Category Archives: Final Draft Environmental Impact Report (FEIR)

Expert Dr. Phyllis Fox blasts letters submitted last week by Benicia consultants

By Roger Straw, April 18, 2016

DR. PHYLLIS FOX: Expert blasts letters submitted by Benicia consultants

The Benicia Independent is in receipt of a late-breaking letter from well-known environmental expert Dr. Phyllis Fox, in which Fox rebuts letters submitted by the City of Benicia’s consultants last week.  Consultants MRS and ESA  submitted letters on April 11 and April 12 attacking Dr. Fox’s previous comments.

The Fox letter was submitted less than an hour ago today and is not yet posted on the City’s website.

Fox writes, “I have reviewed the letters by MRS and ESA that respond to my 4/4/16 Comments on Valero’s Appeal of Planning Commission’s Denial of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project. The MRS and ESA responses are notable for their lack of support for numerous assertions. With few exceptions, they present no supporting calculations nor citations to specific pages in the EIR, reports, or web links. Thus, they present no new evidence and fail to respond to my comments.”

CAL STATE EAST BAY: Crude oil by rail a possibility in Benicia

Repost from The Pioneer, Cal State East Bay
[Editor:  Excellent, balanced coverage.  Be sure to see new quotes from Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million, Benicia resident Beverly Edmonds, Benicia Economic Development Manager Mario Giuliani, Andrés Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community and Valero’s PR Manager Sue Fisher Jones.  – RS]

Crude oil by rail a possibility in Benicia

By Kali Persall and Vanessa Pineda, Managing Editor and Contributor, April 6, 2016
Photo by Kali Persall/The Pioneer

A controversial proposal by the Valero oil refinery that would bring in thousands of tons of crude oil a day has some Benicia residents seriously questioning whether it’s time to peel the “It’s Better in Benicia” bumper stickers from the backs of their cars and relocate.

Originally proposed in 2013, the project would bring 70,000 barrels of crude oil into the Benicia oil refinery facility by roughly 100 railroad tank cars daily. It would not increase the amount of crude currently brought to the refinery through pipeline and marine vessels, but instead would replace 81 percent of the oil imported by ship. According to Valero, the refinery can process up to 170,000 barrels of oil per day.

Trains have been known to derail, and in cases where crude oil was on board, have killed people, ruined the environment and destroyed the value of entire towns. Benicia residents are divided on whether the transportation developments are necessary and worth the risk to the environment.

The Benicia City Council heard Valero’s appeal for the project on March 15, which was initially rejected the city planning commission, after four nights of hearings and public comment, on Feb. 11 where over 145 people signed up to speak, according to Amy Million, principal planner of the city. The planning commission reviewed the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before unanimously concluding that the potential risks to the environment in the event of a derailment or unloading accident were too significant to justify approval.

After hearing Valero’s appeal a month later, the city council is currently deliberating whether or not to approve the crude by rail project.

Three proposed possible train routes between the Southern California border, Roseville and Benicia would follow the Union Pacific railroad and pass through various cities throughout the state before arriving in Benicia. According to the Revised Draft EIR, project-related train traffic on the train routes would generate nitrogen oxide emissions that could turn into ozone, which could exceed air quality standards in air districts along the routes. This is considered one of the 11 significant unmitigatable impacts on which the planning commission based its decision to deny the proposal.

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) is a poisonous gas and air pollutant that is emitted by automobiles, industrial sources and fuels that contain nitrogen, such as oil, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. When mixed with volatile chemicals in the presence of sunlight, it can form ozone, also known as smog; a gas that can cause serious respiratory damages when inhaled. According to the EPA, ozone can cause coughing, throat irritation and even reduce lung function, and is one of two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country.

Fifty nine letters opposing the project were published in the final EIR, many containing concerns about the harmful effects that rail transportation could have on the environment. Valero’s crude by rail project was proposed shortly after a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a town of roughly 6,000. Forty-seven people were killed and nearly 6 million liters of oil seeped into the land, water and atmosphere during the fire that ensued, according to the Montreal Gazette. Many residents are worried that a similar disaster could occur in Benicia, a city of roughly 28,000.

“I have a two-year-old grandchild and I worry how this will affect him,” said 16-year Benicia resident Beverly Edmonds, 67. “Will he be living in this lovely place or a toxic, decimated shell of a town or will his health be affected by toxic fumes or the effects of a rail disaster?”

According to Mario Giuliani, the city’s economic development manager, oil refineries were the city’s saving grace when the Benicia Arsenal, a military reservation next to the Suisun Bay, closed down due to lack of funding and employment opportunities in the early 1960’s. According to the city of Benicia, the arsenal was a staging area for several wars and employed thousands of people before its closure in 1964. With the displacement of so many people, the town suffered a major economic downturn according to Giuliani.

According to The Benicia Herald, Humble Oil bought some of the vacant former arsenal land in 1967. Not long after, it changed hands again when it sold to the Exxon Oil Company. The refinery’s presence brought in the oil industry and anchored the economy in Benicia, replacing many, if not all or more, of the jobs that were lost after the arsenal closure, according to Benicia city officials. Valero bought the refinery from Exxon in 2000 and currently provides over 400 jobs. According to the EIR, the project would create 20 permanent full-time jobs and 120 temporary jobs.

From the $3 million in property taxes that the refinery pays the city annually, the city only keeps 24 cents on the dollar and the rest goes to the county, schools and other programs in the area, explained Guiliani.

According to Sue Fisher Jones, public affairs manager of Valero, the Benicia refinery is one of only two in California to earn the Voluntary Protection Program “Star Site” designation, which recognizes organizations that have implemented health and safety programs that successfully control occupational hazards. The refinery earned its title in 2006 and has since passed two recertification audits. The other refinery with this designation is the Valero located in South Los Angeles.

“I have lived in Benicia since 2003 (worked at Valero since 2005) and have never experienced a community Shelter-in-Place,” Jones told The Pioneer. Shelter-in-place is an emergency response plan in which people hunker indoors to avoid hazardous air pollution.

A Facility Profile Report by the EPA revealed that Valero released 1,068,877 pounds of chemicals into the environment in 2014. The total amount released in the United States for that year was 3.4 billion pounds.

Andrés Soto, spokesperson and steering committee member for Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC) helped form the organization around the time of Valero’s proposal in 2013. BSHC opposed the project from the beginning and recommended that it be reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which requires agencies to identify the potential significant environmental impacts of their projects in an EIR.

The EIR looks at all the potential scenarios and issues of a project and evaluates whether the applicants are equipped to handle them. For example, in the case of a derailment, emergency response teams benefit by knowing what specific type of crude oil is being transported in order to better tackle the specific situation. “The dirtier, the heavier the crude, the more sulfur, creating more noxious emissions,” explained Soto. Valero declined to release the specific type of crude oil to be transported, labeling it a trade secret, according to the EIR.

Giuliani believes that those who don’t support the project don’t necessarily oppose Valero specifically, but oppose the oil refinery process itself. “If they had proposed to bring water in instead, no one would’ve cared,” he said.

Citizens are also concerned about the effect the project will have on the value of property. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, a fire at the Richmond Chevron Refinery in August 2012 caused a 14.62 percent drop in property taxes. A 2006 study by Stephen Farber from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed that housing markets are sensitive to real or perceived risks associated with being located close to a site that contains hazardous material, such as a refinery.

Photo by Kali Persall/The Pioneer

“My husband and I probably have another ten good years,” said Edmonds. “At some point we will need to move to something much smaller and easier to care for, or to a retirement home. The money we get from our house will be essential for that.”

Streaming video of Planning Commission hearings now available online

By Roger Straw, February 26, 2016

Streaming video of Planning Commission hearings now available online

Today the City of Benicia posted archived videos of the four lengthy Planning Commission hearings on the Crude By Rail proposal of Valero Benicia Refinery.  The meetings were held on Monday-Thursday, February 8-11, 2016.

[The City’s streaming video is slow and stop-and-go on my relatively fast connection.  Note that this is a new technology on the City’s website.  Maybe the poor service is due to the volume of users accessing the videos at this early time in their posting.  We shall see….  – RS]

FIRST-HAND REVIEW: Benicia Planning Commission hearings Wednesday night

By Roger Straw, February 11, 2016

Wednesday’s meeting was all public comment.  Comments were overwhelmingly in opposition to Valero’s proposal.

Comments included powerful remarks by attorney Elly Benson of the Sierra Club and two exceptional speakers from the Stanford Law School representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Claudia Antonacci and Rylee Kercher  These three echoed and reinforced comments made on Tuesday by attorney Jackie Prange  of the Natural Resources Defense Council and attorney Rachael Koss of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo (on behalf of SAFER California).  All took exception to Benicia’s contract attorney Brad Hogin, who has promoted a view of federal law that would preempt Benicia’s Planning Commission from considering mitigations for onsite or offsite impacts, and would virtually tie the City’s hands from denying Valero its use permit.

Commissioners heard in-person comments by Berkeley Vice-Mayor Linda Maio,  City of Davis planner Eric Lee, and Yolo-Solano Air District Planning and Air Monitoring Manager Matt Jones.

Other regional experts and advocates opposing the project included Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment, Chris Brown of Chris Brown Consulting in Sacramento, Amiee Durfee and Tamhas Griffith of Martinez Environmental Group and Janet Johnson of Sunflower Alliance and Richmond Progressive Alliance.

In addition, overwhelmingly anti-project testimony was given by 25 informed and often eloquent residents of Benicia, and at least 8 from Davis/Sacramento.  Only 6 pro-Valero speakers offered comments. 

The closing comment, nearing midnight, was spellbindingly mysterious at first.  A Benicia homeowner and businessman, Ehren Herguth, came to the mic and introduced himself.  Helguth is highly credentialed as a clinical lipid specialist (CLS) and described himself as an “advocate for energy production, oil analyst, lube specialist.” He owns an oil, gas and chemical services lab in Vallejo and has extensive experience in testing hazardous materials including various kinds of crude oil. After setting us up at length with detailed technical comments – we were holding our breath, pretty much presuming he’d be for the project – he described Valero’s proposal as “desperate” and urged the Commission to vote no! He was the last speaker.

Wow.  A climactic finish on an exhilarating night of testimony.

Under Benicia rules, the last word in public testimony was given to the proponent as rebuttal, which meant five more minutes for Valero’s Don Cuffel.  Cuffel pointed out that Valero cannot begin exporting crude oil without a new permit.  He didn’t mention that there would be nothing prohibiting Valero from applying for such a permit, nor did he promise that they wouldn’t.  And he didn’t dispute that the new facility Valero is proposing and the less frequently used marine port would serve such purposes well.

Cuffel obfuscated truth by stating that with oil train explosions and fires, firefighters don’t need to “let them burn out.”  Note Cuffel’s use of the word “out.”  Of course firefighters don’t wait until the fires are completely out – but it is indisputable that first responders have on many occasions recently waited for hours and even days before getting near enough to safely apply foam.

Cuffel continued with a repetition of claims that noxious emissions would be lower, and he defended the use of seriously deficient CPC 1232 tank cars, claiming that Valero would always stay a step ahead of federal safety requirements.  He said nothing to assure Commissioners that new stronger federal requirements would be in place anytime soon, nor that Valero would take any new steps to purchase or lease tank cars that are safer than CPC 1232s.

It must’ve been a long hard night for City staff, contract attorneys, EIR consultants, and Valero executives, all of whom suffered severe criticism for their work in analyzing the project’s potential impacts, recommending approval, and developing the proposal in the first place.

For what comes next, see YET ANOTHER Planning Commission meeting – what to expect on Thursday.