Three (or 10 or 12, or maybe 40?) factors…
What happened in Benicia was amazing. It’s well worth our time as community activists and organizers to reflect a bit on how David went up against Goliath and won. I was there from the beginning in this Benicia episode, so I have a story to tell. I apologize in advance for omissions and errors. Let these reflections be a starting point for wider discussion and analysis.
Following are some of the most significant factors I see that led to success in Benicia. I’ll cover local organizing, public image and the media, external help, “theater,” a horrific serendipity, a strategic shift of focus, and a productive internal conflict. I’ll also take a quick look at some significant obstacles.
I. Local organizing, public imaging and the media
Early action on environmental review was CRITICAL. Early in 2013, city staff tried to get the Planning Commission to approve a “mitigated negative declaration,” which would’ve made light of any environmental impacts and let Valero begin its project without further review. Members of Benicia’s Good Neighbor Steering Committee and a few others got wind of this, called meetings and began raising strong objections. About that same time, local activists were contacted by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior scientist Diane Bailey and campaign manager Brant Olsen, who wanted to know if anyone locally was working on this. We invited Brant and Diane to meet with us, and a strong relationship was forged. Over the next few months, op eds were written and volumes of local letters and outside expert analyses were submitted to the Planning Commission. The Commission rejected the Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration in mid-2013, and set the wheels in motion for a full environmental review under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) – our first major victory, and one without which there would have been no stopping Valero.
- Early in 2014, a small group of us agreed that this would take a long, hard campaign, in the style of a local election campaign, withBenicians For a Safe & Healthy Communitywhich we had experience and expertise. We agreed that our goal was to STOP the project, not to gain concessions. Three at first, then up to a dozen of us, committed personally to meet weekly as a Steering Committee, and did so for 2 ½ years, taking on assignments and following up by email with minutes each week. Early on we designed a simple and effective logo, and named ourselves Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC). We ran the campaign with email blasts, a website and Facebook page, GoFundMe and CafePress pages, blogging and a weekly newsletter by the Benicia Independent, community events, a petition which grew to over 4,000 signatures, two orders of yardsigns that covered the city, letters and op-eds in the print media, and participation in government hearings and environmental regulatory procedures. Mid-stream, we held a strategy retreat, solidifying goals and planning for contingencies.
- We drew upon local expertise from previous environmental watchdog efforts in Benicia and became experts ourselves. Marilyn Bardet, Andrés Soto and others helped all of us to understand the lengthy CEQA environmental review process, and we all became deeply acquainted with the environmental and safety issues of refineries and railroads. We sent a continuous flood of letters and articles to be included in the CEQA record, with copies to City of Benicia staff, Planning Commissioners and City Councilmembers, delineating the environmental issues associated with production, transport and refining of Bakken and Tar Sands crude oil. Similarly, we sent letters and articles for the record on each explosive derailment of an oil train as it occurred. And our letters also reported on and raised questions regarding issues of railroad regulation and rule-making regarding tank car design, unit trains of North American crude oil, rail maintenance, bridge maintenance and inspection, etc.
- Our yard signs and our Farmers Market presence were majorStop Crude By Rail yardsignsignificant factors. Our Planning Commissioners and City Councilmembers could not help but be aware of public sentiment with yard signs throughout the city, and with our volunteers at a table outside Farmers Market each week April-October distributing information and taking petition signatures. This public imaging added substantial weight to the flood of letters we sent for the official record during environmental review.
- I’m told by many that my work through the Benicia Independent blog and weekly newsletters played an important role. The “BenIndy” gave a professional look to our local campaign and a continuous flow of local, regional and national information on crude by rail. It also helped promote local EIR hearings and associated BSHC events. Previous years’ organizing gave the Independent a head-start mailing list of over 300, which grew to over 1000 by August 2014 and nearly 1500 by April 2016. The Benicia Independent maintained a separate identity from BSHC, adding to the perception (and reality) that local opposition was more than just a single small-group effort.
II. External help – regional and national organizing
- Benicia has a long and rich history of local activism on issues of environmental sustainability, but unlike any other campaign in recent memory, this one attracted significant outside help. The amazing thing (to us) was that we didn’t seek assistance – it came to us! Diane Bailey and Brant Olson of NRDC reached out, and offered expert analysis and moral support.
- A number of other regional and national environmental organizations wrote comments during the environmental reviews, including Forest Ethics / STAND, Communities for a Better Environment, Centers for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, 350 Bay Area & 350 Sacramento, SF Baykeeper, Earthjustice, Cool Davis and Yolano Climate Action, SAFER California, Stanford Mills Legal Clinic and others. None of these were solicited by our local activists. Word spread, and a movement for a national campaign emerged, with Benicia as a high priority in the crosshairs of a growing public debate.
- NRDC’s local organizing support was somewhat curtailed in 2015 (but with continued expert EIR commenting and legal analyses). In NRDC’s absence, Forest Ethics / STAND came to work closely with us. Ethan Buckner attended meetings, and STAND offered phone and organizational support. Again, outside support was a significant factor in our local sense of empowerment, of fitting into a really important bigger picture.
- Environmental attorneys and regional elected and appointed officials and staff travelled at distance for late-night Planning Commission and City Council sessions and played a significant role in testimony at public hearings. Our Planning Commissioners and City Councilmembers heard from attorneys representing all the environmental organizations listed above, as well as mayors and council members from Davis, Berkeley and elsewhere, representatives of many of northern California’s air districts, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) and CalTrans. Comment letters, sometimes voluminous and highly technical, were submitted for the record by these and others, including the office of the California Attorney General.
- Lynne Nittler and others from Davis CA deserve their own mention. Early on in the campaign, I wrote about my deep concern for the effect of Benicia’s decision on “uprail communities,” and made the case that Benicia is not an island unto itself. This remained a primary motivation for those of us in Benicia working to stop the project. We developed a strong relationship with our new friends from Davis, and they put their hearts into it, emerging as the focal point for uprail organizing. They contacted their city and regional elected officials and air districts, wrote letters and organized busloads to speak at Benicia hearings.
- Outside support like this cannot be predicted, roused or bought. Serendipitous, really, it didn’t rise up as a result of our local organizing, but reflected something larger and ongoing across the country. Any local organizing effort should think about linking up with wider campaigns and larger perspectives.
III. Public “theater”
- We staged several “public theater” events that caught the public eye and the attention of local decision-makers. I’ve begun this discussion above, where I point out the impact of yardsigns and tabling at Farmers Market. We had a few other excellent eye-catchers:
- Sunflowers (as in Sunflower Alliance!) at Commission and Council meetings – we gathered outside City Hall ahead of hearings with signs and large sunflowers, and carried them into Council Chambers with us, a beautiful, happy, positive image of our hopes for a safe and healthy world.
- July 4th Parade – We marched with signs and again carried sunflowers, handing both out to parade watchers along the route.
- Light projections on the Benicia State Capitol – we had David Solnit and the San Francisco Projections Department come on July 3 for a spectacular light show at dusk/dark. Last minute planning prevented good publicity, so it was poorly attended, but a “brilliant” move.
- Healing Walks – We participated along with other East Bay refinery communities in the “Connect the Dots” walks sponsored by Idle No More & Sunflower Alliance.
- Unfolding of the Petition Scroll – At a City Council meeting, BSHC unrolled a 200-foot scroll of 4081 petition signatures. It was quite a spectacle, including a physical tussle with the City Attorney and Community Development Director over the disposition of the scroll. Definitely memorable!
- “Day After” Demonstrations – During 2014-2015, there was a series of catastrophic derailments and explosions of oil trains. We devised a short-notice plan for gatherings on the “Day After the Next Big One.” When we did this, we got some press coverage, lots of honks from passing cars, and a few good conversations with pedestrians.
IV – A horrific serendipity
I referred above to the “serendipity” of receiving massive outside support from environmental groups, attorneys and regional officials.
Even more significant were the coinciding catastrophic derailments and explosions – from Lac Mégantic to Mosier – that “fueled” public concern and ultimately won a swing vote on the Benicia City Council.
Our organizing kick-off event was a Community Call to Action, planned for July 11, 2013. Incredibly, that date turned out to be just 5 days after the Lac Mégantic disaster, and our event was powerful, sad and well-attended.
A long string of similar if less deadly oil train explosions followed the Lac Mégantic disaster. Our organizing effort had begun with a primary focus on air quality and potential for spills, but quickly shifted to tank car design, rail failures and catastrophic accidents. Public safety overcame public health as our best organizing message, complete with convincingly horrific images of fiery explosions and twisted wreckage.
Our concern for public health and the environment never went away. Nearing the final decision after Valero appealed to the Benicia City Council, our best guess was that public safety would play a lesser role. There had been fewer major derailments of late, and Valero and City staff could claim that federal rail safety rules and regulations had been revised and improved (although we knew the deficiencies of that argument, and let everyone know). Mosier Oregon changed all that. City Councilmember Christina Strawbridge publicly acknowledged that Mosier was, in her words, “a game changer.” Her announcement clinched a 3rd vote on our 5-member City Council, and the Council quickly came to a unanimous vote against Valero.
V. Differing, sometimes conflicting approaches
Our Steering Committee was not always smooth-going. We are a small group, but not without our differences. One source of conflict that arose repeatedly was over a more or less confrontative approach to organizing as opposed to an educational and technical appeal to decision-makers. Some of us wanted to push while others of us wanted to pull. We agreed on our ultimate goal, but sometimes couldn’t agree on method, carrot or stick. Ultimately, I wonder if this tension may have served us well. It was almost like we had two local organizations, drawing support from both ends of the spectrum. On the other hand, I occasionally speculated that we might’ve been more successful if we had actually HAD two different groups in Benicia, organizing in their distinctly differing styles as part of an overall strategy. I’ll leave this question to the experts.
VI. Significant obstacles overcome (or not overcome)
- Elected officials – State and national electeds, when contacted, typically expressed a politician’s assurance of concern, but would only commit to making oil trains safer. To a one, they bought into the “inevitability” of train transport for North American crude oil, no doubt due to its promise of economic gain for the short term and national independence from foreign oil supplies.
We feared that our local decision-makers would vote that way, too, but our good work and that of our regional allies made a difference. I can’t help but think that the flood of letters and technical studies, the public presence in signs and events, and the massive outside opposition did in fact strengthen our appointed citizen Planning Commissioners’ resolve. Benicia’s Planning Commissioners are volunteers like us, and deserve our praise and credit: they studied hard, listened, openly questioned and challenged city staff, consultants and Valero executives, and then voted boldly and unanimously in February 2016 to reject the Final EIR and to deny Valero’s project. We were amazed and confirmed. Valero appealed that decision to the City Council, and surprisingly enough, the Council followed in the Planning Commission’s steps in September with their own unanimous vote.
- Benicia city staff – Why, oh why did city staff buy in so early and completely to Valero’s proposal? Speculate all you want. Whatever their reasons, it is notable that Benicia’s Planning Commissioners and City Council members were more reachable, more reasoned, more understanding, more moveable, more compassionate, more technically savvy than our city staff. Heads should roll.
- Regional media – Maybe this item doesn’t belong here under “significant obstacles,” because Benicia/Valero/BSHC did get some good coverage from time to time by a few area tv stations, KQED, the Sacramento Bee and others. But I was thoroughly disappointed in the frequency and tenacity of media coverage over the long 3 ½ years. Benicia / Valero CBR could have been – and should have been – presented as a major ongoing Bay Area story with huge national implications. I was particularly disappointed in the minimal coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. We probably could’ve done a better job with press releases, media alerts and personal contact with reporters.
- Volunteer burnout – I am not the only one experiencing a deep sense of exhaustion following our long struggle. Maybe we should have held more parties, gone for swims or long walks or spent more time with no talk of crude oil or trains. We all need to take care of each other and ourselves in these kinds of efforts, maintaining a balance of energy and resolve for future struggles.