The story of crude-by-rail in California is not a done deal. As new developments unfold almost daily in this remarkable drama, it is clear that public input can make a significant impact.
For example, last January, fierce community opposition — plus a letter from state Attorney General Kamala Harris urging further scrutiny on air quality and the risk of accidental spills — led city leaders in Pittsburg to reopen the public comment period on its draft environmental documents.
The WesPac Petroleum project had called for an average of 242,000 barrels of crude — the equivalent of 3.5 trains per day — to be unloaded daily and stored in 16 tanks before being piped to the five Bay Area refineries. Now, it appears WesPac may never reapply. An alert public can bring about change.
Valero in Benicia is a long way from giving up on the rail terminal that will allow it to import 100 tank cars of crude by rail daily, most likely from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and the Bakken Crude shale of North Dakota. These two extreme forms of crude — Bakken crude is highly volatile and proven explosive and tar sands bitumen is toxic and impossible to clean up in a spill (Kalamazoo spill, July 2010) — are already being processed in some Bay Area refineries.
The California Energy Commission predicts within two years that California will receive 25 percent of its crude by rail, mostly from these two extreme crudes that emergency workers currently are not prepared to deal with in the event of a spill or accident. For the Sacramento region, that will mean five to six trains of 100 cars per day by the end of 2016!
Your input now may make a significant difference. The draft environmental impact report for the Valero proposal is open for public review until Sept. 15. A printed copy is at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis, and is available online at www.beniciaindependent.com. Every letter submitted becomes part of the public record and must be addressed in the final EIR.
Frankly, the draft EIR focuses on impacts to Benicia, and just glances at uprail communities like Davis. But two 50-car trains coming across the Yolo Causeway and the protected Yolo Basin Wildlife Area; passing high-tech businesses along Second Street; rolling into town through residential neighborhoods, where the vibrations will be felt from each heavy car; following the unusual and therefore dangerous 10 mph crossover just before the train station; passing through the train station, putting the entire downtown within the blast zone; and skirting the edge of UC Davis, including the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts; puts many people at serious risk.
If you have concerns such as whether the tank cars are safe enough, whether the volatility of the Bakken crude should be reduced before it is loaded into tank cars, who is liable in the event of an accident, whether the trains will be equipped with positive train control to improve braking, how Valero plans to mitigate the increased air and noise pollution, how Valero can claim that accidents happen only once in 111 years, etc., then you can help.
While our city of Davis, Yolo County, Sacramento, Roseville, Fairfield, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the Sierra Club Yolano Group are writing their own responses to the Valero draft EIR, letters from private citizens are equally powerful.
Public workshops are planned in August and September to help residents craft their letters. They workshops will provide background on the oil train situation, discuss the California Environmental Quality Act and EIR process and offer helpful resource materials. Participants will find topics, gather evidence, write their letters and then share drafts for feedback.
Workshops are planned from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 9; 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21; and 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7. All will take place in the Blanchard Room at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis. The room is accessible to people with disabilities.
Bring a friend! Every letter adds to the impact!
— Lynne Nittler is a Davis resident.