The long-anticipated draft of the environmental impact report for the Valero Benicia refinery project was released on Tuesday. A risk assessment concluded that significant spills along the Roseville-Benicia line are extremely unlikely, and the report further stated that precautions in place adequately mitigate the risk.
The likelihood of a significant spill — 100 barrels of oil or more — was estimated to be 0.009 for all trains going from Roseville to the refinery in a given year, partially based on the promise that Valero would use newer, sturdier tank models known as CPC-1232. Valero Benicia spokesperson Chris Howe confirmed that the company would use only these cars for transport.
The oil trains would come through downtown Davis, on the east-west freight and passenger rails known as the Capitol Corridor.
The report recognized four major crude oil accidents, including the accident in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that resulted in the deaths of 47 people. Three of these involved older “legacy” DOT-111 tank cars. The most recent, in Lynchburg, Virginia, involved some of the newer CPC-1232s.
Since the accidents, regulatory agencies have issued orders revising requirements for unattended trains and requiring crude oil to be classified as the highest of two out of three hazardous materials groups.
“Although the consequences of a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low,” the report read.
Any efforts by cities to change the amount of oil brought in by rail, however, are pre-empted by federal law. Only the federal government can regulate rail activity; state and local bodies can identify risks and make suggestions, but not actively enforce laws pertaining to goods transported by rail, as acknowledged at the end of the report.
“Valero’s proposal has elicited concerns from the public and, in turn, elected officials throughout Northern California, regarding the safety risks of transporting highly volatile crude oil through densely populated areas in our region,” said Davis City Councilman Lucas Frerichs. “Our concerns are not unfounded, as there has been a significant increase in accidents throughout the country as oil by rail shipments have increased.”
The Davis City Council has opposed the project until safety concerns have been addressed.
If the project moves forward, the Valero Benicia refinery will be able to accept 70,000 barrels per day of crude oil coming in by rail, replacing the same amount of oil that currently arrives by ocean vessel. The number of required marine vessels will drop 82 percent, and correspondingly, the chances of a spill.
In the past few years, state oil imports by rail have increased dramatically, and the California Energy Commission estimates California could receive up to 25 percent of its oil by train in 2016, up from just 0.3 percent in 2012 — though Capitol Public Radio reported that Union Pacific Railroad’s Liisa Stark has said California does not have the infrastructure for that much oil-by-rail.
As the amount of oil brought in by rail increases, the risk of spill does as well. As of May 6, there have been 24 small crude oil spills in California this year; there were 25 total in 2013, according to a preliminary oil-by-rail safety report released by the state on June 10.
The analysis found some high-risk rural areas, including in Yuba County, to be lacking in hazardous materials teams that are prepared to respond to spills. UC Davis has a hazmat team that is prepared to be first responders, said Davis Fire Chief Nate Trauernicht. Additionally, a team of firefighters will be going to Colorado this summer for specialized hazardous material training, paid in full by Union Pacific Railroad.
However, the state lacks funds to implement some of the report’s safety recommendations, which include increasing the number of rail inspectors and developing emergency response teams. State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, co-authored a measure introduced Friday that would tax railroad tank cars transporting hazardous materials through California, earmarking those funds for emergency preparedness.
The public comment period for the Valero Benicia impact report will run until July 31.
— Reach Elizabeth Case at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabeth_case