Broad scope urged for EIR
Audience at city meeting calls for comprehensive report on Valero rail project
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Benicia city staff asked a chamber full of residents Thursday for input in composing a draft environmental impact report on a proposal by Valero Benicia Refinery to build rail lines so some crude oil can be delivered by train instead of ship.
Several members of the public answered by asking for a report that examined the cumulative effect of the project, particularly as other nearby refineries change their source of crude.
They also wanted the EIR to examine the rail lines’ effects on traffic, endangered species and other public safety concerns.
Mary Frances Kelly Poh told staff that 90 percent of soft birds beak, an endangered plant, grows between Rush Ranch and Benicia State Recreational Area, and could be wiped out during an accident.
And once a draft of the EIR is available for examination, several, including Kelly Poh, want 60, not just 45, days to add further comment on the document.
Ed Ruszel, whose woodworking company is in Benicia’s industrial area, said train traffic already impacts area traffic, and he worried that in an emergency responders might be blocked by trains, which he said are regulated federally, not locally.
He argued for keeping a Y-track in the designs that could ease some of those problems, saying, “It’s important for it to be included.”
Like others who spoke Thursday, Ruszel suggested the project was prompted by cheaper crude available from North Dakota and Canada.
David Jenkins aired similar traffic concerns, as well as his own worries that trains might remain parked next to his building. He urged the city to reduce the number of tanker cars brought in by each train.
He also said operations in the area already produce a sooty dust that coats white trucks he sells. “I don’t want to have to breathe that stuff. I accept what’s there — I don’t want more.”
Roger Straw, who said his focus has shifted from Canadian tar sands to cities “uprail” from the project, read a letter from a Davis resident, Milton Kalish, who said he “takes seriously” the prospect of heavy crude being taken by rail through his city.
Some, Straw said, have charged those who question the project with hoping to see Valero “run out of town,” but he noted that he and others depend not only on fossil fuel but also Valero’s goodwill and tax money.
“Valero has a great record,” he said, but added that both the refinery and the city should seek cleaner alternatives to fossil fuel.
Kathy Kerridge, speaking as a resident and member of the Good Neighbor Steering Committee but not as chairperson of the Community Sustainability Commission, asked for city staff to include the economic impact of the project in the EIR.
She asked how traffic, odors, noise and petroleum coke could impact Industrial Park businesses, and whether it would affect companies’ desire to move or stay in the park.
Marilyn Bardet has supplied testimony from her own research of the project. At previous meetings, she mentioned how tracks could be impacted by rising water levels caused by global warming, and how track movement could lead to derailments that could pollute surrounding wetlands.
Among her many concerns include questions about the type and source of the crude the trains would deliver.
At Thursday’s meeting, Bardet held up a zippered plastic bag of black powder, saying it was petroleum coke gathered from rails near Ruszel’s company.
“It’s finer than talc,” she said, explaining that the substance could be breathed in.
She reminded city staff of the WesPac Energy Group’s Pittsburg Energy Infrastructure Project across Suisun Bay from Benicia.
That project is expected to reactivate an existing marine terminal, oil storage and transfer complex at the GenOn Pittsburg Gnerating Station, according to the company’s own description. The site will be used to transport and store virgin and partially refined crude for transport by pipeline, ship or barge, the company said.
Bardet said that project would bring crude from shale formations — “I have to presume tar sands,” she said. She, too, called for the EIR to examine how such projects and the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project would produce cumulative effects on the area.
Teegan Clive, of Rodeo, warned that an accident that spills tar sands crude “can destroy 1,000 miles of waterway.”
Chris Howe, Valero’s director of health, safety, environment and government affairs, was the Benicia refinery’s sole representative to speak Thursday.
He reminded members of the audience as well as city staff that Valero has worked closely with the city, its consultant Environmental Science Associates and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and has concurred with the decision to seek an EIR instead of accepting the findings in a mitigated negative declaration.
“I want to be clear what this is, and what this is not,” he said.
He said two parallel rows of rail cars would deliver crude to existing tanks, a change from an earlier design. A retaining wall, pipeline and road would be moved to accommodate the new rail lines.
“It’s a logistics project,” he said, explaining that it simply added a third method of moving crude, in addition to tanker ship and pipeline.
“We’re not changing refinery operations,” he said. Crude arriving by rail would be blended the same way crude from other sources already is, and would be used to produce “the same products we do today.”
He said the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the switch to rail, when compared to shipping rail by marine vessel.
In addition, Howe said, it would substitute domestic crude for imported oil, while meeting California’s AB 32 environmental regulation as the refinery made low-carbon fuel.
And it would create 20 new refinery jobs, once the project was completed, Howe assured.
Saying the refinery employees have been listening to residents’ concerns, Howe added, “We will continue to work hard to respond to those concerns.
But Brant Olson, National Resources Defense Council campaign manager, said Howe had represented the rewards of the project. “I’ll be on the risk side,” he said.
In fact, he challenged the city staff to find evidence to support Howe’s statements, questioning the Valero spokesman’s contention that the project would lower greenhouse gases, reduce foreign crude imports and add jobs.
“Where is the evidence?” he asked. He contended that Valero has incentives to reduce the quality of its crude, that the crude the rail deliveries would be replacing would be that from Alaska, not a foreign country, and that he had no details about the 20 jobs.
“I don’t see where those jobs are,” he said. “Where are those jobs going to be? Staff at the restaurant down the street?”
Olson also disputed Howe’s contention that Valero agreed to the EIR, saying other company officials had said the procedure was holding up the project.
No decision was made at the scoping session, which was conducted after a brief Planning Commission meeting to determine whether other subjects should be covered by the EIR.
“I know this has been challenging,” City Manager Brad Kilger said.
Staff has begun work on the draft of the environmental impact report, which will be aired publicly. Any comments on the draft would be addressed or answered in the final EIR, which along with the mitigation monitoring and reporting program will need to be certified by the Planning Commission.
Once that work is finished, the commission will address the use permit request for the project and determine whether to approve it and if any conditions need to be placed on the approval, a vote that may take place early in 2014.
“You’ll have more chances to participate,” Kilger told the audience.