It’s the worst-case scenario: Oil trains full of explosive North Dakota Bakken shale oil derail in downtown Davis, effectively putting the entire city under a blast radius while emergency personnel sit idly by waiting for the fireballs to die down before they can safely fight what’s left of the blaze.
The Davis Natural Resources Commission had that worst-case scenario firmly in mind Monday night when it voted unanimously to advise the Davis City Council to comment on an environmental review set to go before the Benicia City Council that could allow many more oil trains — carrying many more cars — to pass through Davis, Dixon, Fairfield, Suisun City and Benicia on their way to the Valero oil refinery.
Cities in North Dakota, Illinois and Quebec have fought fruitlessly with the oil and rail industry over safety and — in Quebec’s case — payment for the damage to the downtown of a small city where 47 people lost their lives in a fireball following a derailment.
Benicia has a unique opportunity among most cities to sway what normally would be the jurisdiction of federal interstate commerce and railroad officials. That city controls the permit process by which more trains may be able to link up to the refinery in town. Some Davis residents are hoping the city of Davis will add its heft to a list of commenters on an environmental review going to the Benicia Planning Commission.
According to a story Saturday in the New York Times on oil train accidents, the delay in building oil pipelines has a burgeoning domestic oil production industry desperate to move its product to market, and rail is the easiest option. However, railroads historically run through populated cities.
Add to that two things: the widespread belief that Bakken Shale oil is more explosive than normal crude oil and a 2009 National Transportation Safety Board condemnation of the style of rail car used to transport the hazardous oil, which have no protective membranes and are painted black. The move was prompted by an ethanol explosion that killed one person.
The Davis Natural Resources Commission also advised the City Council to reach out to other so-called “up rail” communities to try to marshal further support for the Benicia planning process. It also advised the council to take a position on the issue.
“The Planning Commission can say ‘Ah, we’re not in this alone,’ ” said Lynne Nittler of Davis, a leader of a group of oil train opponents. “Their decision will most certainly be appealed to the (Benicia) City Council.”
Nittler was joined by roughly 50 people in the Community Chambers, many of whom spoke to the commission about various concerns stemming from oil trains: public safety, not wanting to support further oil dependence, pollution concerns and general frustration.
Nittler showed a detailed presentation, sometimes without sources cited, of the rise in oil train accidents in the past two years as domestic hydraulic fracturing has opened up new oil fields.
Before she began, Mitch Sears, a city staff representative, responded to commissioners’ concern about how germane a public safety issue is to an environmental commission.
“You’re not a public health and safety commission,” he said. ” This is a little bit backwards for this to go. … I’m not sure where this issue lands in the commission system.”
Still, without a clear home for the issue and the theoretical potential for an oil spill downtown, Nittler moved to the podium.
“I certainly apologize if I came to the wrong place,” she said.
But the commission’s reaction by the end of the night showed that what was once the concern of a group has now been somewhat legitimized by a city commission.
— Reach Dave Ryan at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews