Benicia City Council delays decision on oil trains

Railroad tracks lead to Valero’s refinery in Benicia. The company wants to ship oil there with two 50-car trains a day.
Railroad tracks lead to Valero’s refinery in Benicia. The company wants to ship oil there with two 50-car trains a day. Sacramento Bee file

The city of Benicia has postponed until September any decision on a local oil company’s controversial plan to run half-mile-long oil trains through Northern California to its bayside refinery.

Valero Refining Co. is seeking city approval to build a rail track and oil-loading station at its Benicia refinery so that it can begin receiving oil shipments on two 50-car trains a day. The refinery currently gets crude oil via marine vessels and pipelines.

The trains, carrying crude from North American oil fields, would travel through Roseville, Sacramento, Davis and other California cities en route to Benicia. Those potential transports have alarmed leaders of many rail-line communities as well as environmentalists who cite concerns about derailments, spills and fires.

A Benicia environmental impact report concluded that the trains would pose significant health and safety risks along the rail line that cannot be mitigated or eliminated. The reported included an analysis though that suggests a harmful oil spill would be a rare event.

The concerns, heightened by several oil-train derailments and explosions in the U.S. and Canada, have thrown a spotlight on the Benicia project, turning the little city into a battleground in the national crude-by-rail debate.

The decision Tuesday by the City Council to wait a few months came at the suggestion of several council members who say they are confused by dueling legal opinions – from city attorneys, Valero, the state attorney general, and others – about what rights the city has to require environmental safety measures, and whether the city can even consider rail risks when voting on the project.

Valero, which contends the city has little discretion to turn down its proposal, told the city last month it intends to take the matter to the federal Surface Transportation Board for a ruling on how much leeway Benicia has when it votes.

Valero had asked the city to wait until federal officials weigh in. The council on Tuesday voted 3-2 to hold off.

“I need more information,” Councilman Alan Schwartzman said in agreeing to wait. “I need this to move forward.”

Mayor Elizabeth Patterson opposed the continuance, saying she is ready to vote after four nights of hearings, including citizen testimony, much of it opposed to the project. “Is that what we want to do, wear out the public?” she asked. “We have other things we want to do in this city. I want to move on.”

Valero spokesman Chris Howe said his company is pleased with the council decision to hold off. “We think it is helpful for the council to be best informed on this topic before they make a final decision on the project.”

Valero officials said this week they plan to submit a request within a month to the federal board for a ruling on the federal preemption issue. The STB is commissioned by Congress to, among other things, issue rulings in rail disputes.

Environmental activists, however, were displeased with the council’s decision to wait.

“Valero’s appeal to the Surface Transportation Board amounts to a direct assault on local land-use authority in Benicia and nationwide,” said Ethan Buckner, a representative for Stand, an environmental group. “Be assured, communities across the country will not sit quietly while Valero attempts to strip their precious right to protect their public health and safety.”

Several Benicia officials said they have talked recently with STB representatives and are hoping that the board will issue a ruling by September.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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