BENICIA — Environmentalists hoping to defeat Benicia’s crude-by-rail project scored a huge victory Tuesday night, handing Valero Refining Company a significant defeat in the process.
In a unanimous decision from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and the City Council, Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility was denied.
Vicki Dennis, who moved to Benicia two years ago, was one of many present at City Hall and said she was “just delighted” with the decision.
“I’m so proud of this city,” Dennis said. “Our council people are very thoughtful. This process has been a long one, but I think they handled it in a wonderful way.”
The Planning Commission began considering the issue in December 2012 when the refinery applied for permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.
In March, the commission voted unanimously to deny the application and to not certify an accompanying environmental report. The decision was made against the recommendation of city staff who said the project’s involvement with rail-related issues made the decision a federal issue. Valero representatives appealed the commission’s decision, and the matter was postponed until Sept. 20.
As part of the appeal, Valero sought a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board on the issue of federal preemption in regards to the project. During this time, many governmental agencies, private organizations and individuals publicly opposed the City Council’s decision to transfer authority on the matter to the federal government.
On Tuesday, however, public comment on the topic was officially closed. After that came a brief recap of the project’s journey though Benicia’s civic system, and the council was given the option to approve or deny the application.
The denial resolution highlighted specific issues that council members had with Valero’s proposed project, including the unclear traffic impacts of having an unregulated shipment schedule, spill risks associated with shipping by rail and the project’s uncomfortable proximity to the city’s waterways.
Before the vote, council members took turns voicing their concerns about health, safety and the project’s effect on the environment.
“When we first started considering this, there seemed to be little risk involved,” said Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “After four years, the community has endured numerous public hearings with hundreds of people speaking about the project. During this time, there have been 13 derailments around the country involving multiple carriers.
“The derailment in Oregon was a game-changer for me,” she continued. “Union Pacific was the same carrier and the railroad cars involved were the same ones Valero is offering. The strongest car didn’t withstand a puncture and crude oil came in contact with fire and burned for 13 hours. Union Pacific failed to maintain its track, resulting in its derailment. The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards regarding the transportation of crude. I’m going to vote to deny the project in hopes that the community can begin to heal.”
After the council’s comments, Councilman Tom Campbell put forward a motion to deny, and was seconded by Patterson. A quick vote was taken and the motion to deny Valero’s presence in Benicia was decided.
Misao Brown, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Alameda, was thrilled with the council’s decision and was seen embracing her friends outside of Benicia City Hall.
“If there were any spills where we are in Benicia, it would be in the Bay and go all over the place,” she said. “Benicia is concerned about the greater good and it’s just wonderful. It was really hard sticking it out for so long, but they gave every chance to Valero. In the end, we’re really talking about life on earth. So, when the decision comes through like this under tremendous pressure, I’m really grateful to every member of the Planning Commission and City Council.”