WOODLAND — The Yolo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday weighed in on the draft environmental impact report for the proposed expansion of the Valero oil refinery in Benicia — an expansion that would lead to some 70,000 barrels of crude oil traveling by rail through Yolo County every day.
The board, by a 3-2 vote, approved a letter calling for the draft EIR to be revised and recirculated to better take into account the impact on all communities along the rail route, including Davis, UC Davis and West Sacramento.
As written, county staff said, the draft looks primarily at the impact in and around the city of Benicia and less at the specific impact on the communities along the Union Pacific rail line between Roseville and Benicia.
“All areas along the route will have the same trains traveling through them,” the letter states. “But the significance of these effects will be different depending on the individual circumstances of each community.
“Given the effects of approving the Valero project, the (draft EIR) should consider their significance and possible mitigation on all affected communities in its analysis, as required under (the California Environmental Quality Act).”
In approving the letter, supervisors split along party lines, with Democrats Jim Provenza and Don Saylor of Davis and Oscar Villegas of West Sacramento voting to send the letter and Republicans Duane Chamberlain of the rural 5th District and Matt Rexroad of Woodland voting against it.
Rexroad questioned whether a letter from the board would have any impact in shaping policy. Indeed, only the federal government can regulate rail activity.
However, Saylor said, “We are talking about the safety of Davis, UC Davis and (other communities). It would be unconscionable not to comment.”
The draft EIR, released in June, concluded that significant spills along the route are extremely unlikely and precautions currently in place mitigate the risk.
Specifically, the draft put the odds of an accident releasing more than 100 gallons of oil in any given year at 0.009 — or approximately once every 111 years.
But the board’s letter in response argues that the draft pays little attention to the potential effects on communities other than Benicia and provides “only a brief review of the environmental, safety and noise effects on upstream communities.”
“The … conclusion that transportation of oil by rail poses a less than significant hazard to upstream communities is unsupported by the evidence presented in the report,” the letter said.
Specifically, the board said, “while a once-in-a-100-year event might seem infrequent, the report’s calculations also show that there is a 10 percent chance that there will be a crude oil train release incident on the Roseville-Benicia route in the next decade.
“The county finds that such probabilities pose significant hazard, especially considering the majority of the route is through populated areas and environmentally sensitive natural resources such as the Suisun wetlands.”
The letter also takes issue with the notion that the risk of a spill should be measured solely by its likely frequency, rather than its possible magnitude.
“To provide meaningful information, a risk analysis must consider both factors,” the letter said. “Whether a hundred-year event is significant or insignificant depends on the magnitude of that event. A catastrophic explosion and spill in a populated area is different from a 100-gallon spill in a shipyard that is quickly cleaned up. For this reason, agencies around the country take significant steps to protect against infrequent events, even if they are not expected to occur but once a century.
“Additionally,” the letter continues, “any such magnitude analysis must contemplate the chemical characteristics of the oil being transported. The flammability and volatility of Bakken crude oil and the high viscosity and toxicity of Canadian bitumen — materials likely to be transported to the Valero refinery — both pose significant environmental hazards in the event of a derailment or other rail accident. Without considering the second half of the risk analysis, the (draft EIR) cannot conclude that the risk of a spill is insignificant.”
If approved, the Valero project would mean two 50-car trains loaded with 70,000 barrels of crude would travel along a pre-determined route from Roseville to Benicia every day — through downtown Davis — and two empty 50-car trains would travel the same route back.
In addition to concerns about safety, the supervisors’ letter also criticizes the draft EIR for ignoring “impacts on traffic and emergency response in communities outside of Benicia.”
“Rather than simply concluding, without any support, that traffic at rural crossings ‘would be low’ and that delays in urban crossings ‘would be short,’ the (EIR) should consider the actual traffic conditions at the crossings affected by the project,” the letter states.
The public comment period for the draft was scheduled to end on July 31 but has been extended by the Benicia Planning Commission to Sept. 15. See the full draft at http://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/vertical/Sites/%7B3436CBED-6A58-4FEF-BFDF-5F9331215932%7D/uploads/Valero-Benecia-DEIR-CD.pdf.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy