Big Oil In Our Backyard: Activism At Home

Trains carrying crude are proposed to come to Benicia.
Crude oil trains are proposed to come to cities like Benicia, putting residents and our Bay at risk. Photo by Daniel Adel

Through personal reflections and historical exposé, I’ve been giving my hometown and the waters of the Carquinez Strait the spotlight since joining Save The Bay in February. A former state capital, not to mention an early contender for Metropolis of the West, Benicia, a sleepy town just shy of 27,000 people, remains hidden from public imagination. Visitors describe the city as quaint and picturesque – a vision that runs counter to the reality that the eastern end of the city fronting Suisun Bay is the site of heavy industry.

While Benicia never became the commercial or political hub its founders envisioned it to be, it is of vital economic importance to the nation as home to one of the Bay Area’s oil refineries. Opposite the bay from the Shell Oil Refinery in Martinez is Valero Refinery, the centerpiece of Benicia’s massive Industrial Park. Both sites, long symbols of our fossil fuel based economy, garnered the attention of locals and environmentalists alike earlier this month.

On Sunday May 17, I joined a Refinery Corridor Healing Walk led by Idle No More SF Bay organizers. We marched 9.5 miles from Martinez to my hometown of Benicia, crossing sights both monstrous and beautiful. What felt like a dream on this most remote side of the Bay was long overdue.

A grassroots movement among indigenous peoples in Canada, Idle No More made headlines for opposing hazardous fossil fuel projects including the building of the Keystone XL pipeline over indigenous land in Alberta. Bay Area activists joined Idle No More last year to create the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition. Working together, the two groups have organized healing walks along the refinery corridor of northeast San Francisco Bay to bring attention to the health risks and dangers that the refineries pose and the crude coming through the communities from the Alberta tar sands and the Bakken oil fields.

Indeed, in recent years, Bay Area refineries have attracted national controversy with expansion projects to increase the amount of crude coming in and being refined. This, in a time when scientists agree that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves should remain underground, unburned, to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The Valero Benicia Refinery’s expansion project may be the most controversial of all with its crude-by-rail proposal to transport the highly flammable, explosive Bakken oil along the existing Amtrak rail corridor adjacent to the Suisun Bay and marsh. Nevermind that Benicia residents don’t even have access to passenger rail, the crude-by-rail project is being considered as a less costly alternative to crude by ship and pipeline.

Yet, as evidenced by the Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec, crude train derailments are increasingly commonplace. Benicia, our waterways — and for that matter, any of countless communities along the rail route — all risk catastrophe with this project. The recent oil spill in Santa Barbara is also a vivid reminder of how oil pipelines, especially those near waterways, can have disastrous effects on our ecosystem. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, “It is the kind of disaster that local officials say could happen in the Bay Area, especially around the oil refineries in Richmond and Martinez, where petroleum is regularly transported between marine terminals and storage facilities along San Francisco Bay and the Carquinez Strait.” As the Executive Director of Audubon California put it, “Time and time again, we’re reminded that the benefits of putting oil so close to our natural treasures are never worth the risk.”

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Lessons from the Latest Spill

Pres. Nixon visits Santa Barbara beach
President Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara in 1969 prompted stronger federal environmental protections. Photo credit: National Archives

The images from 1969 and 1971 are still fresh in my mind.  When the massive oil spill from offshore rigs coated Santa Barbara beaches and wildlife in 1969, I was just seven years old, but I remember the TV and newspaper photos of the oiled birds and seals.  People flocked to the beaches, desperately trying to soak up the oil by tossing hay into the water and raking it ashore. 

Just two years later, two Standard Oil tankers collided near the entrance to San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil, and those scenes were repeated again at Ocean Beach, Crissy Field and the Marin Headlands. For me and a whole generation, these were local events that helped shape our awareness of the environment, its fragility, and how quickly it could be destroyed.

They clearly shaped the Californian in the White House, too.  Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara prompted the first serious talk of bans on offshore drilling, and his Administration soon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed national air and water protection laws.

We came to realize that with oil spills in the bay or ocean, cleanup is nearly impossible, so prevention is essential.  Last week, when more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, they came not from a tanker collision or an offshore drilling rig, but from a pipeline on land that flowed to the coast.

We have those pipelines here in the Bay Area, and they pose the same threat to our Bay. The same company that owns the ruptured pipeline in Santa Barbara—Plains All American Pipeline—owns facilities in the Bay Area. And they’ve been cited for 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. 

In 2004, a Kinder-Morgan pipeline spilled 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Suisun Marsh, a sensitive wildlife area just upstream from the Carquinez Strait near Fairfield.  The buried pipeline burst just 3 feet below the surface, and pipeline operators waited nearly a day before notifying state authorities.

In 1988, more than 400,000 gallons of oil leaked from a tank at Shell’s Martinez refinery when a drain valve was mistakenly left open, killing hundreds of birds and mammals.

Over the years, Save The Bay has advocated for better prevention to protect San Francisco Bay and its wildlife from the ravages of oil spills. 

When the Cosco Busan sideswiped one of the Bay Bridge towers in heavy fog, and spilled more than 50,000 of bunker oil into the Bay in 2007, we supported a package of legislation to improve oil spill prevention and response, and investigations to tighten safety procedures for ship navigation and regulation of bar pilots who guide ships in and out of the Bay.  But just last year, reports revealed a crucial ship navigation beacon on the Bay Bridge – designed to prevent a repeat of the Cosco Busan – was not operational.  It took CalTrans months to complete a permanent fix.

And we’ve warned about the increase in trains carrying Bakken crude oil on the Bay Area’s rail lines, posing threats to both populous communities and the Bay’s shoreline.  Save The Bay has supported legislation to increase oversight, notification, safety requirements, and funding for emergency response for the many ways oil threatens San Francisco Bay fish and wildlife.

In response to last January’s spill of “Mystery Goo” near Alameda that killed and damaged hundreds of birds, Save The Bay endorsed State Senate Bill 718 by Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock to fund state response to non-petroleum spills in the Bay. The bill establishes that “the state’s top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”

Last week’s Santa Barbara oil spill provides another wake-up call to reduce our dependence on oil and improve safety protections from oil accidents for our natural resources and the communities where we live.

Goo Be Gone: Funding for Bay Area Spills

Mystery Goo bird release
International Bird Rescue released the last bird that recovered from Mystery Goo on April 15, 2015. SB 718 would provide funding for non-petroleum based spills in San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Soren Hemmila/Marinscope Newspapers

The “Mystery Goo” spill early this January threw the Bay Area for a loop – wildlife, particularly birds, were drastically impacted, and as non-profits such as International Bird Rescue stretched their resources to their absolute limits, government remained hopelessly entangled in the specificities of legislation. When all was said and done, the financial burden of spill control and wildlife rehabilitation was entirely shouldered by local environmental non-profits, totaling over $150,000. Why? Because up until this point, there hasn’t been the funding mechanism in place for government to address non-petroleum based spills.

Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock stepped up to the plate to address this issue with Senate Bill 718. In the event that a spill is not petroleum based, the bill would allow the Office of Spill Prevention and Response to borrow up to $500,000 from the state’s oil spill prevention fund for wildlife rehabilitation and rescue. Senator Leno announced the bill in late March, stating, “California has a sophisticated oil spill response system, but in the unique event when a pollutant is unidentified, there is no clear funding mechanism for the cleanup. SB 718 clarifies that the state’s top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”

For the San Francisco Bay, this is extremely important legislation. San Francisco Bay is among the top three principal Pacific Coast gateways for U.S. cargo, with the Port of Oakland ranking as the fifth busiest container port in the nation – not to mention the many industries surrounding the Bay shoreline as well. These flourishing businesses are what keep the Bay Area vibrant and successful, but they also pose a huge risk daily for spills of all kinds into our beautiful Bay ecosystem. SB 718 will provide the legal how-to for wildlife protection in the event of another “mystery goo” tragedy, and we cannot risk another devastating spill without emergency resources in place.

The spill in January killed over 300 native birds, and even after weeks of testing, scientists were unable to identify the substance or the source of the spill. Over 500 birds were affected by the mysterious spill, and although International Bird Rescue was able to rehabilitate close to 150 animals, rescue efforts would have been more successful if a government plan was in place for addressing the spill.

SB 718 is a necessary safety net to preserve the Bay’s wildlife in case of the worst, and Save the Bay is proud to be one of the organizations supporting this legislation.

Broken Shipping Beacon Threatens the Bay

UPDATE – Feb 17, 2015

We received word late this morning that Caltrans has received and installed a replacement beacon from the manufacturer, over two weeks after the San Jose Mercury News article which brought this issue to the region’s attention.  According to a Caltrans email, “The Coast Guard has confirmed that the [radar beacon] is operating normally.”  — Patrick Band, Campaign Manager

A radar beacon slung below the western span of the Bay Bridge, which helps guide oil tankers and other ships safely between the bridge’s towers, is broken.  It’s been that way since before the Christmas holiday. And Caltrans, the agency responsible for keeping the beacon in working order, does not appear to have a timeline for when this critical element of the Bay’s marine safety system will be fixed.

Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc.  For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.
Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc. For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for oil tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.

This disturbing story broke late last week, thanks to reporting by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News.  You can read his full article online here.

When the U.S. Coast Guard notified Caltrans of the inoperative beacon in mid-December, work crews deployed a backup beacon. It wasn’t working right either, nor was the next one, or the next.  As of last week, Coast Guard records listed the beacon as “inoperable.”

Meanwhile, ships continue to pass under the Bay Bridge, putting their crews, cargo, and the Bay itself at risk.

Sadly, this is in no way a one-time technology glitch. When the tanker ship Overseas Reymar struck one of the bridge towers in January of 2013, a key beacon was out, influencing the pilot’s decision to change course at the last minute.  What could have been a Bay-wide catastrophe on the scale of the Cosco Busan wreck in 2007 was avoided purely by chance, because the tanker was not carrying oil at the time.

We’ve been shown repeatedly that containing spills once they occur is nearly impossible, and the repercussions of environmental damage can be felt for decades.  Preventing spills from occurring is the most responsible course of action.  Caltrans must ensure that critical marine navigation aids like the Bay Bridge beacons are fixed immediately, and the U.S. Coast Guard should evaluate the risks associated with allowing shipping traffic to continue under the bridge during periods of poor visibility if a beacon is out of service.

Massive Wave of Oil About to Hit Bay Area

A massive wave of oil is about to hit the Bay Area.

The explosion of hydraulic fracturing and extraction of high-grade oil from the Bakken shale formation in the Dakotas and Canada have resulted in the biggest North American oil boom in a generation.  Over a half-million barrels of oil per day are being sucked from the ground and shipped to refineries across North America.  And increasingly, that oil is being transported via rail.

By 2016, the California Energy Commission estimates that 25% of statewide oil imports will be moved by rail. In the Bay Area, that represents as much as 7,750,000 gallons per day of refining capacity being met by trains carrying crude oil from the Midwest and Canada to local refineries in Benicia, Martinez, and Richmond. Along the way, they cross thousands of creeks, rivers, and other waterways that lead to the Bay, travel along railways directly adjacent to San Francisco Bay and pass through the hearts of big cities and small towns.

Last summer witnessed the most deadly train accident since the 1800’s, when a 74 car freight train carrying over 2 million gallons of Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.  Forty-seven people died in the resulting fires, which leveled half of the town center.  Poor safety procedures, coupled with a mechanical issue and lack of adequate training for emergency personnel all contributed to the tragedy.

11168835315_49756b92e9_oHere in California, freight lines pass through downtown Truckee, Sacramento, Davis, Benicia, Richmond, Emeryville, and dozens more towns and cities.  Tens of thousands of residents live and work adjacent to these crude oil highways.

While the use of oil trains has skyrocketed, regulations to ensure safe transport of these dangerous materials has lagged behind, in large part because local and state agencies have virtually no jurisdiction over what is transported on tracks that cross over more than 7,000 rivers and streams in California alone.

[T]he volume of flammable materials transported by rail…and multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk
– Hon. Robert L. Sumwalt
Member, National Transportation Safety Board

Federal regulators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – have questioned the safety of the tanker cars used to transport hazardous substances since as far back as 1991.  Yet two decades later, oil companies and railroads are using the same outdated and unsafe tankers.  While the White House announced draft regulations for tank cars last week, even those new standards will take many more years to fully implement.

Meanwhile, our communities and San Francisco Bay will continue to be at risk.

In Sacramento, state lawmakers are working quickly to address the gaps caused by lagging federal regulation.  Notably, State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Los Angeles) has authored legislation (SB 1319) that would extend oil spill cleanup authority, and create grant programs to help fund prevention, planning, and response to land-based spills.

We support this bill and other efforts to increase oversight, notification, safety requirements, and funding for emergency response. These are critical first steps, without which we believe crude by rail presents an unacceptable threat to the people and wildlife of the Bay Area.

We’ll be posting more soon about how you can get involved in the fight to protect communities and our beautiful San Francisco Bay from the dangers of crude oil trains.