Solano County

Fairfield, Suisun still weighing crude-by-rail proposal

By From page A1 | July 16, 2014

FAIRFIELD — Fairfield and Suisun City have yet to stake out positions for the proposed Valero Benicia refinery crude-by-rail project.

Valero wants to transport crude oil to its Benicia refinery by train. The Roseville-to-Benicia leg along the Union Pacific tracks passes through Fairfield and Suisun City.

The draft environmental impact report for the project said the chances of a derailment resulting in the spill of more than 100,000 gallons of oil is once every 111 years. It describes the risk to public safety as being “less than significant.”

But opponents raise the specter of various rail accidents involving crude oil, such as the Lac-Megantic derailment in Canada in July 2013. The Bakken formation oil from ruptured tank cars exploded, killing 47 people.

The Benicia Planning Commission on Thursday conducted a public hearing to accept verbal comments on the draft environmental impact report. The city is accepting written comments to Sept. 15.

Davis, which is also along the Union Pacific line, is reviewing the draft environmental report with the intent of submitting comments. So is the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, according to letters on file with Benicia.

Fairfield could take another approach. Community Development Director Erin Beavers said the city could forego commenting on the draft environmental report and focus instead on state legislation affecting crude-by-rail shipments. That is a better way to address city concerns, he said.

Among the concerns are making certain the rail tank cars have the safest design and that tank cars and train track inspections are done, Beavers said. The city wants adequate money set aside to respond to a rail accident, should one occur.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has been working on crude-by-rail legislation. She proposes levying a fee on railroad tank cars. Money would be used to develop and maintain local emergency response systems for rail accidents involving crude oil and other hazardous materials.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 506, is to go to next to the Senate Transportation Committee.

Suisun City Mayor Pete Sanchez wants his City Council to discuss Wolk’s bill. The least the city can do is make certain there are resources available to respond to rail accidents, he said.

His concern about the Valero crude-by-rail proposal is that accidents can happen and have happened in other areas, Sanchez said.

“It’s horrendous to think of residents soundly sleeping in homes and here comes a rolling, burning container about to hit their homes,” he said.

Tough safety requirements for the tank car containing the oil need to be in place, he said.

The draft environmental report described various federal standards for oil tank cars. Valero has said it will use rail cars that are known as 1232 tank cars that go beyond federal standards and are recommended by the Association of American Railroads. The tank cars have thicker shells and features such as protective head shields not found on pre-2011, federally authorized tank cars still in use.

Valero in December 2012 submitted a use permit application to Benicia for the crude-by-rail project asking the city to issue a land-use permit. The project requires various changes to the Benicia refinery, such as constructing two offloading rail spurs and relocating a tank farm.

But some issues associated with the project appear to be outside the city’s control.

Bradley Hogin, an environmental attorney hired by Benicia, told the Benicia Planning Commission on Thursday that the city cannot require Valero to use the 1232-designated tank cars, though Valero has made this commitment. Nor could it limit the number of 50-car trains coming to the refinery to one per day, instead of the two-a-day schedule examined in the draft environmental impact report.

Such matters are controlled by federal interstate commerce laws and outside the control of Benicia, Hogin said. The city cannot regulate railroad operations.

Nor can Benicia require Valero to reveal the details about the North American crude oils it plans to purchase and transport by rail. The draft environmental impact report lists this as confidential business information. Some crude oils are more volatile than others.

Valero can choose among 38 North American crude oils listed in the draft environmental impact report. They come from New Mexico, Utah, North Dakota, Canada, Colorado and Wyoming.

The draft environmental impact report noted two recent rail oil tank car spills in the United States that it said could have been prevented by using the 1232 tank cars. But, the report said, it’s unlikely using the 1232 tank cars could have prevented the Lac-Megantic spill, given a runaway train was traveling at 63 mph, though the 1232 cars could have reduced the severity.

Sanchez said federal agencies would respond to a public groundswell to make certain the right rail tank cars are used. He said he doesn’t see Valero saying “no” to any reasonable request made by residents.

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling has been a reporter with the Daily Republic since 1987. He covers Solano County government, transportation, growth and the environment. He received his bachelors of art degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.

Discussion | 6 comments

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  • Mr.RJuly 16, 2014 - 7:46 am

    Of course Wolk would see an opportunity to raise the price of gas. Just another way to get more money to waste.Make Velero set aside a emergency fund. I also like the way a rail car is described as a fire ball rolling toward your home.Give me a brake.Trains are a lot safer than putting tanker trucks on the road.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 16, 2014 - 10:29 am

    Trucks should be used for this purpose. Trucking brings jobs and high revenue from fuel and transportation taxes. Here we are with an opportunity to promote local business and we're talking about alternate choices. Road maintenance and taxes can be negotiated for these carriers and oil companies. Rail is great for long distance shipping but it is a job killer. Accidents and safety are part of doing business. I'll take my chances with trucking and the positive prospects it promotes.

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  • More rails, less road.....July 16, 2014 - 12:34 pm

    From a business standpoint, keeping trucks off the road and shipping by rail is the way to go. As usual, someone wants money out of this. I wouldn't blame the railroads if they said they'll go elsewhere with the oil. Another attack on the middle class.

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  • Ulises S. GuberJuly 16, 2014 - 12:53 pm

    the oppositions opinion is strengthened by pointing out examples of tragic accidents that involved the transport of crude however to be fair and balanced I think we should consider all the safely transported shipments of crude by rail that go unreported each and every day .....

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  • Lee WallackerJuly 16, 2014 - 3:20 pm

    I wonder if these anti-rail people ever wonder what's loaded on that semi-truck that's speeding down road next to them. How ironic that in this morning's paper is a story of a big rig that ran off of I-80 in the middle of Fairfield, forcing evacuation of several businesses.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 16, 2014 - 4:57 pm

    Lee Wallacker, accidents happen every day with cars, trucks, motorcycles and even trains, very little we can do about that. We have the infrastructure in place, the manpower and equipment available. We need jobs and revenue, trucking checks all the boxes.

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