The Benicia Planning Commission is scheduled to hear a
presentation about a proposed project at the Valero Benicia Refinery that would
enable the refinery to receive crude oil shipments by rail. The refinery currently receives all its crude
oil by ship and pipeline.
The proposed Valero Crude by Rail Project would allow the refinery to take delivery of up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil each day. According to an environmental study prepared for the City and paid for by Valero, there would be an equal decrease in oil delivered to the refinery by ship and no change in the amount of oil delivered by pipeline.
The oil delivered by pipeline is from oil fields in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Planning staff in Benicia’s Community Development Department have recommended that the Crude by Rail Project be approved without a full environmental impact report because the environmental impacts of the project can be mitigated.
Others in the community disagree saying many possible impacts of the project are not even mentioned in the initial study and mitigated negative declaration prepared by ESA. Among other things, the study says air quality will be enhanced if the project is approved and built because emissions from locomotives are not as bad as those from ships.
The study lists environmental impacts in seven of 18 categories covered by the California Environmental Quality Act and lists measures Valero can take to mitigate those impacts. Some people in Benicia and beyond think the initial study in lacking because it doesn’t list hazards and hazardous materials as a possible environmental impact.
“What does the initial study not tell us?” asked local Benicia community activist Marilyn Bardet at a community meeting sponsored by the Valero Good Neighbor Steering Committee. Among other things Bardet was referring to the types of oil proposed for delivery by rail, emergency response procedures if a train derailed and spilled oil in the environmentally sensitive Suisun Marsh, changes in refinery emissions resulting from refining oil from North Dakota and Canada and increased production of petroleum coke, a by-product of the oil refining process.
Benicia City Manager Brad Kilger and the city’s planning staff don’t think those issues apply to the proposal to add a rail tank car unloading facility to the refinery. “The mitigated negative declaration looks at transport of crude oil as outside the scope of the project from a use standpoint,” said Kilger.
He also conceded that, “there are many opinions on what constitutes ‘the project’ from a CEQA standpoint.”
When Patch first broke this story in February, we quoted a story from The Motley Fool that said Valero had told investors that it planned to buy 1,000 rail tanker cars so it could move crude from the Bakken Shale play in North Dakota and Montana and Canadian tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada.
Diane Bailey, a scientist with the National Resources Defense Council told a group of about 70 citizens that Canadian tar sands crude is “possibly the world’s dirtiest, most dangerous fuel.” She went on to explain that tar sands crude is extracted from open pit mines and goes through a number of processes including the addition of a thinning agent so that it will flow easily in pipelines and into or out of rail cars.
The project description says two 50-tanker-car trains will leave the Union Pacific Railroad facility in Roseville each day bound for the Valero Benicia Refinery where the proposed oil unloading facility will be located. The trains will pass through Sacramento, Davis, Dixon and Suisun City and the Suisun Marsh before arriving in Benicia.
After hearing about the runaway 72-car crude oil train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada on July 6 Patch sent the following questions to Union Pacific Railroad:
1) Can the City of Benicia or the CPUC require trains carrying crude oil to always have a locomotive attached and an operator on hand. I'm asking because the train that derailed and caught fire near Quebec, Canada appears to have been parked and for some reason the "parking brake" failed.
2) One of the reports prepared in preparation for the planning commission meeting this week in Benicia says "UPRR-operated locomotives would haul up to 100 crude oil rail cars a day from the UPRR Roseville Rail yard to the Refinery." On average, how many tanker cars loaded with crude will be parked at the UPRR Roseville facility?
Aaron Hunt, the Union Pacific’s Director, corporate Relations and Media sent the following reply:
The Federal Railroad Administration oversees
U.S. railroads. The federal government’s common carrier obligation requires
Union Pacific and other major railroads to transport hazardous materials
whether we want to or not.
At Union Pacific we take this obligation very seriously and recognize that rail is the safest option for above-ground hazmat transport. In fact, trucks are 16 times more likely than trains to have a hazmat accident. More than 99.99 percent of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident. Rail hazmat accident rates are down 91 percent since 1980.
Ensuring that tank cars arrive safely is a top priority for Union Pacific. Even though we do not own the tank cars used in hazmat moves, we do everything we can to secure the cars that carry hazardous materials.
In addition to complying with regulations for the transportation of hazardous materials, Union Pacific takes voluntary measures to minimize the risk of hazardous material release. Every year, we inspect more than 5,000 of our customers’ tank cars to ensure security and safety. And we provide emergency responders information regarding hazardous material movements through their communities. Because of security protocol that information is not made available to the public.
Additionally, TRANSCAER® (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response) is a national outreach initiative developed by Union Pacific and Dow Chemical in the mid-1990s designed to improve community awareness of hazardous materials found in transportation. Through the TRANSCAER program, Union Pacific and Dow Chemical Company encourage partnerships between citizens and industry and assist emergency responders in planning and preparing for hazardous material-related incidents. This acts as a driver for emergency responders in evaluating their community's emergency response plan. Union Pacific participates in various TRANSCAER activities, both locally and nationally. In a typical year, our training reaches about 10,000 people.
As I mentioned above, due to security protocols and competitive concerns, we do not make specific information about rail moves available to the public.
Thanks and let me know if you have any additional questions.
We asked if the California Public Utilities Commission could add regulations because that body has some regulatory authority over trains in California. The train in the Canadian accident was carrying Bakken crude which, according to NRDC scientist Bailey, is a very light, sweet crude. (light sweet crude means a low sulfur content while heavy sour crude has higher sulfur content)
Patch called the CPUC and asked the question about an operator being on hand at all times with the crude oil trains, but the agency didn't call back with a response.
If the project is allowed to move forward without a full EIR it is expected that the first trains will use the facility in early 2014.
The Benicia Planning Commission meets at Benicia City Hall, 250 East L Street, Benicia CA. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Because of the number and complexity of comments received by the city about this project, the planning staff is recommending the Planning Commission hear Valero’s presentation, take public comment then continue the item to a meeting to be held either August 1 or 8 when the commission will make its determination.