Oil processing giant Valero Refining Co. in Benicia is reaping the rewards of booming domestic oil production, with plans to move up to 100 train cars of flammable crude oil a day through Solano County.
Trains will use the Capitol Corridor rail line that runs through Dixon on the east side of the county; near unincorporated Elmira outside of Vacaville; between Suisun City from Fairfield, adjacent to residential areas of both cities; along the western edge of Suisun City’s Old Town; and on to Benicia.
Suisun City Councilwoman Jane Day has expressed safety concerns related to the plan. She’s not alone.
What we’re seeing in Benicia is the future of U.S. oil production during a time of hydrologic fracturing: The California Energy Commission reports that shipments of crude oil into the state via rail increased sixfold from 2012 to 2013, from 1 million barrels to 6 million barrels.
Valero is a business and understandably wants to take on as much of the processing as possible. There’s clearly a market for refined oil in our First World economy. It’s in our best interests as a nation to be as self-reliant as possible when it comes to meeting our energy needs.
We must, however, balance these compelling interests against the equally compelling interest of safety.
A deadly September 2010 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno left eight people dead. More to the point, there’s the memory of the runaway train with 72 tankers of oil that derailed and exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people and destroying much of a small town in Quebec, near the border with Maine.
The Federal Railroad Administration this month issued a recommendation that all trains that transport crude oil have at least two-man crews. Officials in Minnesota are considering legislation to require railroad companies to help pay to train and equip emergency responders to handle a fiery oil-train disaster. Perhaps California should consider similar legislation.
Such training is not without precedent.
Local emergency crews took part in an April 10 training scenario related to the upcoming Travis Air Force Base open house and expo. The scenario involved the prospect of two F-16s from the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds crashing during the event, one on base and one into a crowd at the Lambrecht Sports Complex in Suisun City. The training was a base requirement in advance of the air show.
We have confidence in the ability of our region’s emergency responders to handle massive fires. They have ample experience in Fairfield alone, with the seven-alarm, wind-swept Marigold Fire in September 2013, the six-alarm Macro Plastics fire in July 2011, and five-alarm blazes in January 2012 on Empire Street and January 2013 downtown at Pepperbelly’s.
Rail disasters that involve oil trains are something else altogether, as the incident in Quebec illustrates. So as we welcome the prospect of additional Solano County jobs related to Valero’s plans, we caution local, state and federal officials to take reasoned steps to ensure public safety.