State Complains to City of Benicia that Its Oil-by-Rail Safety Plan Isn't Safe

Friday, September 26, 2014

California state officials joined a procession of environmental groups and local municipalities this week in urging the city of Benicia to rework its safety analysis of Valero Refining Co.’s plan to bring two 50-car trains to its oil refinery through urban areas and sensitive ecosystems.

“We felt the risk analysis was sufficiently flawed and underestimates the risks,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife official Julie Yamamoto told the Sacramento Bee.

Her agency’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, of which she is chief of the scientific branch, and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) complained in a letter to Benicia that the city’s draft environmental impact report considered only a small section of rail the trains will be traversing and underestimated the danger of an accident.

Oil-laden trains will pass through downtown Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities on their way to the Benicia refinery.

Questions had already been raised about Benicia’s claim that statistics show odds are there will be no more than one oil train derailment every 110 years, in light of some horrific accidents of late. Forty-seven people died in July 2013 when a train carrying 63 cars of Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Benicia has previously said that it limited its assessment to a small section of rail because it was unclear where Valero would bring oil from and along what lines. Critics fear that oil could be tar sands from Alberta, Canada, the dirtiest petrochemical product on the planet, or volatile fracked oil from Bakken.

Neither would be very welcome. The nation is embarking on a headlong rush to ship oil from fields―recently opened using new extraction technology―via rail instead of pipelines and ships. Railroads are carrying 25 times more crude oil nationally than they were five years ago. Most oil in California is moved by pipeline or ship. In 2012, only 0.2% of the 598 million barrels of oil arrived by rail in California. But the California Energy Commission (CEC) has said it expects rail to account for a quarter of imports by 2016.  

Everyone recognizes that the rail cars used to transport crude oil are old and not built to withstand the dangers posed by the more volatile Bakken crude that is beginning to course through California’s transportation infrastructure. But federal regulations requiring an upgrade of rail equipment are just beginning to take effect and are not expected to be completed for years.

The shift to rail is happening quickly and the state has only recently begun to assess what kind of safety measures will have to be taken. Right now, it is a struggle to just get oil and rail companies to reveal what products they are shipping where amid cries from the industries that valuable “trade secrets” are put at risk by public transparency.  

The letter from the state is one of just hundreds Benicia city officials say they have received from interested parties. The Bee said the state sent the letter to preserve its legal right to sue over the matter down the road, although there are no present plans to do so. The state has limited authority over the rail shipment of oil, which is generally governed by federal regulations.

Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation on Thursday, Assembly Bill 380, which requires rail companies to give state emergency service providers and localities more information about potentially hazardous cargos and their disaster response plans. The state recently agreed to hire two rail bridge inspectors to look at California’s 5,000 aging rail bridges that are mostly owned and maintained by private companies.

They will eventually join the single federal rail bridge inspector, who covers 11 states, in preparing California for an eventuality that is already upon it. Oil-by-rail is arriving much faster than a regulatory framework to oversee it.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Officials Challenge Benicia Crude Oil Train Plan (by Tony Bizjak, Sacramento Bee)

State Officials Say Benicia Underestimated Oil Train Risks (by Tony Burchyns, Vallejo Times-Herald)

California Oil Train Bill Wins Gov. Jerry Brown’s Signature (By Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

California’s Brown Signs Railway Oil-Cargo Disclosure Law (by Michael B. Marois, Bloomberg)

The Quiet Plan to Bring Toxic Canadian Tar Sands to California Refineries by Rail (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Leave a comment