tburchyns@timesheraldonline.com

BENICIA -- For the first time, a Valero official met with the public Thursday to talk about the contested Benicia crude-by-rail project.

Valero spokesman Chris Howe described the project and touted its benefits at a community meeting at City Hall.

"I want to stress that this is a logistics project," said Howe, Valero's director of health, safety, environment and government affairs. "It enables us to have an alternative means of crude delivery to our refinery. This project will not have an impact or changes on our existing refinery process operations."

The meeting's purpose was to help identify what issues will be addressed in the project's environmental report, which city and Valero officials agreed to prepare after about 60 interested parties sent comments to the city's Planning Division.

Many of the comments raised concerns about the potential use of heavy Canadian crude, as well as traffic and train-safety issues -- especially in light of the July 6 tanker-train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

Howe did not reveal anything new about the project, which would allow the Benicia refinery to receive up to 70,000 barrels per day of crude by rail from unidentified North American sources. Instead, he outlined Valero's argument that the project would reduce emissions from smoggy boat transports and generate jobs.


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Howe, city officials and project consultants also listened to opponents highlight their concerns.

"It only takes one problem ... a misalignment of one rail or railroad tie ... to cause a derailment," Benicia resident Marilyn Bardet said.

David Jenkins of Norcal Truck said he is concerned about increased rail traffic causing backups onto Interstate 680 at the Park Road crossing.

"I come from Concord every day," Jenkins said. "Many mornings ... you get stopped right there because of the trains trying to cross the tracks, and you can't get down there (from the offramp). It's very dangerous."

Also speaking at the meeting was Brant Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The environmental group is campaigning against the use of Alberta tar sands oil, regarded as a particularly dirty form of crude.

"I want to encourage the city to push out the scope of the (environmental study) to investigate (Valero's) claims" of reduced air pollution, reduced foreign crude dependence and job creation, Olson said. "My contention is the evidence isn't there."

Officials did not respond to the public comments Thursday. The next step in the process will be the release of the draft environmental report, expected in December. The project then will head to the Planning Commission.

Contact Tony Burchyns at 707-553-6831. Follow him at Twitter.com/tonyburchyns.