July 16, 2013 [updated Aug 12, 2013]
Valero crude-by-rail: ‘Down-wind’ and ‘up-rail’
By Roger Straw
Benicia Herald Forum page, July 16, 2013
REGARDING VALERO’S PROPOSED “CRUDE-BY-RAIL” PROJECT, it seems the cities of Fairfield, Suisun, Vacaville, Dixon, Davis, West Sacramento, Sacramento, Roseville and beyond will be affected — for better or worse — by the decision of our Planning Commission, expected
Aug. 8. [Now projected for November or December, 2013] Evidently, like Benicia, these “up-rail” communities have no authority over rail shipments passing through them; only federal regulations apply, and the rail company Union Pacific may not even be required under law to address concerns of Benicians and others about the proposed new development. As such, I feel those communities should be notified as to the review process for Valero’s proposed project.
Those huge, 60-foot cylindrical tanker cars will be rolling on tracks that pass near schools and through city centers in all of these cities, as well as Travis Air Force Base. Then, after cutting through our protected Suisun Marsh, they will creak and jostle alongside Interstate 680 and immediately behind our businesses on East Second Street, Goodyear Road, Gateway Plaza Drive and Industrial Way to Valero’s offloading racks in Benicia. It is not alarmist to suggest that this might be more than a bit alarming.
And if I understand correctly, we in Benicia are the only stop along the decision-making trail where a public process is empowered to permit or deny this development. Specifically, six of our Planning Commissioners — the seventh has recused himself — are being asked to take responsibility for a huge increase in the number of potentially deadly new shipments crossing the entire western half of the continent, trundling heavily through cities, towns and countryside on their way to our small town.
Whether Valero receives North American diluted bitumen crude by rail cars or by some yet-to-be-proposed new pipeline — or as it currently does, by tanker ship — it is incredibly dangerous and controversial. Following the devastating oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, there has been a fast-mounting debate over the relative safety of rail transport versus pipeline, with high stakes and huge profits in play. While rail spills are less in aggregate volume, they are more frequent than pipeline spills. Both are potentially deadly and extremely harmful to the health and safety of humans and the environment, and both are incredibly costly when it comes to cleanup and recovery. (See Los Angeles Times, “Canada rail crash stirs debate over Keystone XL pipeline delay.”)
Benicia residents put a very high priority on sustainability and environmental sensitivity. We’ve written sustainability into our General Plan, the constitution-like document that guides our elected officials and staff in everything we do. We understand that when it comes to clean air, land and water, we do not live here in isolation, but on a planet shared by all. Sustainability is a concept that absolutely requires us to think globally and act locally. What occurs down-wind in Antioch or Concord, or up-rail in Fairfield or Sacramento — or every other town large and small between here and North Dakota or Alberta, Canada — is equal in importance to the quality of our own local air and our advance readiness for major or minor spills and devastating explosions. These are our neighbors along the rail routes and downwind of here — real people, with families, homes, pets, jobs, hopes and dreams.
Valero Benicia has been a responsible steward, generous in support of local causes, a huge contributor to our tax base, and an industry leader in safety and performance, including measures that have enhanced environmental sustainability. They now need to undertake a full environmental impact report (EIR) on this rail project and step forward with us to promise, in writing, never to import diluted bitumen over land, nor to increase their processing of so-called “sour” crude. This should include an explicit refusal to process strip-mined tar sands crude.
It will cost them. The financial return (in the short run) will suffer. But that’s what a friendly giant can and should do — lead the way in the industry, because it’s the right thing to do. An EIR is vital, and the only way to responsibly plan along with Valero for the direct and indirect impacts of a proposed rail expansion that could affect us all.
Roger Straw is Editor and Publisher of Benicia Independent and a Benicia resident.
July 12, 2013, 8:02 AM
PLANNING COMMISSION meeting
THURSDAY, July 11, 2013
Packed Council Chambers - Commission delays vote
Detailed testimony calling for an EIR
Valero's proposed rail terminal came before Benicia's Planning Commission on July 11. The public hearing was a critical moment for citizen concerns to be heard, and heard they were. Many Benicians and Bay Area experts asked for a more thorough process of review than the current "Initial Study" and "Mitigated Negative Declaration" prepared by City staff and an outside consultant. Over and over again, the Commission heard requests that they require the project to undergo a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Valero supporters were present and gave their green light to the project, citing the many ways that the company serves their interests and those of Benicia.
Commissioners raised excellent questions, but Valero and City staff chose to delay any attempts at giving answers until they have had more time to prepare carefully studied responses. Staff responses are promised by Friday, August 2.
At the end of the meeting, City staff assured Commissioners and the public that additional comments on the project would be welcome, but then indicated that comments on the Initial Study and Negative Declaration were now closed. I was a bit confused by this. For now, if you want to comment, send a letter or email anytime prior to the next Commission meeting on August 8. Your PRESENCE at the meeting will speak even more loudly. Please plan to attend.
Written comments may be sent to City Manager Brad Kilger by email email@example.com with a copy to the Community Development Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roger Straw, Benicia Independent
Community meeting on July 9
attended by over 70
Crude Consensus: A Community Meeting on Valero’s Proposed Rail Terminal
Valero's proposed rail terminal could significantly impact air emissions, public health, the Suisun Marsh, emergency response time, traffic, and noise. Could it also open the door to increase supplies of very high-sulfur, low-quality crude oil from Canada's tar sands to Valero's Benicia Refinery? Benicia Good Neighbor Steering Committee and the Natural Resources Defense Council offered a workshop on July 9 to discuss potential hazards to Benicia residents, and ways to participate in the City's evaluation of the project.
NRDC presented the findings of expert research commissioned by them on potential environmental impacts of the project, including local air pollution.
Over 70 local and Bay Area residents attended, along with our Solano County Supervisor Linda Seifert and representatives from the office of California Assemblymember Susan Bonilla. All local print media and KQED Science were present to cover the event.
Benicians once again showed their incredible knowledge and interest in public decision-making as they asked a host of important questions. Many of those present plan to attend the July 11 meeting of the Benicia Planning Commission.
June 30, 2013
Editor's comments submitted to the Benicia Planning Commission
Following are my comments sent to the Planning Commission on July 1. Download a copy (including cover letter) here.
Overview – Planning in a Wider Context
Vision - Planning is a future-oriented thing. Our best planning is visionary, and aimed toward a future that improves our overall condition. The Planning Commission must always be asking, “What kind of Benicia do we want to see in a decade, or fifty or a hundred years from now?” and, “How does this application move us toward the future envisioned in Benicia’s General Plan?”
Context - Context is critical. Benicia and Valero do not exist in isolation. At this time in history, the world is transitioning from fossil fuel driven economies to one powered by alternative technologies. The decisions we make together (Benicia and Valero) cannot be short-term decisions, focusing on investments that will pay off in the short run, but long-term decisions, investments that will prepare for a different kind of world – and that will lead the way for other communities to prepare for that different kind of world.
Need for a Public Process
CEQA / EIR - Valero’s Application, Mitigated Negative Declaration and Initial Study must undergo a thorough CEQA review, calling for a full EIR. It was premature of the City’s former Community Development Director to recommend approval of a Use Permit and adoption of a Mitigated Negative Declaration based unquestioningly on the accompanying ESA Initial Study prepared for the City and paid for by Valero.
A Public Hearing - The hearing before the Planning Commission on July 11, 2013 is the first – and perhaps the ONLY chance the public will have to question and raise public concerns about this project. An EIR would greatly increase the City’s chances for avoiding huge and costly mistakes, mistakes that could be huge and costly for not only Benicia, but for the region and indeed the world.
Specific Questions and Concerns
- Rail spills and accidents - Public health and safety and environmental impacts associated with potential crude oil spills and accidents along rail routes, will include the protected waters of the Suisun Marsh and areas beyond Valero’s protective berm. The Initial Study does not weigh the wider context of a possible oil spill, contaminating the protected waters of our Suisun Marsh or the places of business in Benicia’s Industrial Park. Rail spills have increased dramatically in the U.S. as crude-by-rail shipping has grown in recent years. A pipeline spill of diluted bitumen near Kalamazoo, Michigan caused an unimagined, unprepared-for nightmare, with chemical separation of the blended crude that led to evaporation of harmful chemicals and, even worse, the sinking of heavy tar-like globs of crude that have been near-impossible – even at great expense – to clean up in a watery environment. Unique and unparalleled emergency planning for a new kind of spill should be included as a mitigation after a thorough EIR investigation. The emergency plan should extend beyond Benicia through the Suisun Marsh and including rail lines throughout Solano County. Costs for such an expensive clean-up should also be predicted, and funding sources identified.
- Refinery accidents - Valero, the scientific community and the public know a lot more about refining of “sour” crude than we did when Valero was approved in 2002-03 for upgrades that allow for its current processing of such heavy crudes. The massive explosion at Chevron in Richmond in 2012 has alerted Benicia citizens to the damaging corrosive effects of heavy crude on refinery pipes and equipment. This unfolding knowledge should be explored in a full EIR, with careful plans and appropriate mitigations.
- Potential for increase in crude processing - Although Valero states that it currently does not plan to increase its supply of crude oil, the project creates a potential for substantial increase in the supply of heavy, dirty diluted bitumen from North American locations over time. How can the public know what the potential effects will be 10 or 50 years from now?
- An open door to tar-sands crude - This project would position Valero, should it choose to do so, to import diluted bitumen from the tar-sands pit mines in Alberta. The Initial Study designates “crude blends,” but does not spell out the types of blends or the commercial suppliers or their sources. Questions put to refinery personnel are inconclusive, if not evasive. The City and its partner corporation have a moral obligation and global responsibility to assure Benicia citizens and the world that opening this door will NOT at some future date result in support for a Canadian-government-supported industry that is stripping the Alberta boreal forests, endangering wildlife and human health there, and contributing at an alarming rate to global warming.
- Air quality - There is great potential for an increase in air pollutants despite Valero's claim that emissions will remain at current levels. Benicia needs a full EIR to fully investigate this issue. A full EIR will examine the project in light of AB32, which governs industrial pollutants, sets goals for reductions in greenhouse gases, and lays out a vision for a sustainable economy. (Note that nowhere in the Initial Study is California’s AB32 even mentioned.) An EIR would also much more strenuously measure the project against Benicia’s General Plan, and a full EIR would carefully study how and whether this project contributes to and undercuts Benicia’s goals for reduction of greenhouse gases. (Benicia’s Climate Action Plan is only mentioned briefly on p. 60 of the Initial Study.)
- Traffic - There will be increased traffic delays due to increased rail traffic (two 100-car trains per day). The public needs to hear from Industrial Park owners and workers whose business could be inconvenienced and profits diminished. Even more importantly, EMS and emergency vehicle access to the Industrial Park could be affected, causing very real safety concerns. These factors need greater study and additional mitigation strategies.
Thank you for this opportunity to work with you on planning for Benicia’s future and a prosperous, safe and sustainable Valero.