Greens Fight SoCal Tar Sands Oil Project


     BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Kern County illegally approved expansion of a local refinery that will let it transport and process 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day, environmentalists claim in court.
     The Association of Irritated Residents, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club sued the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department, on Oct. 9 in Superior Court.
     Alon U.S.A. Energy, of Texas, and its subsidiary Paramount Petroleum Corp. are named as real parties in interest.
     “The lawsuit challenges Kern County’s unlawful approval of a massive oil refinery and rail project that will further harm air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and subject residents in several states to the catastrophic risks of a derailment involving scores of tanker cars filled with explosive Bakken crude oil,” plaintiffs’ attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, with Earthjustice, told Courthouse News.
     Bakken crude is from northern Montana and North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Much of it is extracted by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.
     “The San Joaquin Valley is already overburdened by industrial pollution,” Forsyth said. “Kern County officials should put the health of their residents over the profits of oil companies.”
     The groups claim the county’s approval of the Alon Bakersfield Refinery Crude Oil Flexibility Project and its allegedly inadequate environmental impact report violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
     The project quintuples the Alon Bakersfield Refinery’s capacity to import crude oil, “from 40 tank cars per day to 200 tank cars per day, or up to 63.1 million barrels of crude per year,” the 27-page complaint states.
     “This influx of cheap, mid-continent crudes, including Canadian tar sands crude and Bakken crude from North Dakota, would allow the shuttered refinery to reopen and run at full capacity, processing 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day,” according to the complaint.
     “The project’s massive ramp-up in oil transport and processing poses alarming health and safety threats to the residents of Bakersfield and to those who live along the crude-by-rail route. Restarting the refinery will significantly increase harmful air pollution that will only exacerbate the poor air quality and respiratory illnesses that plague San Joaquin Valley communities already unfairly burdened with industrial pollution.”
     Bakken crude oil is “highly volatile,” and shipping it across several states “over treacherous and poorly maintained mountain passages” without adequate safety regulations will expose everyone who lives along the shipping route to the risks of derailment, the environmentalists say.
     Trains carrying Bakken crude have derailed and exploded, including the July 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, which killed 47 people and leveled half of downtown Lec-Mégantic, according to the complaint.
     Bakersfield, pop. 464,000, between Los Angeles and Fresno, is the ninth-largest city in California. Kern County produces more oil than any other county in the state, and boasts the fourth largest agricultural output in the country.
     Its air quality is abysmal. “Bakersfield has the country’s third most polluted air, according to the American Lung Association, and one in six children in the Valley will be diagnosed with asthma before age 18,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.
     Kern County’s notoriously poor air quality causes approximately 1,500 premature deaths each year, and exposure to toxic air pollution racks up “$3 billion to $6 billion in health costs and lost productivity annually,” according to the complaint.
     Several schools, residential neighborhoods and a hospital are only a few miles away from the Alon Bakersfield refinery. It is 1,000 feet from the Kern River Parkway, where people hike, walk, and ride bikes along trails and through parks, according to the complaint.
     The refinery shut its doors in 2008 when its owner filed for bankruptcy. After sitting inactive for two years, it was bought by Alon in 2010 and “refashioned to convert intermediate vacuum gas oil into finished products,” but stopped all refining operations in December 2012 when the price of local feedstock rose, the complaint states.
     In August 2012, Paramount submitted proposed modifications to the county that would let the refinery use the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line to bring in 5.5 million gallons of oil per day.
     “The five-fold expansion of the terminal’s unloading capacity, from 40 tank cars per day to over 200 tank cars per day, is the largest crude-by-rail project in California, twice the size of the next largest project,” the complaint states.
     The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the environmental impact report on Sept. 9 this year.
     But the plaintiffs claim the environmental study “obfuscates and underestimates” the significant impacts posed by the project and ignores the effects that rail transport of Bakken crude will have on air pollution.
     “The EIR severely underestimates the safety risks of this project through sloppy math and an incomplete analysis,” the complaint states. “Based on simple mathematical error, the EIR calculates the risk of a train accident involving an oil spill is unlikely to occur within the project’s 30-year lifetime. Correcting this error, however, results in a risk of accident involving an oil spill once every 30 years.”
     California has a high risk for catastrophic accidents because many of its 5,000 to 7,000 railroad bridges are over 100 years old and are not routinely inspected by any state or federal agency, and the rail lines run through “hazard areas” such as earthquake faults and densely populated cities, the complaint states.
     Kern County is especially vulnerable because “the freight rail track runs through the Tehachapi Mountain, an area identified by the California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group as a ‘high hazard area.’ The rail track includes steep grades, extreme track curvature, and a single track through the majority of the corridor. The elevation loss of this corridor is approximately 3,600 feet from Tehachapi to Bakersfield, and the grade is so steep that it includes the famous ‘Tehachapi loop’ where the railroad line must loop back under itself to make the grade,” the complaint adds.
     The plaintiffs say the project also threatens to further pollute the air quality of a region “already plagued by the worst air quality in the nation.”
     “Refining Bakken crude emits high levels of volatile organic compound emissions that lead to ozone pollution, which in turn causes respiratory illnesses such as asthma,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.
     “The refining of tar sands crude, which is far dirtier than local crudes, will result in higher emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen, sulfur and toxic metals,” she added.
     Moreover, restarting the refinery and processing 60 million barrels of fossil fuels a year will elevate greenhouse gas emissions in the region and interfere with California’s goal of reducing such emissions, the groups say.
     They claim the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is “riddled with flaws” because instead of discussing mitigation measures to curb emissions, it assumed that the refinery’s emissions will be “reduced to zero” by participating in the state’s cap-and-trade program, and thus concluded that “these emissions are not significant.”
     “The EIR also unlawfully underestimates greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring emissions from the combustion of end products produced from the imported crude,” the complaint states.
     After Kern County released an initial study of the project in September 2013, the Air District commented that using 2007 as the baseline to analyze impacts to air quality was improper because the refinery had not refined crude since 2008, according to the complaint.
     The groups say the draft environmental report released for public comment on May 22 this year did not correct this error.
     “The draft EIR also omitted fundamental information necessary to evaluate the EIR’s conclusions, including underlying assumptions and calculations for the EIR’s emissions analysis, data concerning the properties of Bakken crude, and an objective description of the project’s crude slate,” the complaint states.
     On June 13, the groups’ attorneys asked for the information not included in the draft report and an extension to the 45-day comment period, but the county denied both requests.
     When the county issued its final EIR in August, the groups say, they objected to “new disclosures that the public had not had a chance to review,” including its flawed analysis of the probability of a train accident, and demanded that it be revised.
     Several prominent environmental scientists submitted comments criticizing the report’s treatment of toxic air emissions and its failure to include “emergency flaring events” in emissions calculations, but the county ignored their input and approved the report 13 days after it was released, the complaint states.
     Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner defended the project.
     “The Kern County Board of Supervisors carefully and thoughtfully considered the EIR and all public comments and approved the report after a full and complete public process,” Goldner told Courthouse News.
     “We will vigorously oppose this action.”
     Paramount did not immediately return requests for comment.
     The environmentalists seek declaratory judgment that Kern County violated CEQA by authorizing the refinery expansion project without performing adequate environmental analysis.
     They ask that the project approvals and the environmental impact report be vacated until the defendants prepare a new environmental study that complies with CEQA.
     They also want an injunction preventing the defendants from carrying out any part of the project until they fulfill all of the CEQA requirements.
     They are represented by Earthjustice attorneys Elizabeth Forsyth and co-counsel Wendy Park of San Francisco.

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