Valero appeals Benicia panel’s denial of oil train plan

A crude-oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way west through James, just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley in 2014.
A crude-oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way west through James, just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley in 2014. Sacramento Bee file

A controversial request by Valero Refining Company to ship oil on trains through Northern California will go to the Benicia City Council for consideration.

The city Planning Commission in February denied Valero’s permit to run up to two 50-car trains a day to its bayside refinery. The oil company filed an appeal Monday. The City Council can hear the appeal as early as March 15. Officials said they have not yet set hearing dates.

Valero officials contend the Planning Commission overstepped its authority. “We believe the commission’s grounds for denial are pre-empted by federal law, not supported by substantial evidence, and represent a clear abuse of discretion,” Valero spokesman Chris Howe said in an email. “We look forward to the opportunity to present our case to the Benicia City Council.”

The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas. A serious of crashes and fires, including one that killed 47 people in a Canadian town, have heightened concerns nationally about oil trains.

The Valero debate revolves around how much say Benicia has over crude-oil deliveries by rail. Benicia city staff members say federal laws prohibit the city from even considering the potential danger to people who live along the rail line when deciding on the project.

The Planning Commission rejected that view. “Staff’s interpretation of preemption is too broad and the EIR (environmental impact report) should consider including mitigation measures to offset the significant and unavoidable impacts associated with rail operations,” the commission stated in resolution. “The EIR does not evaluate mitigations to uprail communities and how each potential mitigation is or is not preempted.”

The commission also cited localized flood and traffic congestion concerns. Several commissioners said they were moved by testimony from Davis and Sacramento residents, and by letters from Sacramento regional leaders. “I don’t want to be the Planning Commissioner in the one city that said ‘screw you’ to up-rail cities,” Commissioner Susan Cohen Grossman said in casting her vote.

The appeal could revive a debate involving Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, who has publicly called for more oil train safety and has sent out informational emails about aspects of the project and surrounding debate. Prompted by queries from two council members, the Benicia city attorney commissioned an outside legal analysis that concluded Patterson’s actions could be seen as biased against the Valero project.

Patterson on Monday said she will not recuse herself from voting. “There is no reason to do so,” she said. “I’m comfortable going forward. I think it is a diversion. I am doing my job.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak