.

NOTE: This means there will be TWO such workshops in Benicia:

  1. The Planning Commission workshop on June 30
  2. Benicians For a Safe and Healthy Community is hosting a similar workshop on Saturday, June 28, 1-4pm at the Benicia Library.  Details here.   Download the flyer: WORKSHOP: How to Respond to Valero’s Draft Environmental Impact Report.

Benicia DEIR downplays risks in marked contrast to NRDC assessment

Repost from AllGov California

This Is Where Deadly Crude Oil Trains May Be Rolling Through California

By Ken Broder, June 20, 2014
(graphic: Natural Resources Defense Council)

Although this country’s oil boom has been accompanied by an explosion of dangerous crude-carrying trains―literally and figuratively―a much-anticipated environmental impact report (Summary pdf) says the spill threat from Valero Refining Company’s proposal to run 100 tanker cars a day through Roseville and Sacramento to its Benicia refinery is negligible.

The draft EIR, written by Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco for the city of Benicia and released on Tuesday, singled out air pollution, “significant and unavoidable,” as the sole danger among 11 “environmental resource or issue areas.”

The next day, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released seven maps detailing the rail routes through the “Crude Oil Train Derailment Risk Zones in California,” which stretches from the Bay Area to the Central/San Joaquin Valley and encompasses 4 million people.

The NRDC’s assessment of risk was markedly different than in the EIR. Noting that “California has seen a dramatic increase of crude by rail, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million barrels in 2013” without any new safety measures or emergency response put in place, the NRDC report said the aging “soda cans on wheels” are not built to handle the particularly volatile crude being fracked out of the ground in America’s rejuvenated oil fields like those in North Dakota, and shipped to refiners.

Tracks would run within half a mile of 135,000 people in Sacramento and 25,000 people in Davis.

The NRDC wants old tanker cars removed from service, lower speeds for trains, rerouting through less-sensitive areas, disclosure of what kind of crude is being carried, more visible emergency preparedness, fees on shippers to pay for emergency response, high-risk designations for oil-trains and more comprehensive risk assessments.

The EIR was a bit more upbeat.

It concluded that oil spills between Roseville and Benicia would occur about once every 111 years. The project would have no impact on agriculture and forestry resources or mineral resources. It would also have less-than-significant impacts on aesthetics, population and housing, public services, recreation and utilities and service systems.

In other words, the assumption is there won’t be anything like the tragic accident in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 72 tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town’s core. As Russell Gold and Betsy Morris explained in the Wall Street Journal, “Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a wide body jetliner.”

The Sacramento Bee said the risk assessment’s author, Christopher Barken, previously worked for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association.

Barken’s website at the University of Illinois, where he is a professor and executive director of the Railroad Engineering Program, says, “Our strong relationship with the rail industry means our research has an impact.”

In describing the twice-a-day snaking of 50-car trains through heavily populated areas, the report offered far more information than has generally been made available by rail companies to state and local governments, as well as disaster first-responders. But the EIR did acknowledge Benicia would not reveal seven Valero “trade secrets” (pdf) at the oil company’s request.

That “confidential business information” included the specific crude Valero would be shipping in by rail and the properties of crude it refined now or in the past. That lack of information would be complicating factors in accurately assessing pollution and risk.

California, like states and localities across the nation, are scrambling just to get a handle on how much crude-by-rail is coursing through their jurisdictions, much less assessing what regulations and safety measures need to be put in place. They are working blind.

A study by Politico analyzed 400 oil-train incidents nationally since 1971 and found a dramatic escalation the past five years. Property damage from 70 accidents through mid-May this year is already $10 million, triple the year before.

“It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said.

They must. Because the trains are already rolling and Valero would like to get its California project finished by the end of the year. America is waiting.

Long-awaited Valero crude-by-rail EIR delayed again

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: See also coverage in The Sacramento Bee  – RS]

Long-awaited Valero crude-by-rail EIR delayed again

June 9, 2014 by Donna Beth Weilenman

A draft of the city’s environmental impact report (EIR) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail use permit request was due to be released Tuesday, but a last-minute staff decision has delayed the report by a week, Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million said.

“City staff determined that additional information was needed to more completely address potential air quality impacts in the Draft EIR,” Million said late Monday. “As a result, the release of the document has been delayed by one week.”

When the report is released June 17, it will be available online from the city’s website,, but viewers shouldn’t use the website’s search box to find it, Million said.

“The best way to find the most recent CBR (Crude-by-Rail) page is to go directly to the department,” she said. In this case, a viewer would look for Community Development under the “City Departments” bar.

This will give viewers options for “Planning” and “Current Projects,” where they will find a listing for “Valero Crude-by-Rail.”

“Unfortunately, the search box can pull up old versions of the Web page, so we are working on fixing that today,” Million said Monday.

Those who want copies of the document on disk may call Million at the Community Development Department, 707-476-4280. A limited supply of paper copies — 20 — also will be available at no cost, she said.

“Pursuant to the Benicia Municipal Code, the city will provide 20 copies on a first-come, first-served basis at no cost, available immediately,” she said.

After that, those wanting paper copies will have to pay, she said, but how much hasn’t been determined.

“I am still waiting for confirmation on the cost after that and the turnaround time,” she said. As of Monday, she said the number of pages of the document hadn’t been determined.

Paper copies, available for reading by the public, will be available at the Community Development Department at City Hall, 250 East L St., as well as in the Benicia Public Library, 250 East L St.

The city originally drafted a mitigated negative declaration as its response to requirements by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

But extensive public comment, both favoring and opposing the project, heard at several city meetings led the city to undertake the more extensive environmental report, which originally was expected before the end of last year.

The public will be given 45 days to read and comment on the document, Million said. State law requires a minimum of 45 days for the review, though it limits the maximum days to 60.

She said Monday, “Staff intends on releasing it for a 45-day review period. If the Planning Commission believes that a longer review period is needed because of articulated unusual circumstances, the Planning Commission may decide to extend the comment period.”

Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, organized to block the Valero project, has asked for a 90-day review period.

“As part of the process for any discretionary action, public comment is accepted until the final decision,” Million said late last year, though she said CEQA is “a concurrent but separate process and has specific guidelines for public input.”

Thoughts and opinions shared after CEQA comment periods have closed are incorporated into the record for the project, even though the comments aren’t considered “official,” she said. “This distinction is important for insuring consistency and diligent processing of development applications.”

Those interested may offer their comments before the Planning Commission July 12 at 7 p.m. at City Hall. But the commission won’t be voting on the project’s use permit that night.

As proposed in December 2012, Valero Benicia Refinery has asked permission to build the $30 million project of three railroad track extensions, each a quarter-mile long, so 70,000 barrels of crude oil could be brought in daily by rail instead of through pipelines or aboard ocean-going tanker ships.

Proponents, including Union Pacific Railroad, have said the project would be more environmentally friendly than tanker ships and pipelines.

Bill Day, Valero Energy’s director of corporate communications, has pointed out the project would reduce Valero’s shipments of foreign-source oil.

“It would allow the refinery to offset supplies of foreign crude brought in by ship with increasing supplies of North American crude oil,” Day said. North American crude has few transport alternatives other than by rail, he said.

While the refinery has only hinted at the source of the domestic crude, many expect that it’s the North Dakota Bakken fields, which has been producing up to a million barrels of a light, sweet crude.

However, while tar sands is too heavy and sour to be processed at the Benicia plant, the Bakken crude is too sweet and light to be processed alone.

At a public meeting in March, refinery officials explained that to meet the sulfur and gravity parameters of what the Benicia plant can refine, the oil arriving by train could be a blend of the two.

“Any viable crude we can safely refine, we will,” said Don Cuffel, Valero Benicia Refinery manager of the Environmental Engineer Group, though he added that the refinery’s permits won’t let it produce more emissions.

“Locomotives emit less than ships,” Cuffel said that night, explaining that on a per-barrel basis, emissions would decline during delivery.

Nor would refinery emissions themselves increase during processing, because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District restricts how much emissions the refinery can produce, he said.

Originally, opponents of the crude-by-rail proposal spoke out against the air polluting hazards of dealing with tar sands, anticipating the oil would be coming from Canada.

But several fiery incidents during the past year turned their focus to the greater volatility of the Bakken crude as well as federal standards for the tanker cars that carry the oil, since 60 percent of it travels by rail.

Nearly a year ago, a 72-car oil train carrying 2 million gallons of flammable crude was left unoccupied in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. It came loose and began sliding downhill so fast that it derailed, caught fire and killed 47 in the small town.

The accident spilled 1.5 million gallons of crude and caused more than $1 billion in damages.

An oil train derailed in November 2013 and caught fire in Alabama; a month later another train erupted in flames after derailing in North Dakota. More tanker cars caught fire after a derailment in Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads that operate trains carrying large amounts of Bakken crude to tell State Emergency Response Commissions about those trains’ operations in their states.

DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration both have urged shippers, particularly those selling Bakken crude, to use tank cars with “the highest level of integrity available in their fleets.”

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who represents Benicia, asked legislators Friday for their support for a proposal to strengthen the state railroad safety inspection force, especially where crude shipments go through heavily populated areas.

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, Wolk said.

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” Wolk said in a letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee.

That committee is scheduled to hear Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the PUC’s railroad safety staff.

That’s not enough for Wolk, who said, “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.”

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,” Wolk said.

“An event such as Lac Mégantic could have catastrophic effects if it occurred in any populated area of California. Other concerns include the potential for increased commuter traffic.”

Fears about fiery crashes and pollution have led to marches and other protests on both sides of the Carquinez Strait by those who want to see the Valero project halted and shipments of crude by rail stopped or made safer as more oil-filled cars pass through the Bay Area.

Normally, railroads don’t own the cars used to carry various products. They’re owned or leased by the client.

However, BNSF Railroad is in the process of ordering thousands of tanker cars it says would exceed federal standards, and Valero officials have said they would be using the stronger cars as well.

Valero’s project is on refinery property, and normally wouldn’t need a use permit for construction and operation that fits what is allowed in the zoning district.

However, the cost of the project exceeds the $20 million threshold that triggers the use permit process, according to Charlie Knox, who at the time was Benicia’s director of community development.

Nor is Valero allowed to break the project into segments to avoid seeking the permit, Knox said.

The refinery is asking permission to build two offloading rail spurs, a parallel engine runaround track and a “wye,” or triangular connector track, on refinery property so it can receive the rail cars at the offloading tracks.

If the project is approved and built, the refinery could receive between 50 and 100 additional rail cars twice a day.

In addition to examining any impact to Sulphur Springs Creek, the draft report also is expected to address how the trains would impact Benicia Industrial Park traffic.

The project is being reviewed for the city by CSA, a Michigan firm, with Valero paying for the review, as well as Environmental Resources Management, a global company with offices in Sacramento and Walnut Creek.

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.