In a strongly-worded letter sent Thursday to City of Benicia officials, California Deputy Attorney General Scott J. Lichtig wrote that Valero, the City of Benicia's planning staff, and an outside attorney advising the city have all incorrectly interpreted the law, and that Benicia has the duty to regulate land use, and must weigh in on a proposal to expand a controversial Valero oil facility.
As the Express reported earlier this week
, Valero's original proposal was presented in 2013 as a simple plan to build a couple of rail spurs from the main railroad line to its refinery, and the city announced its intention to approve the plan without doing an environmental impact review. A torrent of opposition greeted this announcement, however. As a result, the city was forced to conduct three environmental impact reviews and hold public hearings. Then, last February, Benicia's planning commission unanimously reversed approval for the project. Now the oil facility is pending a final decision by the city council.
But Valero and Bradley Hogin, a contract attorney advising the city, have claimed that the federal government's authority over railroads means that local governments are not allowed to make regulations that affect rail traffic — even indirectly. And when they're deciding on a local project, cities are not allowed to consider the impact of anything that happens on a rail line. The legal doctrine Hogin is referring to is called federal preemption. Assuming the city is preempted from blocking it’s oil-by-rail project, Valero has asked the Benicia City Council to delay consideration of the project while it seeks an opinion from the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads.
The Attorney General’s letter sent yesterday included a simple response to this interpretation of the law: "we disagree."
The letter from Harris’s office not only disagreed with Valero and Hogin’s legal opinions, but also stated that to the contrary, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) actually requires the city to consider indirect impacts of the project.
"A failure to include all of a project's potential environmental impacts . . . or to disregard that information in making a decision like the one regarding Valero’s [project], not only would defeat the purpose of CEQA, but would be an abuse of discretion," Lichtig wrote.
Harris’ letter explained at some length that federal authority over railroads applies only to railroads. The Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads, "preempts state or local regulation only if the activity at issue is performed by a rail carrier," the letter said.
Because Valero is proposing to build the project on its own land — rail spurs and related equipment to connect its refinery to the main railroad line — the Surface Transportation Board has no jurisdiction, Harris concluded.
The attorney general’s letter "clearly shows that Valero’s request for a delay was a distraction, designed to delay the inevitable vote to deny this project," commented Andres Soto of Benicians for a Safe and Healthly Community.
The city council is planning to reconsider the Valero project on April 18 and 19. Opponents expect the letter to strengthen their case that the council should immediately vote to deny project approval, rather than wait on the federal Surface Transportation Board to weigh in, as Valero has requested.
"This letter has immense implications for similar oil-train fights in San Luis Obispo and around the country, where the issue of federal preemption has been at the forefront of local permitting battles," wrote Ethan Buckner of STAND.earth, another organization that is opposing the Valero crude-by-rail project.