A much-anticipated report released Tuesday offered new details and some controversial safety conclusions about a Bay Area oil company’s plan to run crude-oil trains daily through Roseville and Sacramento to Benicia.
Valero Refining Co., which operates a sweeping plant on a hillside overlooking Suisun Bay, plans to transport crude oil from undisclosed North American oil fields on two 50-car trains every 24 hours through the Sacramento region to the Benicia site. One would run at night and the other in the middle of the day to minimize conflicts with Capitol Corridor passenger trains, which share the same line.
If the project is approved, Valero would begin shipments later this year or early next year. The trains would cut through downtown Roseville, Sacramento and Davis, and pass within a quarter-mile of 27 schools, 11 of them in Sacramento, according to the draft environmental impact report, which was commissioned by the city of Benicia, lead agency on the project.
In findings that already are provoking debate, authors of the draft report concluded that the shipments would not constitute a significant safety risk for communities along the rail route because those trains are very unlikely to crash or spill their oil.
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“Although the consequences of a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low,” wrote the report’s author, Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco. The report notes that safety steps by federal officials and railroad associations, such as slower train speeds through some urban areas and more track inspections, already are reducing the chance of crashes.
A spill risk assessment included in the report calculates the probability of a spill of 100 gallons or more in the 69 miles between Roseville and Benicia as occurring only once every 111 years. The key report section regarding impact on up-rail cities, including Sacramento, Davis, West Sacramento and Roseville, concludes: “Mitigation: None required.”
Several local Sacramento leaders on Tuesday said they had not yet read the Benicia report, which runs hundreds of pages, but that they weren’t soothed by a declaration that oil spills are unlikely.
Mike Webb, director of community development and sustainability in Davis, said the assessment misses a frightening reality for people living along the rail line: “It only needs to happen once to be a real problem.”
Across North America, six major crude-oil train crashes in the last year resulted in 2.8 million gallons of oil spilled, some of it causing explosions and forcing evacuations. The worst of those occurred last July in Lac-Megantic, Canada, where a runaway Bakken train crashed, spilling 1.6 million gallons of crude and fueling an explosion that killed 47 people and leveled part of that city’s downtown.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced a bill last week to charge the oil industry a rail-related fee to pay for safety measures. In an interview earlier this week, he said he believes “it is not a matter of will (a spill) happen, it’s when. We have to be prepared.”
The debate over the Valero project is part of a growing discussion nationally about crude oil safety, prompted by increased pumping in recent years of less-expensive crude oil from Canada and the Bakken fields of North Dakota.
The surge in extracting North American oil is enabling some companies, such as Valero, to reduce reliance on overseas shipments of foreign oil. At the same time, it has caused a dramatic increase in the number of trains crisscrossing the country, pulling 100 cars or more of flammable crude through downtowns, with almost no notice to the public and minimal warning to local fire departments.
The debate was heightened by a federal warning earlier this year that Bakken crude may be more volatile than other crudes, and by federal concerns that the fleet of train tanker cars in use nationally is inadequate to safely transport crude oils. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration issued a report saying California is behind in taking steps to protect cities and habitat from potential oil spills given the increase in crude oil shipments.
The draft environmental impact report released Tuesday does not state whether Valero will be transporting Bakken crude to Benicia. Valero has declined to disclose publicly exactly which crude oils it will ship. But the report lists Bakken as one of the lighter crudes Valero could ship.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering amending tank car design standards in light of concerns raised by recent fiery spills. Valero officials say they already have purchased some tank cars that have more safety features than most rail cars in use nationally. Valero spokesman Chris Howe said his company would expect to phase in retrofits of those cars, depending on what the federal government ultimately requires.
In California, the Valero crude-by-rail project is one of a handful planned by refineries. Another by Phillips 66 in Santa Maria likely will involve crude oil shipments through Sacramento. Several Kern County refineries also are adjusting or planning to retrofit their sites to receive crude shipments by rail. Trains last year began delivering crude oil to a transfer station at McClellan Park in Sacramento.
Rail companies are insisting that details of those shipments not be disclosed to the public, saying they are worried about security issues and don’t want to divulge “trade secrets” to competitors.
Local officials, including fire chiefs, recently have said they want to know more about the Valero project in particular. The Davis City Council has passed a resolution saying it does not want the shipments to come through the existing UP line in downtown.
Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui, responding to questions by email Tuesday, expressed concern as well. “As the number of cars coming through Sacramento increases, it is clear that our risk also increases,” she wrote.
Webb, the Davis community development director, said representatives from Sacramento area cities will meet in two weeks to discuss the Benicia environmental report. Several local officials have said they would like Valero and UP to work with them on safety measures, including more communication about train movements and hazardous materials training.
The Benicia report declines to specify the routes trains may take to get from oil fields to Roseville, saying that any potential routes beyond Roseville are speculative. The most likely routes, according to people knowledgeable about rail movements, are through the Sacramento Valley via Dunsmuir and Redding, as well as over Donner Summit or through the Feather River Canyon.
The conclusion that an oil spill between Roseville and Benicia is a once-in-111-years event was made by Christopher Barkan, an expert on hazardous rail transport at the University of Illinois who did a risk assessment attached to the draft environmental impact report. Barkan previously worked for the American Association of Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association, according to his institute’s website.
Barkan, in an email, said his work for Benicia was not influenced by his relationships with the railroad association.
“The AAR had nothing to do with this project,” he wrote. “Whenever I am approached about conducting projects such as this, I discuss any potential conflicts of interest with other sponsors, as I did in this case, and it was mutually agreed that there was none My role is to apply the best data and analytical methods possible to assess risk, irrespective of the sponsor.”
Benicia city officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The draft EIR will be circulated for public comment this summer. Those comments will be incorporated into a final environmental document, to be voted on by the Benicia City Council. The council has the authority to approve changes at Valero’s plant to allow the oil company to begin rail shipments.
Howe, the Valero spokesman, complimented the city of Benicia on “the thoroughness and detail” of the report.
“We are reviewing the material published today and will be developing comments as part of the process. We look forward to working with the community and the city of Benicia toward completion of this important project.”