They come in the night.
Cruising on Union Pacific tracks through Davis and then southwest through the Suisun Marsh and on to the Valero oil refinery in Benicia are rail tankers filled with petroleum.
So far, there have been no accidents in Davis, but the prospect of a fatal spill could become statistically more significant if the Benicia City Council approves measures the Valero refinery needs to import more than 70,000 barrels of oil each day. That would double the size of the oil tanker trains from 50 cars to 100. A preliminary environmental review by the city of Benicia found no significant environmental impact.
According to the U.S. State Department, oil carried in rail cars results in a death rate three times higher than oil transported via pipelines. It has a fire or explosion rate nine times higher than pipelines.
A handful of Davis residents who in the past had protested the controversial Keystone XL pipeline are now shifting their focus, trying to tackle what could be a very local risk.
“If we’re going to have more and more of them then we’re going to have more accidents,” said Lynne Nittler, a concerned Davis resident. “This isn’t just Davis. We should be looking at (impacts) all along the railway.”
Recent accidents in Quebec, where more than 40 people died, and another spill in Alabama have environmentalists across the country wary of what’s happening with the oil industry. With the Keystone XL pipeline on shaky footing, oil companies are turning to rail transport to get oil from North Dakota and Canada to refineries in the United States.
More locally, on Nov. 4, three rail cars carrying petroleum coke derailed in Benicia as they were leaving the Valero refinery, according to the Contra Costa Times. No oil spilled during the accident, but it raised questions about the upcoming formal environmental review the Valero refinery is required to conduct to allow the city of Benicia to give it the green light to expand operations.
The Valero refinery is prohibited by California air quality laws from refining the coke, which is more toxic than other kinds of oil, but shipments arrive daily at the Benicia dock destined for China, where such restrictions don’t exist.
But Davis residents wary of the Valero proposal face an uphill climb to get support to fight it. First, most people in town have no idea, they said, of the risk the rail tankers pose. Second, they can only do so much as a small group of out-of-towners when they travel to Benicia in coming months to protest the plan.
What they really want is support from the city of Davis.
“You want to be very thoughtful in your response to the (environmental review) and especially a city’s response, not just a few people,” Nittler said.
But that prospect may not be easy, Mayor Joe Krovoza said.
“We’ve never had a train wreck in Davis — ever,” he said. “I don’t know how the city of Davis has jurisdiction over this.”
The City Council’s current procedure for handling issues beyond its borders is to have groups prove that those causes have a direct impact on the community. The council recently turned down a request to issue a statement opposing natural gas fracking.
Nittler and her comrades have a plan. They soon will go through the city’s Natural Resource Commission to try to gain support, she said. From there they hope to build awareness and legitimacy.
— Reach Dave Ryan at 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter @davewritesnews