Sunday, October 26, 2014
GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari likes to deride Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail plan as the Crazy Train, but the loonier rail proposal is the one that would carry explosive Bakken crude 1,000 miles across the country to the Valero refinery in Benicia and other California refiners. Californians must have more assurances of safe rail operation before Valero’s oil-transfer-terminal plans proceed.
The City Council of Benicia, a town of 28,000 on the Carquinez Strait, has debated for months a draft environmental impact report on Valero’s plan to modify its refinery to bring in crude by rail. Oil, mostly from Alaska, currently enters the refinery via pipeline from ships docked at the Port of Benicia. Bakken crude, however, must come by rail because no major pipeline runs to the West Coast from North Dakota where it is extracted from the oil shale.
Community concerns include environmental risks but center on public safety because Bakken oil is more volatile than most other crudes. A derailed tanker train loaded with Bakken crude exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people in Canada and alerting transportation officials and the public to the real hazards of transporting this easily ignited oil. For Benicians, potentially explosive trains are no theoretical debate as two 50-car trains would pass daily through the north end of town.
Nor is it an abstract discussion for the residents of Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis, where trains would roll through downtown daily. Davis Mayor Dan Wolk noted: “This may be technically a city of Benicia decision, but no city is an island in our interconnected region. Our community has real concerns about the potential safety impacts.”
So does California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote Benicia officials earlier this month that “the DEIR fails to provide sufficient information for an adequate analysis of the safety risks from transportation or the air quality impacts from refining the new crude. These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action.” It is unclear whether the state would sue if the city failed to act.
Valero representatives clearly have no interest in expanding the scope of the permitting process to the state. Valero spokesman Bill Day told The Chronicle, “This is really the city of Benicia’s decision.”
Harris also wrote to Benicia that the draft report “ignores reasonably foreseeable project impacts by impermissibly limiting the scope of the affected environment analyzed to only the 69-mile stretch from Benicia to Roseville.” With so many communities affected, the state should stand firm and Solano County should use its authority over the refinery-expansion permits to persuade Valero to negotiate better public safety protections from the railroads, such as state-of-the-art train-control technology.
What’s really crazy is the federal law that allows pre-emption of municipal and state law when it comes to critical decisions on rail safety. Affected communities deserve a say over what rolls through their towns.