Benicia city officials have concluded a proposal to transport large amounts of crude oil daily on trains through Sacramento and Northern California would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public, but say a spill is probably only a once every few decades occurrence.
In a revised environmental impact report issued Monday, officials in the Bay Area city contend spill risks are unavoidable and there is nothing that the city or the Valero Refining Co. can do to mitigate them, given that the federal government controls how rail shipments are handled. The report makes a point of saying that federal and state governments have taken recent steps to make crude oil rail transports safer.
Valero, which operates a major oil refinery in Benicia, is asking for city approval to ship two 50-car crude oil trains daily from north American fields through California to the Bay Area, replacing marine oil shipments.
Oil train shipments have come under the spotlight nationally after a handful of crashes that caused spectacular explosions and fires. One crash two years ago resulted in the deaths of 47 people in a Canadian town; others have forced evacuations and spilled oil into waterways.
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Benicia officials conducted the latest analysis after critics, including Sacramento regional leaders, complained earlier risk assessments were inadequate. They have called on Benicia and Valero to take more safety steps.
Cities on the rail line include Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and Suisun City. The oil train route through rural Northern California remains uncertain. Trains could enter the state from Oregon and pass through the Dunsmuir area, or through the Feather River Canyon, or via Donner Summit.
Benicia’s initial environmental report, published last year, had said spill damage hazards are “less than significant.” The new report is based on a deeper analysis of an expanded geographic area.
The Benicia report cites federal data showing that less than 1 percent of train accidents cause releases of hazardous materials. But it also notes that trains to Benicia would have to travel through mountainous areas that have higher derailment rates. It projects that an oil spill of more than 100 gallons – described in the report as a small spill – might be expected to happen once every 20 to 27 years. A larger spill of 30,000 gallons is listed as a once-every-38-to-80-years event, but could cause injuries and deaths.
The release of the new report sets in place a 45-day public comment period. Benicia officials said they will respond to those comments, then set a Planning Commission review and vote on the project. The date for that hearing has not been set.
Valero officials, who have complained that Benicia’s vetting process has gone on too long, said in a brief email statement Monday that they are looking forward to participating in the Planning Commission discussion of their project. Officials with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional entity that has been monitoring the project, could not be reached for comment Monday.
A copy of the report can be found under “Revised Draft EIR” on the city of Benicia’s website.