WHEN MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA IN 2003, we spent our first week in the Best Western on East Second Street. During our stay we met several workers visiting from refineries in Texas to assist with projects at local refineries. During breakfast, I mentioned to one of them that we had bought a house in Benicia and were waiting to move in. He replied, “I wouldn’t have my family living within five miles of a refinery,” implying that it was unsafe because of the risk of an accident.
We had already purchased our home and were pleased with the location of the town, the high-quality schools, the quaint downtown and the local arts community. At the time, I judged that the prevailing wind direction and rolling hills would likely buffer our home from the effects of any serious accident, such as the recent Chevron fire in Richmond, and that the many Benicia amenities outweighed any risk the refinery posed.
Now we are faced with the prospect of 100 tank cars of crude oil being hauled into Benicia every day. Valero insists this would be safe and warns that without a new facility to offload the crude oil, local jobs, company profits and charitable contributions would be at risk.
I have no doubt that, if necessary, crude oil could be transported by rail to various parts of the country safely and efficiently. We have the technological and engineering expertise to do amazing things these days, and such expertise could readily be applied to the crude oil transport business.
Some in our community scoff at the risk posed by crude by rail (it’s comforting to some that the Quebec derailment that killed 47 people and the many accidents that have since occurred were caused by human error and could have been prevented). Others are horrified at the thought of a similar accident here or elsewhere. They highlight the fact that this crude oil is more volatile and toxic than other types, that an accident here would wreak havoc on our lives, and they want to stop the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project in its tracks.
As I see it, there are three major reasons to oppose the project at this time.
First, simply put, hauling 100 tank car loads of volatile Bakken crude or toxic Canadian tar sands crude raises the risk of an accident relative to the status quo. Benicians already live in the shadow of a refinery; is it really necessary or desirable to add to this risk to satisfy Valero?
Second, rules governing high-hazard flammable trains need to be thoroughly vetted and approved before the Valero proposal can be approved. Between March 2013 and May 2014, there were 12 significant oil train derailments in the United States and Canada, including the Quebec accident. Crude by rail arriving in California was up 506 percent, to 6.3 million barrels, just last year. In fact, more crude oil was transported by rail in North America in 2013 than in the previous five years combined. Yet it wasn’t until the first of this month that regulations were proposed for dealing with this unprecedented increase in “High-Hazard Flammable Trains” (see Federal Register, Aug. 1, 2014, pg. 45,016).
Apparently the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) expects to issue new regulations governing crude by rail sometime after a 60-day comment period that ends Sept. 30. Oddly, their federal notice includes a brief two-page “environmental assessment” that concludes there will be no significant environmental impacts associated with their proposals. Apparently we are to trust the railroad industry and their minders to do the right thing after they have steadfastly refused to institute train safety mechanisms, such as “Positive Train Control,” that would have saved 288 lives, prevented 6,500 injuries and 139 crashes in the past 45 years. At a minimum, the rules governing high-hazard flammable trains should be subject to a full environmental impact statement as provided by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Such an environmental impact statement might determine that crude-by-rail terminals should be located a minimum distance from residential areas and that crude-carrying trains travelling through metropolitan areas be guided by automated systems that monitor speed, location and rail traffic, so that the potential for human error would be substantially reduced. Such systems currently exist, but have been largely ignored by the railroad companies. These measures need to be studied and decided upon before the Valero proposal is approved.
Finally, what’s the rush? Many would argue that fossil fuel use needs to be curtailed because of greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental havoc caused by ever-more-destructive means of obtaining oil (fracking, tar sands, etc.). Approving the Valero project gives tacit approval to these means, allowing our community to profit at the expense of other people and places. Maybe it’s time to just say no.
Craig Snider is a Benicia resident. He recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, where he was regional environmental coordinator for the national forests in California from 2003-14.