EIR Finds Insignificant Risk of Oil By Rail Accident


Tuesday saw the long-awaited release of the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on the potential impact of the proposed Valero Benicia Refinery’s Crude by Rail project. Currently, the Valero Benicia Refinery converts crude oil into finished products including gasoline, heating oil and asphalt, among other products. The project would allow for the delivery of up to 70,000 barrels per day of North American-sourced crude oil by rail, replacing marine vessel delivery.

Davis and other communities along the rail line have been increasingly concerned with the safety of such transportation of crude oil through their communities. Local governments, along with the state and federal government, in the wake of serious and potentially life threatening accidents, have been looking into increased safety and regulation.

The Draft EIR for the Valero Benicia proposal is the first opportunity for local communities and the regional organizations like SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) to comment and register complaints.

The DEIR downplays the risk of accident, concluding, “The risk of an accidental release of crude oil from a train traveling from Roseville to Benicia is considered insignificant.”

The report finds most critically, “Although the consequences of a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low.” They find, “The probability of an accidental release of crude oil from a tank car traveling to the Refinery involving more than 100 gallons of crude oil is just 0.009 per year.”

They further argue, “An extensive body of rules and regulations adopted by FRA [Federal Railroad Administration], PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration], and AAR [Association of Railroads] are designed to minimize the risk of an accidental release of crude oil from tank cars.”

While they acknowledge, “There have been a number of recent fires involving Bakken crude oil,” they argue that “the DOT [Department of Transportation], FRA, PHMSA, NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board], and AAR have moved aggressively to identify the causes of those incidents and reduce the risk of similar incidents. The transport of Bakken crude to the Refinery, if any, will be subject to the new, more stringent requirements.”

Furthermore, they find, “The Project would significantly reduce the risk of an accidental release of crude oil from a vessel in San Francisco Bay. If the Project were approved and constructed, the risk of maritime spill would be reduced from 0.0267 (once every 37.5 years) to 0.0048 (once every 208 years).”

“Finally, it bears noting that federal law preempts the ability of state and local governments to regulate rail activity and/or impose any requirements that burden the unrestricted movement of trains in interstate commerce. While the City can identify and disclose the risks posed by rail transport of crude oil, it must rely on the federal authorities to ensure that any such risks are mitigated as appropriate,” they write. This is a similar problem that the city of Davis has encountered attempting to deal with potential risks to the local community.

Mayor Joe Krovoza issued a strong statement to the Vanguard on Wednesday, “The overall message of the Benicia EIR that not even mitigation is warranted, and that there might be an event every 111 years, defies logic given the national oil rail accidents of the last six months.”

“I am proud our Council has taken a strong stand.  Sacramento and others should act forcefully too with comments to the EIR.  I greatly appreciate our staff, and the SACOG staff, treating this matter as the regional risk that it is,” he stated. “Everyone should understand, that the Valero/Benicia project is likely only the start.  Projects in Santa Maria and up and down the Central Valley have the potential to exponentially expand the risk.”

Senator Lois Wolk represents a good portion of the area impacted by the rail line and has been actively working on legislation to help mitigate risk.

In a statement on Wednesday to the Vanguard, she indicated, “The community was wise to demand an EIR for this project.  Now that we have one, I seriously question whether the EIR has adequately evaluated the true risk of an accident or a spill involved with this project.”

She notes, “In the past year there have been six major incidents across North America where rail accidents resulted in millions of gallons of spilled crude oil. Yet the EIR estimates the risk of oil train spills between Roseville and Benicia would be about only once per 111 years?  That defies logic and is a risky assumption based on recent experience.”

She argued, “It only takes one minor mishap to cause a major accident or spill and potentially catastrophic impacts to the heavily populated communities through which these trains will run.”

City of Davis Community Development Director Mike Webb told the Vanguard that he has not had a chance to delve into the report yet, but that the comment period extends until August 1.

He notes that there is “a statistical analysis done on the likelihood of an oil spill incident that they seem to be relying upon to claim there is not a significant impact (as the likelihood is once in 110 years, or something along those lines). Statistics don’t translate to reality as we all know (just like the 100 year flood event does not necessarily happen just once every hundred years).”

He noted, “There are technologies available that could be employed to further reduce the likelihood of an incident (like Positive Train Control).”

“We are working with SACOG and other regional jurisdictions on formulation of our review and comments over the coming weeks after we have had a chance to review and understand the document,” he said. “The individual cities will be submitting comment letters, but SACOG has confirmed that they too will be submitting a comment letter of their own on behalf of the region on issues of common interest.”

Senator Wolk adds, “The EIR also highlights that emissions from the increase in rail traffic in the area resulting from this project will have a significant but avoidable effect on the air quality in the Sacramento basin.”

“Given the risk from possible spills and accidents involving this hazardous cargo and the project’s anticipated effect on air quality, I urge the City of Benicia, Valero, and Union Pacific to work with the community to implement extraordinary safety measures to guarantee public safety if this project moves forward.”

She indicated, “In light of this proposal, I am authoring legislation (SB 506) with Senator Jerry Hill to provide funding to help communities like Benicia provide adequate emergency response to accidents and spills involving rail transports of crude oil and other hazardous materials. California needs to keep in step with the significant increase in shipments of these dangerous materials in order to respond to the growing risk to California’s citizens.”

Senator Wolk late last week introduced a measure to provide funding for adequate local emergency response to accidents and spills involving rail transports of crude oil and other hazardous materials.

“California needs to keep in step with the significant increase in shipments of these dangerous materials in order to respond to the growing risk to California’s citizens. Starting early next year, there are plans to run 100 train cars of crude oil a day through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the City of Benicia, in my district. And, as things stand, local governments along these transport corridors don’t have sufficient funding to protect their communities,” Senator Wolk said.

She added, “This measure will help communities like those in my district prepare and respond to potential accidents or spills.”

Senate Bill 506, which is being jointly authored by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), Chair of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Environmental Quality, would levy a fee on railroad tank cars transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials in California to fund developing and maintaining an emergency response system to deal with accidents and spills involving these materials.

She also called on legislators to support a proposal to strengthen the state’s railroad safety inspection force, in light of the growing volume of crude oil shipments through heavily-populated areas of California and the numerous crude oil rail accidents in recent years.

In her letter to Budget Conference Committee members, she writes, “I urge you to support the Governor’s budget provisions to add seven inspectors to the railroad safety staff of the California Public Utilities Commission.”

“If funded, these federally-certified inspectors will not only enforce critical federal and state safety regulations addressing railroad track, bridges, tank cars, locomotives, and hazardous material shipping practices, but will also hold the railroads accountable for complying with the Federal Railroad Emergency Orders and the voluntary safety agreements the railroads have made with the U.S. Department of Transportation following recent Canadian and U.S. crude oil train explosions.”

The Senator wrote, “On February 24, 2014, the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee held an informational hearing titled ‘Safe Rail Transport of Crude Oil: What’s on the Horizon and Are We Prepared?’ Information presented in that hearing revealed that California is slated to see a 25-fold increase in crude oil shipped by rail within the next few years, and that this increase in traffic will pass through many highly populated areas in our state.”

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” the Senator added in a letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee, scheduled to hear Governor Edmund G. Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the CPUC’s railroad safety staff. “Additional oversight is needed to provide some assurance that these shipments are made safely and in compliance with federal and state regulations, as well as other known safety practices.”

The EIR acknowledges that “in the past year there have been several significant accidents involving the release of Bakken crude oil from rail cars, including the incidents in Lac-Mégantic, Aliceville, Casselton, and Lynchburg. All of these incidents involved a significant fire and/or explosion.”

It states, “The Lac-Mégantic was the only incident involving injuries or loss of life, although the loss in that event can only be described as catastrophic. The Lac-Mégantic and Lynchburg events both resulted in a significant discharge of crude oil into a waterway.”

“These incidents raise the concern that a release of Bakken crude is more likely to result in a fire or explosion because of its low flash point and/or low boiling point than other crude oils. Since Bakken is one of the available North American crudes that Valero might purchase and transport by rail to Benicia, it is important to consider those incidents, and the regulatory requirements adopted in their aftermath,” the EIR continues.

However, they state, “It is also important to consider how the circumstances in those incidents compare to the Project’s train trips,” noting that the “accident in Lac-Mégantic was caused by human error – the decision to leave an idling train unattended at the top of a steep grade.”

They believe, “DOT’s Emergency Order No. 28 substantially reduces the risk of such an occurrence in the United States by imposing a variety of requirements relating to unattended trains and the securing thereof.”

“The accidents in Lac-Mégantic, Aliceville, and Casselton all involved DOT-111 Legacy Tank Cars. If the Project were approved, Valero here would use only 1232 Tank Cars to transport oil from Roseville to Benicia. This substantially reduces the risk of release in the event of derailment as compared with the use DOT-111 Legacy Tank Cars because, as explained above, 1232 Tank Cars are designed according to more stringent requirements,” they write.

They note, “Had the trains in Aliceville or Casselton been using 1232 Tank Cars, it is possible that crude oil might not have been released.”

However, local communities do not want to take this chance and risk a major disaster.

Back in early February, Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk wrote Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson “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.  I should make clear that I am writing this as an individual Councilmember; I am not speaking for the City Council or the City of Davis.”

He wrote, “The proposed upgrade would substantially increase the amount of crude oil passing through our community and others along the rail line each day, with much of that oil coming from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.  This oil appears to be more explosive, as demonstrated by the tragic accident in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year which killed 47 people when a train carrying such oil derailed.”

The Davis City Council has been concerned about the issue of crude oil transported through the Davis Community but has been limited in its ability to address the issue.

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 City of Davis has put forward a resolution whereby the city 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.

However, despite unanimous support from council, concerns were expressed by councilmembers, such as Brett Lee, that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open-ended to have the impact they were hoping for.

As he put it, “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.”  Councilmember 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.”

City staff wrote, “Mitigating the impacts of transporting crude and other commodities by rail has been a challenge, as the railroads and other entities involved in the transport of crude claim they are subject to federal law but not to California law. They are asserting federal pre-emption and arguing that other agencies have no authority to mitigate their impacts.”

Ultimately, Mayor Krovoza put forth a motion, that was seconded by Lee, which directed staff to begin preparation of a resolution whereby 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.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Michael Harrington

    Since 1995 I live and work several blocks from the Amtrack station. I love trains, and hear them pass by at night. I think there is a big increase in rail traffic over the last ten years. It’s cool to listen to the different horns on various engines. I don’t know for sure but I think each engineer may have his or her own signature horn pattern. They toot at each other as they pass east and west at night.

    I think the oil train concern is highly valid and is worth the fight.

    There should be a volunteer team that sits overnight at Amtrack and logs those trains over a week to get a count to report to our City Council.

    1. Alan Miller

      Incorrect. There was a larege dropoff in freight traffic after the 2008 recession. There has been a slight overall iincrease since then. There has also been a small decrease (1 weekday round trip) in passenger traffic.

      Incorrect. Trains do not toot at each other. They do use the horns for specific reasons, each of which has a unique pattern; unfortunately the correct patterns are rarely used, often replaced by a single “blatt for all purposes”; for some purposes they fail to use them at all. To some degree some train engineers have their own style, though not as distinct as cable cars.

      And what is the fight exactly? Stop the trains? Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Vancouver couldn’t do that, so why would anyone think we would have any better luck? My fight is to upgrade the 10mph crossover east of the station to 45mph standards so that if a train goes through it and forgets it is a 10mph crossover, it no longer is and the train doesn’t have a high chance of derailing. Beyond that, get out your “Welcome Oil Trains” t-shirt.

      And what would they report? It is difficult to tell a tank car carrying propane from a tank car carrying LPG, to oil. How would you know it was Bakken oil? There is a train of dark tank cars that passes through every night just after midnight. Maybe they are carrying corn oil.

      1. Davis Progressive

        i don’t know what federal and state efforts accompanied seattle, portland, etc. it does seem that there is more focus on the issue of rail safety, not just locally or regionally but nationally. so it would suggest that conditions might be a little different on the ground right now.

  2. Tia Will


    I tried my usual technique of just Googling it and was not very successful in finding information on the conflicts in the cities that you listed. Can you tell me when these conflicts occurred or point me in the right direction to read a little about this issue and what has been tried previously ?

  3. Alan Miller

    Oh, I see in the Northwest. They have a major fight going on in the NW over oil trains. Lynn Nittler (sp?) has extensive information on that. You can find her email in the Enterprise Article announcing the oil train meeting last Wednesday night. The organization is like Yolo Climate Action.

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