Davis resident Lynne Nittler, founder of the Yolano (Yolo/Solano) Climate Action Central, was shocked to discover an imminent threat running through the heart of town.
Currently, hundreds of barrels of unrefined oil from North Dakota cross through Davis to reach their destination at an oil refinery in Benicia. Due to the several safety and environmental hazards associated with this trek, local citizens like Lynne Nittler have voiced their opposition to this type of oil transport, which is also known as “crude by rail.”
“This is not my favorite kind of topic I tell you. I would much rather be doing carbon footprint stuff, and I would much rather be gardening than to be consumed with oil trains … Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!” Nittler said. “But we found this issue and we couldn’t turn our backs on it.”
Aftering following and researching the issue, Nittler discovered that the issue of oil trains is also affecting nearby cities like Benicia. After moving through Davis, the unrefined oil continues to Benicia, and currently, the Valero Oil Company has proposed building an oil terminal, meaning that even more oil trains will be arriving there.
As Benicia residents became more concerned with the proposal, nearby cities, like Davis, and others organizations have joined in on the controversial topic.
The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy organization, crafted a 30-page research-intensive document outlining safety issues and specific impacts on 12 different groups across the nation, including Benicia.
“There were another 11 or so groups scattered across the country, meaning the exact issue they [Benicia] are facing, 11 other communities in the United States are facing too,” Nittler said.
Although concern has grown in the city of Benicia, the Benicia City Council will have the ultimate vote on whether to construct a new rail station in the city.
According to Nittler, the NRDC showed up at the Benicia Planning Commission meeting this summer prepared with a 100-page document stating all the reasons why an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was in fact required.
“Valero was shocked. They said there is not an issue here, there is no danger, it’s just a larger rail terminal, we’ll just be bringing in some new oil to refine and it will all be fine,” Nittler said. “Some residents then asked, ‘Are we sure we want more rails and more trains coming in? Are we sure we want a train sitting there blocking our traffic through our downtown?’”
After several meetings, the City of Benicia decided that an EIR must be required and will be releasing a draft EIR in March 2014, and it will be open for public comment for 45 days.
Nittler believes that this will allow up-rail communities like Davis to not only voice their concerns, but extend their support.
Along with Matt-Biers Ariel and Milton Kalish of Cool Davis, a local organization which focuses on aspects of climate change, Nittler decided to alert the National Resources Commission of Davis of what she says is a dire situation.
“I asked the Natural Resources Commission to make a recommendation to our City Council to comment on the EIR. I also asked them to invite all of our neighboring up-rail [communities] to sign the document,” Nittler said. If we can get as many cities to sign on, that becomes much more powerful. So that was our goal.”
If the City Council does make an official comment, Nittler said that it can be sent to federal and state regulatory offices where it may be influential.
“We want the City Council to come out with a statement about what needs to be done to make the trains safer and that needs to go out at the federal level because it is all regulated at the federal level,” Kalish said. “We figured that as an official city government, they have more standing and more clout and credibility than a band of activists.”
Along with gaining the support of City Council, Kalish agrees that collaboration among up-rail communities will be essential in exposing the multiple safety and environmental issues.
“There is a huge national debate on safety right now,” Nittler said. “I have to read five to 10 articles every night to keep up.”
Due to the fragility of old train tracks (trestle tracks), accidents have been on the rise all over the United States since 2012. Additionally, the 60 foot long, 10 foot high tank cars are extremely heavy, and the trains often have around 50 to 100 cars and can span for over a mile.
“These trains are potential bombs. It is as if we were playing Russian Roulette,” Biers-Ariel said. “There will be explosions with these trains because the current tankers, DOT-111As, were not meant to carry oil, but non-flammable material. So all we can do is cross our fingers and hope Davis doesn’t have a major accident.”
As of now, companies that run and maintain the tankers have stated that it would take 10 years to phase in newer, stronger cars.
“This is a huge public threat of imminent death. It should be actually not only illegal, but criminal to be filling these tank cars and sending them out through our communities,” Nittler said.
Over the course of the train’s journey to the refinery, the trains are routed over the Sierra Nevadas, down through Feather Canyon, Roseville, Sacramento, West Sac, across the causeway, through Davis, Dixon, and across the Suisun and the marshes.
“It is a very dangerous route all the way,” Nittler said. “So that’s one train of thought.”
In addition to potential explosions, the probability of oil spillage also lurks around the corner. When the trains cross through Davis, they chug along the side of watersheds and ecosystems which support the health of wildlife.
In response to the oil by train issue, Gov. Jerry Brown recently placed an extra $6.7 million to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Office of Spill, Prevention and Response.
Although Nittler is happy that more government agencies are recognizing the dangers that the trains pose, she also said it confirms her fears about future catastrophic events.
“They are setting this money aside in anticipation of issues with these trains. I’m not sure if that is exactly comforting or not,” Nittler said. “There is the hope that they will have emergency plans in place, they are aware that danger is coming to us, and somebody speaking about the danger, so I guess that’s comforting.”
Nittler and Kalish agree that it is fortunate that the crude by rail issue is garnering national recognition as prominent media sources like National Geographic and the The New York Times publish more stories on the subject. Recently, Nittler herself was interviewed on the topic for two hours by Marketplace: National Public Radio (NPR).
“When major media sources are finally picking up on it, that really helps. There have been major accidents and people are beginning to realize that [these trains] are running through their communities and they just don’t know it,” Nittler said.
Looking into the future, Nittler holds on to the hope that even if the new station in Benicia is built, their letters and outcry will continue to heat the national debate and place pressure on agencies for negotiations at the national level.
“Even if we can’t stop it locally, it really does matter. It is a worthwhile outcry,” Nittler said. “Railroads were built to connect communities, not endanger them. What community wants to have this degree of hazard running through it?”