By Lynne Nittler, Milton Kalish, and Matt Biers-Ariel
Background: North Dakota Bakken crude oil production is booming, and oil companies are looking for a fast, convenient way to transport their sweet light crude oil to refineries across the U.S., including to the five refineries in the Bay Area.
A vast network of railroads crisscross the nation, making “unit trains” of 100 oil tank cars or more, an efficient and flexible method of transportation. In the last few years, crude-by-rail shipments have increased tenfold. According to a New York Times article, about two-thirds of the production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil field rides on rails, as there is no pipeline infrastructure. As of 2013, more than 10 percent of the nation’s total oil production is shipped by rail. (from Accidents surge as oil industry takes the train, by Clifford Krauss and Jad Mouawadjan, Jan 26, 2014).
The number of oil trains nationwide is expected to increase significantly more in 2014 and beyond.
Crude-by-rail is skyrocketing in California. According to the California Energy Commission, in 2013 railroads hauled more than over 6 million barrels of crude oil in California. In 2014 that number may jump to 50 million barrels or more, and by 2016 rail transport is expected to reach nearly a quarter of California’s total oil consumption, or approximately140,000 barrels per day.
Benicia Valero Proposal: Valero petitioned Benicia to allow the oil refinery to enlarge its train terminal in order to increase its production by 70,000 barrels of crude every day. That’s enough to fill 100 sixty-foot-long tank cars with highly flammable crude oil. The Benicia Planning Commission has the power to approve the new rail terminal….or turn it down. Responding to pressure from citizens and a study prepared by the National Resources Defense Council, Benicia is currently preparing a draft Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for the project that will be available for written public comment sometime after the end of January.
The Danger: There are major problems posed to the communities and the sensitive areas the trains pass through. The unsafe tank cars with their volatile cargo pose an immediate and serious safety risk.
Accidents as warnings: A rash of recent fiery accidents prove the point. In the last year there have been 10 major rail accidents involving oil trains in the U.S. and Canada. Last July, 47 people perished in a massive fireball when a train containing Bakken crude derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Four more oil trains have derailed in Canada since then.
In November, a train carrying the same Bakken crude derailed in Alabama, possibly caused by trestle tracks that collapsed under the weight of the heavy tank cars. Twelve of the cars exploded, fortunately not in a populated area. In the last week of December, another 18 tank cars carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded just outside of Casselton, North Dakota, forcing the town to evacuate to avoid the plumes of toxic smoke from the ensuing fires that burned for more than a day. Another oil train derailed and exploded in New Brunswick days later. There is no attempt to put out these massive fires; first responders simply keep people back and watch until the fires die down.
The main problems: If the Benicia Valero Project is approved, trains carrying highly flammable Bakken crude oil in the outdated DOT-111A tank cars (intended for non-flammable liquids such as fertilizer) will pass through the center of Davis after crossing the Yolo Bypass on trestle tracks. The propensity for these tanker cars to rupture and explode on impact and to corrode inside is now well-documented.
Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that the chemical composition of Bakken Shale oil itself is highly explosive and corrosive. In addition, there are new challenges for rail inspections and the enforcement of existing safety codes with the sudden increase in long, heavy oil tank trains. The safety of our families, our community and our environment will be increasingly at risk.
The route: How the trains will negotiate the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Feather River Canyon without a spill that contaminates our drinking water is terrifying to imagine. Closer to home, on the way to the five Bay Area refineries the tank cars pass through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, and Suisun, They cross sensitive natural areas including the American and Sacramento Rivers, the Yolo Bypass, and then cut through the protected Suisun Marshes to travel alongside Interstate 680 to Benicia.
We don’t know just how many oil trains came through Davis in 2013, but if the Benicia Valero train terminal is approved, 100 rail cars of Bakken crude oil (probably in two trains of 50 cars each) will soon be coming through Davis every day.
What can Davis residents do? Though the city of Davis cannot regulate trains that pass through it, concerned citizens and civic leaders can take advantage of the 45-day written comment period on the draft EIR report to submit comments with supporting evidence addressing at least the following concerns:
- The 92,000 old DOT-111 tank cars presently in use need to be upgraded or replaced by safer tank cars with thicker shells and puncture/rupture-resistant shields, stronger valve fittings to prevent spills and fires if the cars should derail, and tanks that can withstand corrosive sulfur. The recent oil company order for 60,000 new DOT-111 tank cars should be cancelled unless they are upgraded models.
- The Bakken crude has proven to be more corrosive, sulfurous, or loaded with explosive gas than previously thought, and large amounts of vapor pressure can build up to dangerous levels. Recently the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) required that cars must be properly labeled and the general public, first responders, shippers and carriers of the hazardous loads musts be properly notified. More oversight is needed.
- Safety regulations for rail transport including regular inspections must be thoroughly reviewed and then strictly enforced by the federal government. For examples, at least one derailment accident may have been due to structural weakness in a rail trestle crossing, such as our causeway trestles.
- Problems caused by under-crewed trains, track failures including weather damage, speeding downhill, obstacles on the tracks and other problems, speed issues (generally 35 mph in towns) – all causes of recent derailments – need to be specifically addressed by the federal government.
- The current exemption for rail shipments of hazardous materials from the Emergency Planning and Right-to-Know law must be removed, so communities at risk can be informed of risks they are subject to if they are living or working near rail lines. This includes the nature, volume and frequency of hazmat shipments and what to do to be prepared in case of an accident. Emergency responders need to be aware of any hazards posed by the materials being transported through their communities, and plans for a coordinated response need to be developed.
- The health, safety and environmental concerns of all up-rail communities need to be taken into consideration and fully mitigated before more crude-by-rail transport is approved.
Invite neighboring up-rail communities: It is critical that Davis and all up-rail cities get involved at this point. It would be wise for the up-rail communities to make comments to the DEIR in concert to amplify their effectiveness. Davis has an opportunity to reach out to its neighbors in Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Woodland, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and Suisun who will share the same risks to their safety and well-being as crude-by-rail transportation increases. The Board of Supervisors for Yolo County should also be invited to join in a united response to the DEIR.
Building a strong coalition now will help as Tesoro Martinez and Wes-Pac Pittsburg Energy have proposals for more crude-by-rail that also may affect Davis. Ultimately, a strong voice will give additional leverage to demanding intervention at the federal level as well.
The following Recommendations were adopted by the Davis Natural Resources Commission on January 27th, 2014 for the Davis City Council. The issue has already been placed on one of the two February agendas for discussion.
1. that the City of Davis submit formal comments signed by members of the City Council to the Draft Environment Impact Report (DEIR) for the Benicia Valero Project when it is released for public comment sometime after the end of January. Consider at least the points mentioned above.
2. that the City of Davis reach out to civic leaders in neighboring up-rail communities and the Yolo, Solano and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to invite them to sign the comments document (See item #1).
3. that the City Council write a letter taking a position on the Benicia Valero rail terminal Project. Such a letter from an up-rail ally could strengthen the Benicia city council resolve to protect their city should the decision be appealed to them, which is likely no matter how their Planning Commission votes.
5. that the City Council ask the police chief to report on the Davis emergency plans for an event such as a train derailment or explosion.
6. that the City Council ask staff to write the CPUC regarding improved frequency of inspections, speed limits, human factor, and increase directives to the railroads to fix defects discovered. This greater care on the prevention side will help prevent accidents.
7. The city may also choose to write letters to appropriate state and federal agencies who have oversight or regulatory responsibilities, including the PUC.
More information: Visit www.yolanoclimateaction.org for an annotated list of articles, the January 12th op-ed cross posted from the Davis Enterprise, the Natural Resources Defense Council Safety document, Attorney General Kamala Harris’ comments on the WesPac DEIR, a photo gallery and new posts including the link to our NPR Marketplace interview to air sometime in February.