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California Attorney General Kamala Harris challenges Benicia oil train analysis

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has joined the list of state and local government officials challenging Benicia’s review of plans to bring crude oil on trains to a local refinery.

In a letter last week to Benicia, Harris said the city’s draft environmental impact report “fails to properly account for many of the project’s potentially significant impacts.”

Benicia is conducting an environmental review of a plan by Valero Refining Company to build a crude oil transfer station on its Benicia plant site, so it can transport two 50-car crude oil trains a day through Northern California to the refinery for processing.

In the report, Benicia officials conclude the project’s oil spill risk along the rail line is insignificant. The state Office of Spill Prevention and Response and state Public Utilities Commission already have challenged the report, calling it inadequate. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments has challenged Benicia’s analysis, as well. All three criticize the Benicia report for only looking at the spill risks between Roseville and Benicia, failing to study rail lines all the way to the state border.

Harris’ letter repeats most of the earlier criticisms, including the contention that the report “underestimates the probability of an accidental release from the project by considering only a fraction of the rail miles traveled when calculating the risk of a derailment.”

“These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action” on the project,” Harris states.

The letter 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.

A representative for the attorney general declined comment when asked if Harris would consider suing Benicia to force more study of the project.

“We believe the letter speaks for itself,” spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said. “We expect it will be taken seriously.”

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