Officials in the Sacramento region have every right to raise safety concerns about oil trains rumbling through. Now they have key allies in their cause.
Last week, the city of Benicia’s planning commission unanimously rejected a plan by Valero Refining Co. to take deliveries twice a day from 50-tanker trains that would roll through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento and downtown Davis on their way to Benicia. As The Bee’s Tony Bizjak reports, planners in San Luis Obispo County have also recommended against a plan by Phillips 66 for about 150 trains a year to bring oil to its refinery.
While local residents and environmental groups objected, some Benicia planning commissioners said they also heard Sacramento-area residents and officials loud and clear. “I don’t want to be the planning commissioner in the one city that said ‘screw you’ to up-rail cities,” Commissioner Susan Cohen Grossman said.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, representing six counties and 22 cities, had argued that Benicia’s environmental review was inadequate because it didn’t look at how to protect cities along the route. That analysis concluded the trains could create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public from oil spills and fires, but only once every few decades.
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Yet, as Don Saylor, a Yolo County supervisor and a former SACOG chairman, points out, depending where a derailment happened, heavily populated neighborhoods could be in the blast zone.
He told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board Tuesday that the best solution is for the oil to be stabilized at the source in the oil fields of North Dakota and elsewhere, and then transported in state-of-the-art rail cars. That, of course, would cut into oil and rail industry profits, and government regulators aren’t there yet.
Indeed, they have been trying to catch up to the boom in domestic oil production and rail transport. After more than two years of debate, the U.S. Department of Transportation last May issued new rules under which the oldest tank cars must be replaced by 2018 with thicker-shelled ones, and cars built since 2011 must be retrofitted or replaced by 2020.
Valero, which wants to build a rail spur and unloading station at its refinery, is expected to appeal to the Benicia City Council. The planning commission in San Luis Obispo is scheduled to vote in late March or April.
Officials could still overturn the recommendations and approve these trains. But at least now, they must justify why safety concerns are outweighed.