The Benicia city planning commission, voting unanimously, dealt a dramatic setback Thursday to an oil company's plans to ship crude oil via train through Northern California, including downtown Sacramento, to its local refinery.
After four successive nights of hearings, commissioners rejected Valero Refining Co.'s request to build a rail loading station so it could import oil on two 50-car trains daily, despite a city staff recommendation for approval.
Several commissioners said they were highly uncomfortable with the plan, based on an analysis that says the trains pose a significant unavoidable health hazard to humans and other environmental risks along the route to the Benicia refinery.
City officials said they expect Valero, the largest employer in town, to appeal the commission's decision to the Benicia City Council. A Valero spokesman said his company is disappointed and will sit down to discuss next steps.
"Most disappointing was the commissioners disregard for the opinions of a multitude of environmental and legal experts who spent over three years to evaluate this project," said Valero spokesman Chris Howe.
Valero officials have been pushing for the project for years, saying train shipments will allow them to stay competitive by accessing crude from North American crude oil fields. The refinery currently gets most of its oil via marine shipments, and some by pipeline.
The decision, if upheld by the City Council, would represent a major victory for up-rail cities, and represents a national challenge to the burgeoning but controversial practice of shipping large amounts of crude oil, sometimes on mile-long trains.
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Hundreds of individuals, organizations and local government leaders weighed in on the project over the past two years, many opposed to the project. Others argued the fears of environmental damage and human injury from potential mishaps are overblown.
Benicia city staff officials, in their environmental analysis, argued that federal laws on interstate commerce pre-empt any locally imposed safety regulations that would affect the train shipments, essentially prohibiting Benicia from responding in any way to concerns of cities along the rail lines.
Planning commissioners rejected that notion. "That doesn't make sense from a human point of view," commission chair Donald Dean said.
After listening to more than 70 member of the public testify on the issue over four nights, the six voting members of the commission unanimously declined to approve the city's formal environmental impact report on the project, calling it inadequate on numerous points. They also declined to give their OK for a project permit.
Several said they feel they need to look out for up-rail cities, such as Sacramento and Davis. "I don't want to be the planning commissioner in the one city that said screw you to up-rail cities," said Susan Cohen Grossman.
"I don't want to be complicit with what has become a social nightmare across the country," George Oakes said, referring to oil trains, several of which have crashed and exploded. "What we are talking about here is some additional profit for a couple of companies."