Benicia nixes Valero plan to run crude oil trains through Sacramento, Davis, Roseville

A train carrying 98 tankers of crude oil passes through midtown Sacramento.
A train carrying 98 tankers of crude oil passes through midtown Sacramento.

The Benicia City Council on Tuesday unanimously rejected a controversial plan by the Valero Refining Co. to ship crude oil aboard trains through Sacramento and other Northern California cities to its bayside refinery.

The 5-0 vote, taken after four years of bitter debate, represents a victory for environmentalists and offers relief to Sacramento-area leaders who said the oil trains would put local residents and habitat at risk of a catastrophic oil spill and fire.

The Valero proposal, if approved, would have sent up to two 50-car crude oil trains rolling daily through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, Davis and other rail cities, as well as through the Feather River Canyon.

“I’m over the moon,” Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor said Tuesday night. “The community of Benicia, in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said he believed letters and legal briefs from local leaders, as well as lobbying by Sacramento-area activists, played a role in persuading the Benicia council to say no to that city’s biggest employer.

“I’m very pleased,” he said.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Benicia-area residents, Stand.earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a statement Tuesday night calling the decision “a victory for the right of communities to say ‘no’ to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects.”

Valero officials expressed disappointment with the decision. The company had previously said it likely would challenge an adverse decision in court, but it did not indicate Tuesday what its next steps will be.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude-by-rail project,” company spokesman Chris Howe wrote. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

Increased oil train shipments in the United States and Canada in the last five years have led to a series of crashes and explosions, including one that killed 47 people in a small Canadian town three years ago. Federal officials have issued new safety regulations, but officials in many rail cities have said the government has not gone far enough to ensure safer shipments.

A Benicia environmental impact report last year concluded that the trains would pose significant health and safety risks along the rail line, but also concluded that a harmful spill would be a rare event.

Benicia City Council member Christina Strawbridge said she made up her mind this summer after a Union Pacific crude oil train derailed in Mosier, Ore., causing an explosion and fire that forced evacuations in the area. She called that “a game changer for me” because the rail company involved was UP, the company Valero would use, and the rail cars that were punctured were newer, supposedly safer models.

“The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards,” Strawbridge said.

Councilman Mark Hughes commended Valero for its safety record, but added: “That said, bad things do happen. At this point, there is too much uncertainty (for) me.”

The Valero refinery currently receives its oil via marine shipments and pipeline. The oil company applied in 2012 for a permit to build a rail transfer station on its refinery grounds to allow it to receive oil via train. Officials said it would help the refinery remain competitive in a changing oil industry.

The Benicia Planning Commission denied Valero’s request earlier this year, citing safety issues for up-rail cities, as well as concerns about negative impacts to a creek in Benicia and to the city’s nearby industrial park. The denial also included concern about the possibility of an explosion at the refinery.

Valero appealed that decision to the City Council. It also asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to issue a ruling saying that Benicia does not have the right to deny Valero’s request to build a rail transfer station. The oil company argued that federal interstate commerce regulations pre-empt cities from saying “yes” or “no” on rail-related projects.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the Surface Transportation Board denied Valero’s request, pointing out that Valero is not a railroad company, so it could not claim federal pre-emption protection for its transfer station project. The board issued further “guidance,” however, warning that cities cannot unreasonably interfere with rail transportation.

Several City Council members said they had been waiting for the transportation board’s comments before deciding on Valero’s request. The council instructed city staff members to come back with a list of findings to support their denial. Several council members cautioned that those findings should focus on safety concerns at the Benicia site rather than risks to rail cities, saying that locally focused findings would be easier to defend in court if Valero sues the city.

A similar hearing is set for Thursday in San Luis Obispo County, where Phillips 66 is proposing a rail transfer station at its refinery that will allow it to ship crude oil via train, some of it likely through Sacramento and other Northern California cities.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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