Vallejo Times-Herald: Attorney General blasts Benicia crude-by-rail project

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

California Attorney General Kamala Harris blasts Benicia crude-by-rail project

By Tony Burchyns, 10/08/2014

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has blasted Benicia’s environmental review of Valero’s crude-by-rail project, claiming it underestimates safety risks and relies on an overly broad definition of trade secrets in failing to disclose the types of volatile crudes to be shipped.

In a letter to the city last week, Harris said Benicia’s safety analysis was inadequate because it only considers “a fraction” of the rail miles that would be traveled by oil trains headed to the city’s Valero refinery. Harris also faults the city for relying on Valero’s “unenforceable” promise to use newer, safer tank cars that are not currently required by federal regulations.

The letter follows similar critical comments from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the Public Utilities Commission. Those agencies called on the city to redo its safety analysis before allowing the refinery to receive two 50-car oil trains a day that would travel through Roseville and other parts of Northern California.

Also, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the cities of Davis and Sacramento and the University of California at Davis have sent letters to Benicia expressing concerns about the project.

Valero is seeking city permits to build a rail terminal that would allow the refinery to receive up to 70,000 barrels of crude daily from North American sources such as the Bakken shale in North Dakota and tar sands in Canada.

According to Valero, the rail shipments would replace oil deliveries by boat and allow the refinery to remain competitive on the West Coast.

Benicia is one of at least 12 crude-by-rail related projects that are either operational or being considered in California — including in Richmond, Pittsburg, Martinez, Santa Maria, Stockton, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Wilmington and Sacramento, according to the attorney general’s office.

Harris, whose duties include enforcing the California Environmental Quality Act, contends the city’s project analysis fails to analyze air pollution impacts from the foreseeable change in crude oils that would be processed at the refinery. It also faulted the city for limiting the scope of its rail safety analysis to 69 miles of track between Roseville and Benicia, and failing to consider cumulative impacts from other crude-by-rail projects proposed in California.

The letter also criticized the city’s finding that the risk of train spills of more than 100 gallons between Roseville and 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.

“This boom in crude oil being transported by rail has corresponded with a major increase in the number of accidents involving such trains,” the letter states. “In 2013 alone, trains spilled 1.1 million gallons of crude oil, a 72 percent increase over the total amount of oil spilled by rail in the nearly four previous decades combined.”

The letter cites notorious spills such as the July 2013 derailment and explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed a downtown. Other derailments in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg, Va. resulted in explosions and fires.

Harris also said the city’s nondisclosure of the characteristics of the crude oil to be processed at the refinery undermines states environmental laws by preventing the public to assess the nature of the project’s risks. Further, Harris said the broad grant of trade secret protection conflicts with recent decisions this year by state and federal agencies that the characteristics of crude oil traveling by rail should be publicly released.

“Benicia’s nondisclosure of this information deprives both the public and Benicia officials of the informed decision making process that is the ‘heart’ of (the California Environmental Quality Act),” the letter states.

Benicia has declined to comment on letters received during the report’s public comment phase. However, the city plans to respond to written and verbal comments before the project’s next public hearing.