The Pioneer

Transportation plan in ‘uncharted territory’

Photo by Kali Persall/The Pioneer

Photo by Kali Persall/The Pioneer

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

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Benicia residents will have to wait a few more months for a final decision on the Valero refinery’s controversial proposal to transport more than two million gallons of crude oil by train into the city, daily.

The three-year-long Crude by Rail initiative is currently awaiting review by the Surface Transportation Board, an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates railroad activity across the country.

The Benicia City Council, which voted 3-2 in March to allow the project to progress to the STB for a second opinion, will reconvene on September 20 to review the case again, according to Benicia City Council member Tom Campbell.

According to the proposal, which was created in 2013, approximately 70,000 barrels of Canadian tar sand and bakken crude oil from North Dakota would be brought into Benicia by 100 railroad cars on the Union Pacific Railroad every day. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that one barrel of crude oil contains 42 gallons, which can be converted to 12 gallons of diesel and 19 gallons of gasoline.

The project also includes the construction of a service road and an offloading facility, the implementation of 4,000 feet of underground pipeline and the replacement of underground infrastructure at the refinery.

Cities, counties and states are currently preempted from controlling what is transported by railroad, meaning the city of Benicia cannot look into any of the potential dangers that could occur during transportation of the crude oil. Until the oil reaches the city limits, the city has no say in that aspect of the project, explained Campbell.

According to Campbell, Valero is trying to extend the railroad’s preemption to itself by arguing that a rejection of the project — and thus the rejection of the offloading facility that would need to be built — would impede indirectly on the railroad’s economic success by directly affecting Valero’s.

This preemption clause contributed largely to the Benicia Planning Commission’s rejection of the project in February.

Dozens of community members have spoken out against the project and the potential safety hazards that a derailment or malfunction could cause. Residents are also concerned about the possibility of their property values decreasing, which happened in Richmond when a fire erupted in the Chevron Refinery in 2012.

Conversely, the project has the potential to create an estimated 120 temporary and 20 permanent jobs, according to a final Environmental Impact Report for the project. Campbell estimates that property taxes could also increase to between $150,000 and $200,000 annually.

The STB will issue a declarative statement about what is considered off-limits for the city, either in favor of Valero’s petition or against, according to Campbell.

If the board votes “yes,” to the refinery qualifying for preemption, it would take away all of the rights of the city to have any say in the project. The city would be preempted from looking at whether the plan follows zoning or building codes, explained Campbell. In theory, the railroad could build the offloading facility wherever it wanted, even in a residential neighborhood.

According to Campbell, the issue is unprecedented, far-reaching and transcends anything the city council has handled in the past.

A declaration in favor of Valero’s petition would be “pushing the envelope further than it has ever gone before” and venturing into “uncharted territory,” stated Campbell. If this happened, the case would be escalated to the federal court system.

“I don’t think the STB is going to go anywhere near that, but there’s no telling,” said Campbell. “If they were to go down that route and decide something that extreme, which would have an effect on every city, county and state that has a railroad going through it.”

If the board issues a “no” declaration, Campbell said the city council’s vote depends solely on the aspects of the project that directly concern the city, such as the construction of the offloading dock.

Campbell believes the board will not reach a decision before September.

Valero Public Affairs Manager Sue Fisher Jones was unable to provide any additional details on the refinery’s next plan of action at the time of publication.

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Transportation plan in ‘uncharted territory’