Planning Commission slated to review draft environmental report on crude-by-rail plan
A draft version of the environmental impact report on the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project is the subject of a Planning Commission hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday. Numerous groups are expected to make the hearing a “standing-room-only” event.
Among the many expected to attend will be a Benicia and Bay Area resident with “a lifelong interest in social justice” who has followed the proposed plan to bring crude oil to Benicia by train since the first days after it was proposed.
Andres Soto listened to speakers at a community meeting on the proposed project and “was shocked this city was trying to push this through as a negative declaration.”
At the time, Benicia was considering that a mitigated negative declaration would be a sufficient way to address any environmental impacts of the project to extend railroad tracks in Valero Benicia Refinery’s property so the company can replace some of its crude oil shipments by marine ship with delivery by train.
According to the California Environmental Quality Act, a negative declaration is a “written statement briefly describing the reasons that a project will not have a significant effect on the environment and does not require the preparation of an environmental impact report”; a mitigated negative declaration is the same, “with the addition of identified mitigation measures and a Mitigation Monitoring Program.”
However, intense public interest in the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project prompted the city to abandon the mitigated negative declaration and examine and address the project’s impacts through a more extensive environmental impact report.
Now that a draft version of that report has been released and further public comment is being gathered, Soto and other residents are again mustering to oppose the project.
Soto’s joining of Thursday’s rally and his voluntary participation in Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community are just the latest of his community activity roles.
While a student at Contra Costa Community College in San Pablo, he became involved in the United Farmworkers movement to gain rights for those who worked in lettuce fields and vineyards. He earned a political science degree from the University of California-Berkeley, with the thought of becoming an attorney.
“I didn’t,” he said. “I had children to raise.”
Instead, he became active in his hometown of Richmond, spending 15 years as a parent advocate in the local school district, developing jobs and conducting workshops for the city.
He was hired by Contra Costa County in 1991 to work in its Youth Violence Prevention program, addressing the escalating violence that peaked in the late 1990s before it began to decline.
That 10-year project was at a time when shooters gradually changed from using cheap “Saturday night special” revolvers to semi-automatic guns. That encouraged Soto to seek ways to reduce the illegal selling and distribution of those weapons.
He continued that effort by pushing through through land-use policy changes when he was hired to do similar work by the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention, part of a statewide program.
Along the way, he became involved in a civil rights lawsuit against Richmond police stemming from an incident in 2002 when family friends were pepper sprayed and beaten by officers. Soto also is a founding member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group that helped get another co-founder, Gayle McLaughlin, elected Richmond’s mayor.
Though he has moved to Rancho Benicia, into a home that formerly belonged to his mother, he remains active in Richmond, hired by the Communities for a Better Environment just before the 2012 Chevron Refinery explosion and fire.
He said joining Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community and becoming part of its steering committee was a logical extension of his earlier work. He often is the spokesperson for the organization.
An hour before the first portion of the July 10 hearing before the Planning Commission, the group and other allied organizations — such as the Sunflower Alliance, which Soto co-founded — carried sunflowers and waved to passersby as a reminder of the one-year anniversary of the fatal Lac-Megantic train explosion in Quebec, Canada.
He said Thursday’s rally won’t be as visible as the event last month, but that members will help people fill out comment cards, get their seats in City Hall early, and prepare to address the Planning Commission.
The hearing will focus on the environmental impact report, which Soto said is flawed. He said his organization is worried that combining light, fracked crude with heavy and sour Canadian tar sands crude to make Valero’s proprietary blend “is dangerous and unstable, and the EIR doesn’t touch upon that.”
While the draft EIR contends that replacing marine shipments with those by rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Soto said electrifying ports so ships don’t have to idle their engines would also accomplish such a reduction. “It’s used in San Francisco already,” he said.
He and other agency members challenge the document’s calculations that minimize the chances of rail accidents that could pollute surrounding areas or cause explosions, that the impacts to traffic also are erroneously minimized. He expressed hope that comments on the draft would force a recirculation of the final environmental report.
Soto said his organization and others are gaining support. They’ve spoken with residents during the Benicia Farmers Market and with individuals who are members of other organizations in uprail cities that also worry about oil-carrying trains passing through their communities.
“The drumbeat is beating our way,” he said. “I believe the Planning Commission will see through this and see our side.”
The Planning Commission meeting starts at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 250 East L St.