(Vallejo) Times-Herald

BENICIA -- As politicians call for more crude-by-rail safety measures, Valero recently defended its plans to bring up to two 50-car trains per day of Bakken crude from North Dakota to its refinery here.

In a well-attended community meeting Monday night, refinery officials said the project -- which would allow Valero to import up to 70,000 barrels of crude per day by rail -- would benefit the economy and the environment by creating jobs and reducing emissions from smoggier boat deliveries of oil.

Valero officials also said the project was necessary to stay competitive on the West Coast.

"If you can't stay competitive by having access to domestic crudes, it could impair our future," refinery environmental engineer Don Cuffel told the gathering at the Benicia Iron Workers Union hall on Bayshore Road.

Valero hosted the meeting to discuss the city's recently released report on the project's environmental impacts.

The report found that the project would result in a "significant and unavoidable" increase in air emissions in up-rail communities such as Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties. Those communities would experience significant increases in nitrous oxide emissions from daily oil trains running from Roseville to Benicia.

However, in the Bay Area, those increased train emissions would be more than offset by decreased emissions from marine oil shipments, the report found.

The report was released on June 17 for a 45-day public comment period ending Aug. 1. The Benicia Planning Commission is set to hold a public hearing on it ¿Thursday.

Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Mike Thompson, Doris Matsui, George Miller and John Garamendi on Tuesday expressed strong concerns about the risks of increased crude-by-rail shipments in their districts, which would be affected by the project.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the members wrote, "We are especially concerned with the high risks involved with transporting lighter, more flammable crude in densely populated areas. Should spills or explosions occur, as we have seen over the last year, the consequences could be disastrous, costing lives, damaging property and harming the environment."

The letter called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to enforce existing safety measures and impose stricter standards on the railroad and oil industries.

Valero officials at Monday's meeting tried to ease concerns about fiery rail accidents. They highlighted the city's finding that transporting oil by train carries a lower risk of spills than marine shipments. Project opponents, however, have questioned the study, which relies on safety data before the crude-by-rail boom in recent years.

The Union Pacific trains traveling between Roseville and Benicia would always be attended, Cuffel said, unlike the runaway oil train that exploded and killed 47 people last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That train was left unmanned after its brakes were accidentally deactivated.

As an added safety measure, Valero officials said a camera would be installed at the Park Road crossing in Benicia to allow emergency dispatchers to monitor train traffic through the intersection. To reduce traffic problems, no trains would be scheduled through the intersection between 6 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, Valero officials said.

The city would lack authority, however, to enforce that schedule because rail traffic is federally regulated.

It also remains unclear whether local first-responders will be told ahead of time when to expect oil trains rolling through their jurisdictions.

At the close of the meeting, Valero officials stressed that the project is necessary to remain viable on the West Coast. Asked whether the company would sell its Benicia plant if the project were denied, Valero Vice President and refinery General Manager John Hill said, "There's no line drawn in the sand ... but certainly it helps us be more competitive and employ hundreds of people in this community."