Brown administration officials say Benicia has underestimated the risk posed by oil trains planned to run through Sacramento and other parts of Northern California to the city’s Valero refinery, and is calling on the city to redo its safety analysis before allowing oil shipments to increase.
A letter sent to the city last week by the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the California Public Utilities Commission expresses concerns similar to those detailed in recent letters to Benicia from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the cities of Sacramento and Davis.
Sacramento regional leaders have accused Benicia of not adequately exploring the explosion and fire risks of a Valero Refining Co. plan to run two 50-car trains daily through downtown Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities to the Benicia refinery.
Julie Yamamoto, chief of the state spill prevention agency’s scientific branch and a member of the governor’s rail safety team, said state officials felt compelled to push for Benicia to do deeper study prior to project approval.
“We felt the risk analysis was sufficiently flawed and underestimates the risks,” Yamamoto said.
In its draft environmental impact report, issued earlier this summer, Benicia only analyzed oil spill possibilities on the rail line between Roseville and Benicia, even though the trains will travel from other states or even Canada. “That is a pretty big shortfall in not considering the rest of the track to the California border, and even beyond that,” Yamamoto said. State officials also have questions about how Benicia came up with the assertion that a derailed train might spill oil only once every 111 years, and therefore the risk was insignificant.
“The derailment rate looks to us to be low compared to national data,” Yamamoto said.
Benicia city officials declined to respond this week to the concerns raised by the state and local governments, but previously indicated that they limited their spill analysis to the Roseville-Benicia track section because they do not know yet which rail lines the Union Pacific Railroad may use east or north of Roseville to bring the oil into California.
State officials countered that there are only a handful of rail lines that could be used to bring the oil into the state, and all should be included in Benicia’s project risk analysis. The state noted that those rail lines pass through “high-hazard areas” where derailments are more common. In Northern California, those hazard sections are at Dunsmuir, the Feather River Canyon and near Colfax.
By issuing its letter, the state secures legal standing to sue Benicia if that city approves the project without redoing its risk studies. State officials this week declined to address the question of whether they would consider a lawsuit.
The letter from the state is one of hundreds Benicia officials said they received in the past few months in response to their initial environmental study. Benicia interim Community Development Director Dan Marks said the city and its consultants would review the comments and prepare responses to all of them, then bring those responses to the city Planning Commission for discussion at an as-yet undetermined date.
Under the Valero proposal, trains would carry about 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily to the Benicia refinery from U.S. and possibly Canadian oil fields, where it would be turned into gasoline and diesel fuel. Valero officials have said they hope to win approval from the city of Benicia to build a crude oil transfer station at the refinery by early next year, allowing them to replace more costly marine oil shipments with cheaper oil.
Crude oil rail shipments have come under national scrutiny in the last year. Several spectacular explosions of crude oil trains, including one that killed 47 residents of a Canadian town last year, have prompted a push by federal officials and cities along rail lines for safety improvements.
SACOG and the cities of Sacramento and Davis have called on Benicia to require UP to give advance notice to local emergency responders, and to prohibit the railroad company from parking or storing loaded oil tank trains in urban areas. Local officials want the railroad to use train cars with electronically controlled brakes and rollover protection. Sacramento also has asked Benicia to limit Valero to shipping oil that has been stripped of highly volatile elements, including natural gas liquid.
Others in the Sacramento region, however, point out that rail safety is a federal issue, not one that can legally be dictated locally. In a joint letter, Stanley Cleveland and James Gallagher of the Sutter County Board of Supervisors said SACOG is overreaching, and a better approach would be to work with federal railroad regulators, as well as with Valero and UP, on safety issues.
The Union Pacific Railroad also has challenged the SACOG and Sacramento city perspectives, arguing that federal law pre-empts states and cities from imposing requirements on the railroads. “A state-by-state, or town-by-town approach in which different rules apply to the beginning, middle and end of a single rail journey, would not be effective,” UP officials said in a letter this month to SACOG.
State Sen. Ted Gaines, who represents much of Placer County and other rail areas, said the Valero project has his “full support.” Benicia’s analysis, he wrote, “affirms that this project is beneficial environmentally and economically and can be done safety given the prevention, preparedness and response measures in place by both Valero and Union Pacific Railroad.”
Among other commenters:
• 350 Sacramento, a local climate change group, warned that oil trains would cause an increase in carbon emissions and slow efforts to convert to renewable energies.
• The Capitol Corridor passenger train authority, which would share tracks with the oil trains, voiced concern about the safety of passengers, crews and communities, saying the Benicia analysis doesn’t look at the impact crude oil trains would have on Capitol Corridor or Amtrak passenger trains.
• The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District said Benicia could ask Valero to fund local mitigation programs to reduce polluting impacts of trains in the region.
• UC Davis noted that the rail line passes through campus near the Mondavi Center and the UC Davis Conference Center, and called for additional training and equipment for Davis to deal with the possibility of a derailment and fire.