In response to pressure from Baykeeper, our partner environmental organizations, and local residents, Benicia’s City Council voted unanimously on September 20th to reject Valero Energy Corporation’s proposal to expand the rail yard at its Benicia refinery. An expansion of the refinery’s rail yard would have dramatically increased the number of tank cars filled with crude oil traveling on tracks near San Francisco Bay.
Valero had proposed enlarging the rail yard in order to ship in up to 70,000 barrels of crude oil by train daily. The tank cars would have contained both dirty Canadian tar sands oil and explosion-prone Bakken shale oil from North Dakota.
Long trains of tank cars would have traveled near the Suisun Bay wildlife habitat area, a nursery for many native fish species and an important stop for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. And an oil spill in Suisun Bay, an inlet of San Francisco Bay, could quickly spread to the Bay.
Baykeeper advocated strongly against the rail yard expansion because of these environmental risks. Aging rail infrastructure and often-lax safety protocols across the US have led to several derailments in recent years—including an incident in November 2013, when three Valero rail cars containing petroleum coke derailed in Benicia. Luckily, that time the cars landed upright and did not cause any damage, but other areas have not been so fortunate. In June of this year, 16 tank cars derailed in Oregon, spilling crude oil into the Columbia River.
When Valero claimed that Benicia city leaders had no say over the expansion because railroads are regulated exclusively by the federal government, attorneys from Baykeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) drafted a strong legal letter refuting Valero’s claim. The day before the Benicia City Council vote, the US Surface Transportation Board agreed with us, and dismissed Valero’s attempt to volley the final say to the federal government. That decision confirmed local officials’ jurisdiction and set the stage for this victory.
Coalition partners in opposition to the rail yard expansion include Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, Sunflower Alliance, Communities for a Better Environment, NRDC, Sierra Club, and a number of other local groups.
The proposed expansion of the Valero refinery train yard is part of a nationwide push by the oil industry to use trains to move more crude oil across the US and to increase oil refining in the Bay Area. Baykeeper will continue to oppose all plans for Bay Area oil refinery expansion, and all plans to increase the shipment of crude oil by rail near San Francisco Bay.