If you go to the website explosive-crude-by-rail.org and zoom in on Richmond, what you’ll find is disconcerting. According to the 1-3 mile buffer zone on the map, the entire city and its 107,000 residents are in danger if trains carrying crude oil explode.
Such is the concern of several Bay Area environmental groups in Richmond who have drawn the City Council into an escalating dispute with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and Kinder Morgan, which operates a local crude by rail transfer station.
“The health and safety of the community is at stake here,” Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said during a City Council meeting. “We are encouraging the air district to review the process.”
Richmond City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution to “review” and “if feasible, revoke” the permit given to Kinder Morgan – the 5th largest energy company in the United States — to take in crude oil by rail. Based in Texas, the company was founded in 1997 by two former Enron executives.
The crude, from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota, ignites and explodes more easily than more traditional crudes. On the heels of a major oil boom, transportation of crude by rail in the North America increased by 423 percent between 2011 and 2012, and more crude shipped by rail was spilled in 2013 than in the four previous decades combined.
In 2012, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and decimating the small Canadian town. This, among other incidents, has prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to label Bakken transport by rail as an “imminent hazard”.
Several community groups have rallied to ban the movement of crude shipments through Richmond. Megan Zapanta of The Asian Pacific Environmental Network said she’s worried that a lack of attention could have dire consequences.
“Bakken crude has not been well-documented here,” she said. “If there’s some disaster, how will we get the word out to our immigrant community?”
Evan Reis, a structural engineer for Hinman Consulting Engineers, released a report earlier this year assessing the probability of a crude-laden train derailing in the East Bay.
He estimates there is a six in 10 chance of derailment on the line running from San Jose through Richmond to Martinez within the next 30 years.
“Given the fact that these are highly urbanized places we are going through,” he said by phone, “A 60 percent probability would be of concern to me.”
McLaughlin pledged to support Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) as they consider appealing the air district decision to grant Kinder Morgan a permit to funnel crude through Richmond by rail cars. The city does not have the jurisdiction to revoke any licenses or permits from the company. The permit must go through the air district, where it can be reviewed with respect to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)
In March, CBE filed a lawsuit against BAAQMD for failing to publicly disclose the permit to the residents of Richmond. The group only noticed the arrival of crude by rail because a local television station, KPIX, discovered that Kinder Morgan was bringing Bakken crude to its Richmond depot.
The Tesoro refinery in Martinez receives the Bakken shipments by truck after they are transferred from the rail depot in Richmond. Richmond’s Chevron refinery does not take in any of the Bakken crude.
In September, the lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds because the complaint by the CBE was not filed within 180 days of the permit’s issuance.
The permit, which was filed by BAAQMD staff in 2013, drew ire from environmental groups because it was not subject to an environmental impact report, and was granted without review from the district’s board.
Andres Soto, a representative of Communities for a Better Environment in Richmond, appealed to Richmond leaders to counter the decision.
“Kinder Morgan issued an illegal permit to bring Bakken crude into Richmond without public notice or review,” Soto said.
Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the BAAQMD, declined to comment until the end of the appeal period. The CBE has considered a challenge of the ruling.
The Kinder Morgan depot has been taking in ethanol by rail since 2010, but they have since diversified their intake to include Bakken crude. Kinder Morgan officials, though, say the concerns are overstated.
“We didn’t feel that the profile of the crude oil arriving was materially different,” Melissa Ruiz, a spokesperson for the Texas-based company, wrote in an email.
Charlie Davidson, a member of the Sunflower Alliance speaking on behalf of CBE, disagrees.
“They’re basically running tin cans on 100 cars,” he told Richmond City Council. “The flash point [of Bakken Crude] is so volatile that it could burn in Antarctica.”
“It’s a hazardous material and there’s concern of derailment and fire,” he said in an interview by phone. “But if you put it in relation to other materials, it isn’t as hazardous as chlorine or ammonia. It’s equivalent to ethanol or gasoline.”
“The biggest concern with crude by rail is not so much than the hazard being worse, it’s just the huge amount of quantity that’s being shipped by rail,” Sawyer said.
Since the dismissal of the lawsuit, other municipalities in the North Bay have rallied against crude by rail. In Sacramento, a lawsuit by Earth Justice prompted the local air board to revoke a permit from Inter-State Oil Company on the grounds that they did not disclose the potential public health and safety concerns to local residents.
Suma Peesapati, a member of Earth Justice, drew similarities between Sacramento and Richmond.
“Kinder Morgan’s project in Richmond is virtually identical to the air district issued permits for unloading crude in Sacramento,” she said. “The [Bay Area] Air District made it clear they issued a permit in error, rather than engage in this formal process.”
Despite the resolution passing, Richmond Councilmember Jael Myrick expressed just as much weariness as concern for the issue.
“The frustration that we had the last time we talked about this is it just seems there is so little we can do to combat it.”