Sacramento leaders this week accused the city of Benicia of failing to take any steps to help protect cities against potential oil spills from daily train shipments an oil company wants to run through Northern California.
The Sacramento Area Council of Governments, representing six area counties and 22 area cities, sent a letter Thursday to Benicia, saying that city’s environmental impact analysis of a rail plan by Valero Refining Co. is inadequate and represents “a non-response” to Sacramento’s safety concerns.
The challenge comes the week before the Benicia Planning Commission is scheduled to hear Valero’s controversial request for a permit to make changes at its Benicia refinery to allow it to receive two 50-car trains a day of crude oil from North America fields. The train shipments will replace current oil deliveries via ocean vessels.
The trains would travel through Rocklin, Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other rail cities en route to the the refinery. It is not clear which route the trains will take east of Roseville, but potential routes include the Feather River Canyon, Donner Summit and via Oregon through Redding and Dunsmuir.
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As more and larger crude oil shipments have ramped up in the United States in recent years, the number of oil spills and fires has increased, as well. Several have produced major fires, including one that killed 47 people in a Canadian town two years ago. Cities along rail lines across the United States have been demanding more protection.
Benicia recently released an environmental analysis that concluded the trains would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public from oil spills and fires, but said a spill is likely to occur only once every few decades.
Benicia city planning department officials wrote that they believe federal rail regulations prohibit the city from denying the project or placing restrictions because of concerns about rail safety. City officials also noted that Valero is the city’s largest employer and that it provides “a large source of revenue for the city.”
Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, who signed the SACOG letter, said Sacramento officials are not asking Benicia to reject the plan; they’re asking only that it take legal steps to require the shipments are handled as safely as possible, including requiring rail companies to use stronger tanker cars with safety mechanisms, and that the trains use new computer safety controls called “positive train control.”
Saylor pointed out that local emergency responders apparently will not be allowed to know when the trains are coming through.
“Our concern is about the 500,000 people in the six-county area that live within a half-mile of the rails, people who are exposed to potential risk,” Saylor said.
Sacramento officials and officials in other rail-line cities nationally have also called for requirements that companies take more steps to “stabilize” volatile North Dakota oil before it is shipped.
Benicia city officials have declined to comment pending upcoming city hearings on the subject. Officials have set aside several nights in a row, beginning Monday, for public comment on the plan. Those hearings are expected to be heavily attended by people arguing for and against the proposal.
Benicia’s approach contrasts with the way San Luis Obispo County is handling a similar crude-oil train project. County officials there have recommended the county’s Planning Commission reject a proposal from Phillips 66 for changes at its refinery in that area that would allow it to bring oil trains on-site. Those shipments would go through both Northern and Southern California, including the Sacramento area. The Phillips refinery currently receives oil via a pipeline.
In a report, San Luis Obispo County’s planning staff wrote that it does not believe the economic and other benefits from the proposed project outweigh the unavoidable negative environmental impacts the project would cause. County officials listed the potential for elevated cancer risks from added air pollution near the tracks in the county and elsewhere in California.
“The project would be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the public and the residents of San Luis Obispo County due to the increase of hazardous accidents as a result of the project,” the county planning staff wrote in a report issued Monday.
Hearings are ongoing over that project. SACOG sent a letter this week to San Luis Obispo County saying that – if the project is approved – the county should imposed “a full complement of mitigation measures addressing our safety concerns.”
Phillips 66 recently announced it will reduce the number of annual train shipments it plans to make from 250 to about 150.