Friday, April 18, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Prospect of more oil trains rattles some residents

tar sandsW

Lynne Nittler prepares to take a spin on a bike pulling 8-by-8-foot "train" signs to protest movement of tar sands oil through Davis on rail cars in this September photo. With her are author Kim Stanley Robinson, center, and Matt Biers-Ariel. The signs were the centerpiece of a protest bike ride starting in Central Park. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

By
From page A1 | December 31, 2013 | 7 Comments

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

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Discussion | 7 comments

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  • John TroidlDecember 30, 2013 - 8:43 pm

    Hmmm, did you hear about the oil train derailment today in a small town in North Dakota? Forced an evacuation. Check it out here: http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-north-dakota-train-20131230,0,6177728.story#axzz2p1cYVzFo

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  • Noreen MazelisDecember 31, 2013 - 12:53 pm

    Oh, boy, another non-issue to froth about.

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  • December 31, 2013 - 1:02 pm

    Gee, that doesn't look like an electric car in the garage. I guess that car runs on clean oil.

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  • Alan MillerDecember 31, 2013 - 5:25 pm

    Rail shipments are a (relatively) safe way to transport hazardous materials. Liquid petroleum gas and a multitude of hazardous materials pass through Davis in huge quantities every day--without incident for many decades. HOWEVER, the specific danger to Davis is a structural shortcoming--perfectly within federal rail safety guidelines but a shortcoming nonetheless--in Union Pacific's infrastructure in the center of Davis. Because of this shortcoming, minor human inattention involving a hazardous/flammable shipment could result in catastrophe. This is not a minor or unlikely event. This has nearly happened on at least two and probably more occasions, but being there was no actual catastrophe--only near misses--nothing was reported publicly. Stopping the rail shipments of interstate commerce is an unlikely prospect; I do not support this effort. However, Davis should focus not on stopping the shipments, but on massive political pressure on Union Pacific to upgrade their infrastructure to eliminate this weak link in what should be a safe method of transport. (Pardon I am not explaining what the shortcoming is, it is complicated to explain in the confines of a comment post. I seek to evoke the concern of city officials to inquire of the details.)

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  • Alan MillerJanuary 01, 2014 - 11:45 am

    Hmmm . . . as if on cue, news of a BNSF unit oil train deraailing Monday (12/30) just outside the city limits of Casselton, North Dakota, resulting in 16 oil cars exploding and burning. Dozens would have been killed had the derailment occurred within Casselton, according to one source. The revelation that the train crews refer to the oil trains as "bomb trains" was enlightening. Overnight my stance on oil trains has moved closer to the anti-oil train side. Certainly an important point made in the media is that the cars used to haul the oil are in the process of being retrofitted to decrease the chance of rupture in a derailment, but that the majority of cars now hauling oil, such as those involved in this derailment, have not been retrofitted. One stance Davis could take is to unite with other cities on the Canada-Benecia route and demand that only retrofitted cars be used on these trains. This would probably be to no avail as the limitation is tank car fleet availability, but could overall raise awareness and pressure to accelerated the tank-car retrofit program. The Enterprise would serve Davis well to reprint the A.P. article about the North Dakota derailment.

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  • Rich RifkinJanuary 01, 2014 - 2:03 pm

    "One stance Davis could take is to unite with other cities on the Canada-Benecia route and demand that only retrofitted cars be used on these trains." .............. That's not a bad idea. I would prefer for the longer term, though, that residents of Davis speak out against train transport of oil and in favor of using oil pipelines, routed away from populated areas, to move crude directly to refineries at half the cost per mile. ............ FWIW, one of the key complaints of the original Keystone route was that it passed through part of the Black Hills which environmentalists had identified as sensitive. So the route was changed--but still that pipeline has not been approved. It should be.

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  • Alan MillerJanuary 01, 2014 - 8:29 pm

    R.R., I agree. The U.S. made the right decision in the 1970's to ship coal via rail and ban the environmentally destructive use of coal slurry pipelines. While I favor the shipment of coal by rail, the shipping of oil is proving hazardous. There were three major derailments ending in fireballs in the U.S. and Canada in the last six months (July, Quebec; November, Alabama; December, North Dakota). 47 were killed in Quebec with a half-mile blast radius in the center of town. That's six fireballs per year at the recent rate. Even if the rate is cut by one third, there will be "only" two fireballs in 2014. Will and should the public put up with this method of shipping oil? I agree that pipelines must be built, but it will take years to build them, and that is after they are approved. The more idealistic environmentalists are fighting the pipelines and the trains; while I share the desire to lessen use of oil and coal, that is not realistically attainable anytime soon. In an ideal world fighting fossil fuel may seem desirable, but the reality is that delaying pipelines causes more oil to be shipped by rail, and through Davis.

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