Residents of a historic Northern California city that is now home to an important oil refinery have demanded intensive review of plans to begin transporting crude to the facility by rail.
Faced with an outpouring of public comment for and against the proposal that raised environmental and economic worries, the city of Benicia has withdrawn its initial approval and decided to require Valero Energy Corp. to prepare an environmental impact report.
City officials said Thursday that a full EIR would be required “to ensure full consideration of all environmental issues,” according to the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper.
The full environmental investigation and preparation of the report is likely to take months -- at least delaying the start of rail shipments, assuming they eventually are approved.
Valero originally expected the project to be approved by the city's Planning Commission and City Council in the fall, the newspaper said.
But a Valero spokeswoman told the Times-Herald that her company was committed to satisfying residents' health and safety concerns.
“Due to the large number of comments submitted to the city, we consulted with city staff and agreed to work with them to prepare an environmental impact report,” refinery spokeswoman Sue Fisher said.
The city plans to hold a public meeting on the Valero proposal for Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at Benicia City Hall at 250 East L St., the day before a written comment period ends.
San Antonio-based Valero, the second-largest oil refiner in the United States, bought the Benicia refinery from Exxon Corp. in 2000.
Valero has steadily increased the facility's capacity since acquiring the refinery after Exxon Corp. was required to sell it and some 350 California gasoline stations as a condition of regulatory approval of its $80 billion merger with Mobil.
The Benicia refinery now processes 170,000 barrels of crude daily, and is a major producer of California's unique blend of gasoline designed to reduce toxic emissions.
But local residents suspect the refinery will be outfitted to produce oil from Canadian tar sands, which they say will be considerably more polluting than traditional crude refining.
"The crude oil that will be coming in to this facility will increase air pollution in the region," Brant Olson of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council told the newspaper.
"It's a crucial piece of the investigation," he said.
But Valero contends that crude oil coming to the refinery by rail will be of the same quality as what it currently receives by ship and by pipeline.
Area trade unions and refinery employees say the project would result in more job opportunities for local residents and contend that concerns about increased pollution are exaggerated, the newspaper said.
The city still is accepting written comments on the Valero proposal.
Comments should be submitted to Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million at the city's Community Development Dept. at 250 East L St., Benicia, CA, 94510; or by fax to (707) 747-1637, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benicia was California's third capital in 1853, a title it held for 13 months before the legislature moved to Sacramento.
The restored capital building, the only pre-Sacramento capital building in existence, still stands on the city's main street.
San Jose and Vallejo also were state capitals after California was admitted to the United States in 1850.