VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD: Valero crude oil by rail decision delayed to September

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Benicia: Valero crude oil by rail decision delayed to September

By Irma Widjojo, 04/21/16, 12:01 AM PDT

BENICIA — The public will have to wait until at least late summer for a possible resolution on Valero Benicia Refinery’s controversial crude-by-rail project, after the City Council voted 3-2 to postpone a decision to Sept. 20.

Vice Mayor Mark Hughes, Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge and Councilman Alan Schwartzman said they need more information to make any decision on the project, while Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Councilman Tom Campbell said they are ready to move forward.

In December 2012, the refinery submitted an application seeking permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia. The issue has sparked intense debate in the Solano County city amid growing environmental and safety concerns surrounding crude-by-rail traffic nationwide.

The issue of postponement was raised when Valero submitted the request last month during the first day of the appeal hearing. An attorney representing the company said the refinery is seeking to send a request for a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board, or STB, on the issue of federal pre-emption in regards to the project.

“I’m really frustrated with the whole pre-emption issue,” Schwartzman said following Tuesday’s vote. “If there’s an opportunity to narrow down that pre-emption issue, then gosh darn it, I want that opportunity. Let’s ask (Surface Transportation Board) and get some type of feedback. I know this is an emotional issue … but in my mind, at this particular point, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Much of the discussion during the Planning Commission hearing on the project revolved around federal pre-emption.

City staff and Valero asserted that the city is legally prohibited from imposing any mitigation measures on rail-related impacts, or denying the project because of those reasons. However, the commission unanimously voted to deny the project and declined to certify its environmental report citing vagueness in the law.

The report indicates that all 11 “significant and unavoidable” impacts are rail-related.

Valero officials said they plan to send the request to STB in 30 days, and estimated that an order will be issued within six months.

If no response is received by Sept. 20, the council would decide if it would wait further or make a decision based on current information.

“We are glad that the council took up our recommendation to seek more info from STB,” said Chris Howe, Valero’s health, safety and environment director.

Patterson and Campbell, who opposed the postponement, also said they were going to vote to deny the permit use application based on the information given. While Patterson said she was not going to vote to certify the project’s environmental impact report, Campbell said he would.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office sent a strongly worded letter to the city earlier this month saying it disagrees with the city staff and Valero’s conclusion that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination ACT, or ICCTA, prohibits the city from taking rail-related impacts into account while deciding on the project.