Council Takes Stand on Crude Oil Transport by Rail

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Richard-2nd-Stby Michelle Millet

Last Tuesday Mike Webb, Director of Community Development & Sustainability, presented a status update to council on the Benicia/Valero Oil by Rail Project.

In December of 2012 the City of Benicia was presented with a Land Use Permit Application from the Valero Refining Company who owns and operates an oil refinery located in Benicia, California.

Valero is proposing the “Crude by Rail Project” which would allow the refinery to receive a larger proportion of its crude oil deliveries by railcar.

The Land Use Permit Application states,  ”The primary purpose of the Project is to allow Valero access to more North American sourced crudes that have recently become available. The only viable option for transporting the crude oil from the North American sources to the Refinery is by railroad. Therefore, the objective of this Project is to enable Valero to replace up to 70,000 bbl per day of the crude oil currently supplied to the Benicia Refinery by marine vessel with an equivalent amount of crude oil transported by rail cars.”

According to Webb’s staff presentation the city of Benicia is currently in the review process. It is preparing an Environmental Impact Report that is expected to be released for public review and comment in the next month. Once the report is released it is assumed that there will be a 45 day comment period, and hearings at the Benicia Planning Commission and City Council are likely.

The amount of crude oil being moved by train in this country is growing. According to an Associated Press article, “U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels a day by the end of 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in the Bakken region, which is mainly in North Dakota, but also extends into parts of Montana and Canada.”

If the Benicia Valero Project is approved it is estimated that 100 rail cars carrying Bakken crude oil in tank cars could soon be coming through Davis every day. Concerns have been expressed over the fact that the older tank cars that carry much of this flammable crude oil are inadequate and prone to rupture easily.

On January 23, 2014 the National Transportation and Safety Board called for tougher standards on trains carrying crude oil “The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist ten years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

In February Davis citizens  Lynne Nittler, Milton Kalish, and Matt Biers-Ariel wrote an article for the Vanguard where they laid out some of the concerns community members have expressed over the potential dangers that come with transporting crude oil by train car.

They stated, “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.”

On January 27th over 50 people attended the Natural Resource Commission meeting where this topic was addressed.  During public comment on Tuesday night NRC member Allan Pryor stated,  ”The NRC had the largest turn out in over 3-4 years over this issue the chambers were packed. We have never had a crowd so large, and they were vocal and unanimous in their opposition.”

After over an hour of public comment during their January meeting NRC members voted to approve a list of recommendations to council. Among the recommendations was a request that the City of Davis submit formal comments to the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Benicia Valero Project when it is released for public comment.

One February 12, in an open letter to the Mayor of Benicia Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk stated, ”I am writing to express my and my constituents’ serious concerns over the proposed upgrading of the rail terminal at the Valero refinery to take in as much as 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day.”  He continued, “In both a literal and figurative sense, that rail line runs through the heart of our community.  I myself commute along this same rail line to and from my “day job” as a Deputy County Counsel for Solano County.  The thought of 100 tank cars full of Bakken Shale oil running through our community each day is absolutely disconcerting.  A similar accident in Davis as the one in Quebec would likely produce even more catastrophic results, in terms of loss of life and the destruction of our downtown.”

Wolk clarified at Tuesday’s meeting that he was not against the proposed project, and spoke in favor of the jobs the project could create. But he reiterated his concerns over the safety implications that it presented.

In their report presented to council staff states that their efforts are currently focused on gathering background information and initiating collaboration with other jurisdictions and with elected representatives from Davis and the region, including the offices of State Senator Wolk, State Representative Yamada, and U.S. Representatives Garamendi, Matsui, and Thompson.

Staff presented council with two following recommendations on how to proceed:

  1. Direct staff to continue to gather data, monitor the Benicia Valero project, and actively partner with other agencies, and State and Federal Representatives, on coordination of review and comments.
  2. Direct staff to continue to engage with appropriate regulatory authorities regarding the safety of the existing railroad operations/speeds/curve in Davis.

Mayor Krovoza suggested a third recommendation that directed staff to prepare a resolution stating that the city of Davis would oppose crude oil by rail transport through our community.

Council member Brett Lee expressed concerns that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open ended to have the impact they were hoping for.  When Korvoza disagreed Lee  posed the question, “Do you really think the railroad is going to stop transporting oil on the railroad line because the Davis City Council says we don’t want it passing through our community?”

He continued, “I think a more effective way would be to focus on the safety aspects so that our community is protected and other communities are protected.”  Lee clarified that he was not in favor of these cars coming through our community, and went on to say that he did not believe that having a symbolic gesture “excuses us or take us off the hook for dealing with the public safety issue.”

Ultimately Krovoza put forth a motion, that was seconded by Lee, which directed staff to begin preparation of a resolution where by the city of Davis would oppose crude by rail transport through our community due to public safety concerns until further consideration, including understanding of risks and needed mitigation measures.

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About The Author

Michelle Millet is a 25-year resident of Davis. She currently serves as the Chair of the Natural Resource Commission.

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13 thoughts on “Council Takes Stand on Crude Oil Transport by Rail”

  1. Frankly

    “Council member Brett Lee expressed concerns that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open ended to have the impact they were hoping for. ”

    He continued, “I think a more effective way would be to focus on the safety aspects so that our community is protected and other communities are protected.” Lee clarified that he was not in favor of these cars coming through our community, and went on to say that he did not believe that having a symbolic gesture “excuses us or take us off the hook for dealing with the public safety issue.”

    I completely agree. Council member Lee seems to be cut from the cloth of pragmatism and practicality over symbolism and political gamesmanship. The latter should be tolerated to some extent unless it creates a false sense of accomplishment and causes us to waste energy and attention and ultimately ignore the real problems and solutions.

    It we have an oil-car train derailment in town, this action by the Council will be reflected on as a bit of useless twaddle… unless we also follow it up with real problem-solving actions that serve to mitigate the risks and damages that might otherwise occur.

    1. Michelle Millet Post author

      Frankly, I find myself once again agreeing with you. Regardless of how members of our community feel about the source of the this fuel, its methods of extraction, or the consequences of its use, I think we can all agree that we don’t want our or any other community to be put at risk for the kinds of disasters referenced in this piece.

      I hope this common goal can be kept in mind as this process continues to unfold and decisions on how we respond are made.

  2. eagle eye

    Does anyone know why an EIR is not required for each city, and other locations, where the oil cars passing through might have an impact on the environment?

    1. Michelle Millet Post author

      If a city is impacted by this project these impacts should be addressed in the EIR. If impacts are not addressed in the initial report then the public may raise objection during the designated comment period.

  3. J.R.

    Let’s also investigate the passage of oil tank cars through Davis. They constitute the same kind of risk that these
    trains do, and they pass all through our town on the way to gas stations around Davis. This is a clear threat to Davis citizen safety.

    1. Michelle Millet Post author

      Let’s also investigate the passage of oil tank cars through Davis. They constitute the same kind of risk that these trains do, and they pass all through our town on the way to gas stations around Davis.

      JR I’m not sure what you are referring to here. Are you talking about trucks that deliver gas to gas stations?

  4. Mr.Toad

    We should be arguing that they use only the safest tank car technology. The big accident in Ontario used old tank cars that don’t meet the safety standards of the newer tank cars. This is happening because the ramp up in crude transport by rail has seen such a sharp increase in recent years as new extraction techniques have been put into widespread use. We should demand that the railroad and the refinery stand down to a level limited by the availability of state of the art tank cars. Taking such a position is reasonable, prudent and manageable.

  5. Tia Will

    Michelle

    I want to thank you for your article, Alan Miller for sharing his knowledge and concerns about this issue in public comment, and our elected officials who are grappling with how best to address this issue. We rightfully see much discussion regarding transportation safety in our community, usually centered around potential automobile/biking accidents. I am glad that both private citizens and our elected officials are taking notice and acting on the safety “elephant” running through the center of our community.

    1. Michelle Millet Post author

      I actually wanted to include Alan Miller’s public comment into the piece but as of Friday the link to Tuesdays council meeting had not been posted.

  6. DavisBurns

    Towns that have railroads running through them have no authority over what is carried through their towns. I lived in Missoula Mt where we voted to be nuclear free including nuclear material being transported via rail through the town. I believe the result was the same stuff was transported through the town but in the wee hours of the night. The same thing happens in Davis, most of the oil tanker cars go through town at night. Other towns are being impacted by very long trains carrying coal from the strip mines in Montana and North Dakota to shipping terminates in the northwest. Localities have gotten some mitigation like the open coal cars being sprayed with a fixative so the coal dust stays in the car rather than settling on homes and fields adjacent to the tracks. We can probably have some influence on the use of safer oil tankers but it has not yet happened that a community impacted by rail traffic has established any rights over what passes through their towns on the rails. Is it any different for freeways? We have some authority over what passes through our town on our city and county roads because we are responsible for them but not so with freeways.

    1. Michelle Millet Post author

      We can probably have some influence on the use of safer oil tankers but it has not yet happened that a community impacted by rail traffic has established any rights over what passes through their towns on the rails.

      This is a big part of the problem when searching for a solution, and I think it is part of what Brett was truing to address in his comments. I agree that we should take a stand as City against unsafe transportation of any materials through the heart of our, or any other city, but I don’t think that is where our responsibility ends.

  7. Pingback: Davis City Council to staff: prepare a resolution opposing crude by rail | The Benicia Independent

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