Mile-long oil trains that are expected to crisscross California daily in the coming years pose significant risks to residents of urban areas, including Sacramento, a new report concludes, contradicting earlier studies that found no major safety concerns.
The report, issued by San Luis Obispo County officials, is based on a plan by Phillips 66 to transport crude oil on 80-car trains, five days a week, to its Santa Maria refinery, some likely through Sacramento. The authors looked at the cumulative impact of all oil trains that could come through California on a daily basis and came to the conclusion that the risk of oil spills and fires is real, and offered suggestions on how those issues should be addressed.
“Up to seven crude oil trains a day could travel on the stretch of track between Roseville and Sacramento,” the report reads. “The cumulative risk would be significant.”
The analysis, called a draft environmental impact report, contrasts with two recent analyses of similar crude-by-rail projects in Benicia and Bakersfield. Valero Refining Co. in Benicia and Alon USA in Bakersfield are proposing to transport crude oil twice a day on trains into their facilities. The Valero trains would come through downtown Sacramento, Roseville, West Sacramento and Davis, likely on the same tracks as the Santa Maria refinery trains. Some of the Bakersfield-bound trains also may come through Sacramento.
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Those reports, issued earlier this summer, concluded the risk of spills and oil fires in Sacramento and other areas is not significant and requires no additional safety steps. Those earlier analyses have been challenged. An environmental group, Earthjustice, has sued Kern County over its Bakersfield project review. Two state safety agencies and the state attorney general have sent letters to Benicia challenging the adequacy of its review of the Valero project.
San Luis Obispo County officials said they decided to go beyond what was done in Benicia and Kern County – breaking new ground in California’s evolving crude-by-rail debate – by conducting a qualitative risk assessment, to understand the ramifications of “reasonable” worst-case oil spill scenarios. The new report is an amended version of an earlier report San Luis Obispo issued last year, which also had been challenged as inadequate.
“We have been trying to keep an eye on what is going on around the state, to understand comments coming in on the Valero project and others, and to take a holistic approach,” said San Luis Obispo County project manager Murry Wilson.
That qualitative assessment takes special note of spill risks in urban areas, saying, “The risk is primarily driven by the high-threat urban areas (Los Angeles, Bay Area and Sacramento) since these are the locations where fairly long stretches of track are in close proximity to heavily populated areas.” A series of tables in the report indicate that injuries and deaths could occur up to a third of a mile from a crash site in urban areas, if there was a tank car rupture and explosive fire.
The report points out that derailments of oil trains are rare. The chances of a train spilling more than 100 gallons of oil en route from the California border in the north state to the Santa Maria refinery are anywhere from one-in-19 to one-in-31 in any given year, depending on the route, the county estimated. Similarly, railroad industry officials say their data show that 99.99 percent of freight trains arrive at their destinations safely.
But the dramatic increase in the last few years of crude oil shipments around the United States and Canada, often on 100-car trains, has led to several major derailments and fires, prompting concerns from cities along rail lines, and federal safety officials. Last year in Canada, a runaway crude oil train crashed in a small town and exploded, killing 47 people, many as they slept. Several other crude oil trains have been involved in dramatic explosions around the country in the past year, prompting evacuations of residential areas.
At the moment, two crude oil trains run to or through Sacramento. One carries highly flammable Bakken crude from North Dakota through midtown Sacramento a few times a month to a distribution facility in the East Bay. Another periodically brings oil to a transfer station at McClellan Business Park in North Highlands. The company that runs the transfer station agreed this week to halt those shipments after air-quality officials concluded they had issued the permit in error.
The daily trains to the Santa Maria refinery, if approved, are expected to travel on both southern or northern routes into the state, starting in 2016, depending on where Phillips decides to buy its U.S.-produced oil. The Northern California route is uncertain east of Roseville. West of Roseville, trains are likely to run through downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis and through East Bay cities, but also could take a route through Sacramento to Stockton, then west into the Bay Area.
San Luis Obispo County officials, in their report, also went considerably further than officials in Benicia and Kern County on the question of “mitigation” or preventive measures that could be put in place to minimize risks of crashes and spills.
Federal law pre-empts cities, counties and states from imposing any safety requirements on the railroads. San Luis Obispo County officials suggest, however, in their report that the county could try using its permitting authority over the proposed Phillips 66 refinery expansion to require Phillips to sign agreements with the railroads ensuring that the railroads use safer tanker cars than those currently in use, and employ better train-control computer technology than is currently in place.
An expert on railroad law told The Sacramento Bee this week that a court likely would have to decide if such a move is legal. “The federal pre-emption of the local regulation of railroads is very strong, about as strong a pre-emption as exists,” said attorney Mike Conneran of the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco. “It makes sense. You can’t have a different rule every time a rail car pulls into another state or city.”
“I can see there being a (legal) fight on that,” he said. “It is pretty close to the line in telling the railroad what to do. On the other hand, the county is putting the obligation on the refinery, not the railroad. I think the real question may come down to whether such a mitigation measure is feasible if the refinery can’t force the railroad to comply.”
If San Luis Obispo officials determine that they cannot feasibly mitigate for the Phillips 66 project’s potential hazards, the county can still approve the project, in accordance with California law, if county leaders adopt a “statement of overriding considerations,” saying that the project’s benefits outweigh the adverse effects.
Sacramento-area representatives, who have criticized Benicia’s review of its Valero project as inadequate, say they have not yet reviewed the San Luis Obispo analysis.
“We’ll do a similar analysis to what we filed with Benicia,” said Steve Cohn, chair of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. He said San Luis Obispo’s determination that a train could spill here and cause significant damage is logical, but he wondered what proposed safety measures follow from that conclusion. “We’ll have to take a look,” he said.
It is uncertain at this point whether all of the crude oil train transport projects being proposed in California will actually be built. And, if they are, it’s uncertain still how many of them will route their trains through Sacramento and Northern California. The shipments will come from oil producing areas in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and other states, as well as Canada.
Benicia officials did not respond to questions from The Bee for comment about their environmental analysis of the Valero project.
Notably, both Benicia and San Luis Obispo based a portion of their reports on analysis by an Illinois professor, Christopher Barkan, who also does work for a major rail industry lobbying group. Barkan’s methods of determining the potential frequency of oil spills have been questioned by state safety officials. Barkan has declined to speak to The Bee.
Barkan estimated that a spill from a Phillips 66 train between Roseville and Santa Maria might happen once in 46 years if the trains use the Altamont Pass and once in 59 years if the trains use the tracks along the Interstate 80 corridor. Those numbers appear to be based on trains using the best available tanker cars.
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.