The Benicia (California) City Council on Tuesday unanimously rejected a controversial plan by the Valero Refining Co. to ship crude oil trains through Sacramento and other Northern California cities to its bayside refinery.
The 5-0 vote, taken after four years of bitter debate, represents a victory for environmentalists and offers relief to Sacramento-area leaders who said the oil trains would put local residents and habitat at risk of a catastrophic oil spill and fire.
The Valero proposal, if approved, would have sent up to two 50-car crude oil trains rolling daily through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, Davis and other rail cities, as well as along mountainsides in the Feather River Canyon.
“I’m over the moon,” Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor said Tuesday night. “The community of Benicia, in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.”
Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said he believed letters and legal briefs from local leaders, as well as lobbying by Sacramento-area activists, played a role in persuading the Benicia council to say no to that city’s biggest employer. “I’m very pleased,” he said.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Benicia-area residents, Stand.earth, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, issued a statement Tuesday night calling the decision “a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects.”
Valero officials expressed disappointment with the decision. The company had previously said it likely would challenge an adverse decision in court, but it did not indicate Tuesday what its next steps will be.
“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the city council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” company spokesman Chris Howe wrote. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”
Increased oil train shipments in the United States and Canada in the last five years have led to a serious of crashes and explosions, including one that killed 47 people in a small Canadian town three years ago. Federal officials have issued new safety regulations, but officials in many rail cities have said the government has not gone far enough to ensure safer shipments.
A Benicia environmental impact report last year concluded that the trains would pose significant health and safety risks along the rail line, but also concluded that a harmful spill would be a rare event.
Benicia City Council member Christina Strawbridge said she made up her mind this summer after a Union Pacific crude oil train derailed in Mosier, Ore., causing an explosion and fire that forced evacuations in the area. She called that “a game changer for me” because the rail company involved was UP, the company that Valero would use, and the rail cars that punctured were newer, supposedly safer models.
“The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards,” Strawbridge said.
Councilman Mark Hughes commended Valero for its safety record, but added: “That said, bad things do happen. At this point, there is too much uncertainty (for) me.”
The Valero refinery currently receives its oil via marine shipments and pipeline. The oil company applied in 2012 for a permit to build a rail transfer station on its refinery grounds to allow it to receive oil via train. Officials said it would help the refinery remain competitive in a changing oil industry.