Business & Real Estate

Sacramento air quality officials sued over crude oil trains

A Bay Area environmental group has filed a lawsuit against the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District for failing to require an environmental review of a crude oil transfer station at McClellan Business Park.

The group, Earthjustice, accuses local air quality managers of quietly rubber-stamping permits for InterState Oil Company, allowing it to use McClellan as a site for transferring highly flammable crude oil from trains into tanker trucks headed to Bay Area refineries.

Earthjustice filed the complaint Monday in Sacramento Superior Court on behalf of the Sierra Club. It charges that Sacramento air quality officials and InterState failed to review the potential hazards of running trains of inadequately designed tank cars full of crude oil through neighborhoods, and asks the court to halt the transfer operations until a full environmental review is conducted.

InterState Oil Company has been making the transfers at McClellan since last year, initially without applying for a permit. Inspectors with the air quality district discovered the oil transfers and required InterState to file for a permit, but did not require the company to conduct any review of the environmental impact of the project. Permit documents allow InterState to unload an estimated 100 train cars every two weeks. Officials with InterState could not be reached for comment.

Air district official Larry Greene told The Sacramento Bee last month that the oil company had an existing permit to transfer denatured alcohol and that the switch to crude oil transfers didn’t cause any emissions increases. The district issued a permit this year for crude-oil transfers but considered that action “ministerial,” meaning it did not trigger an environmental review, Greene said.

Environmental groups said they see that stance as an abrogation of duty by local regulators.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear in California that the oil industry is cozying up to decision-makers who are deliberately bypassing environmental and health laws to usher in perilous oil transport projects that put people in danger,” said Suma Peesapati, Earthjustice attorney. “We saw it in Richmond, we saw it in Kern County, and now we’re witnessing it in Sacramento. If we’re going to stem the flood of fossil fuels into California and protect the public from hastily approved, poorly planned projects, we demand transparent and law-abiding leadership.”

“This is an example of a public agency skirting the law and failing to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the public,” said Terry Davis of the Mother Lode Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Earthjustice recently sued a similar operation in the Bay Area city of Richmond, where the Kinder Morgan oil transportation company currently moves volatile Bakken crude oil from trains to trucks that take it to local refineries. That lawsuit was rejected a few weeks ago in court when a judge ruled the six-month statute of limitations for a lawsuit had expired. That project involves 100-car oil trains that come through midtown Sacramento.

Attorney Peesapati of Earthjustice said she does not believe the statute of limitations issue applies in the Sacramento case because this week’s lawsuit is within six months of the air quality district’s initial permit issuance this year.

A handful of recent derailments and explosions involving trains carrying crude oil, notably the lighter and more volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, have prompted federal and state officials to push for more rail safety measures.

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