Last week, Senator Lois Wolk 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 numerous crude oil rail accidents in recent years.
The letter was sent in advance of the scheduled June 10 release of a draft Environmental Impact Report on a proposal to transport crude oil through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the City of Benicia, which Senator Wolk represents.
Rail shipments of crude oil in California, like those proposed by Valero, are slated to increase 25-fold in the next few years, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission.
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.”
Several destructive crude oil rail accidents have taken place in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, including the July 2013 derailment of 72 tanker cars loaded with 2 million gallons of flammable crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that resulted in 47 deaths, over $1 billion in damages, and 1.5 million gallons of spilled crude oil.
Valero’s proposal has elicited concern from public and elected officials regarding the safety risks of transporting crude oil through Benicia and other densely populated areas of Northern California. Other concerns include the potential for increased commuter traffic.
“An event such as Lac-Mégantic could have catastrophic effects if it occurred in any populated area of California,” Senator Wolk said.
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 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.”
The City of Davis has put forward 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.
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