Groups Sue To Stop Secret Toxic Crude Oil Operation

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An oil train moves through California’s Central Valley. The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day. ELIZABETH FORSYTH / EARTHJUSTICE

Kern County, CA — Community and environmental groups filed suit today over the expansion—orchestrated mostly in secret—of a crude oil operation in Kern County that could lead to a 1,000 percent increase in the amount of crude imported by rail into California each year. The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal in Taft, Calif., has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day of volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation as well as heavier, highly toxic tar sands.

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Today’s lawsuit was filed against the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District for the piecemeal permitting process that allowed one of the largest crude oil operations in California to expand largely in secret, without environmental review of the risks posed by importing millions of gallons a day of toxic, explosive oil from North Dakota and Canada.

Earthjustice is representing Association of Irritated Residents (AIR),ForestEthicsSierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, and joinsCommunities for a Better Environment (CBE)’s Staff Attorneys, representing CBE and its members in the lawsuit.

public records request revealed Air District officials acquiescing to requests from the project manager for the Bakersfield Crude Terminal to keep the project out of public scrutiny. In one instance, the project manager for the Bakersfield Crude Terminal asked the Air District to “rerun your numbers” on the facility’s emissions to keep it under the threshold for triggering Clean Air Act review, and the Air District permit officer responded by offering advice for how the project can “avoid public noticing” and pollution controls. In another instance, after the Bakersfield Crude Terminal pulled a permit application following intense public scrutiny that highlighted the significant impacts the project would have on air quality and safety, the Air District later approved a slightly modified application from the Bakersfield Crude Terminal, suddenly deeming its approval of the permit “ministerial” and therefore exempt from public notice and pollution controls.Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 8.35.54 AM

“Ministerial permits are for minor home additions or wedding licenses, not massive crude oil projectsthat exponentially increase the risk of catastrophe along the railways and jeopardizes communities who live in the paths of these dangerous trains,” saidElizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice attorney. “The Air District’s role is to protect the residents of the San Joaquin Valley from air pollution, not to help companies avoid public scrutiny and environmental review so they can get up and running as quickly as possible.”

“Five million Californians already live in the blast zone, the evacuation zone in the case of an oil train derailment and explosion. 2014 saw the greatest number of oil train accidents in US history and 2013 saw more oil spilled from trains than in the previous four decades,” said Ethan Buckner, ForestEthics campaigner. “Now, state regulators want to let the Bakersfield Crude Terminal increase traffic by two 100-car trains per day without a careful look at the threat to our air, our water and public safety. It’s simply too dangerous.”

“This behind the scenes approval is beyond egregious, given the fact that these trains are known to be unsafe, as well as because of the region’s already imperiled air quality. There were more crude spills in 2013 than in the past four decades combined,” said Sierra Club’s Kern Kaweah Chapter Vice Chair Gordon Nipp. “My respiratory health is already compromised, and it will only get worse with dirty trains barreling through the neighborhood twice each day. We have to wonder what will happen to our communities in the event of a spill or explosion like the ones we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”

“It’s outrageous that regulators shrugged off the risks of a rail terminal that receives massive trains full of toxic, dangerously explosive crude oil,” saidVera Pardee, Senior Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Bakersfield Crude Terminal evaded both state and federal environmental review and was permitted largely in secret. Given the potentially catastrophic damage from derailments of these tank cars full of volatile crude, these permits must be cancelled.”

“The rail locomotive emissions and the escaping gases from unloading and storing the crude oil will significantly impact public health in a region that already has the worst air in the nation,” said Tom Frantz of AIR.

“The Air District’s secret permitting and illegal rubberstamping of this project subjects overburdened, vulnerable communities to even further toxic pollution and worker and public safety hazards,” said Yana Garcia, Attorney for Communities for a Better Environment. “The Air District’s actions also present dramatic climate change implications that remain unchecked absent any adequate environmental review. This is a clear example of environmental injustice, and the Air District must be held accountable.”

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According to the California Energy Commission, oil shipments by railroad into California hit an all-time record this year, with nearly 285 million gallons arriving by train in the past 12 months—up from just two million only four years ago. Much of the oil shipped is either extremely toxic and heavy Canadian tar sands oil or the Bakken crude responsible for major explosions and fires in derailments across the continent.

In addition to dramatically increasing the risk to communities along the rail route, facilities such as the Bakersfield Crude Terminal are major sources of volatile organic compound emissions—a precursor to ozone air pollution. Breathing ozone is hazardous to respiratory health, and the San Joaquin Valley is one of two air basins in the United States designated “extreme nonattainment” for federal ozone standards. The degraded state of the San Joaquin Valley’s air results in more than a thousand premature deaths each year, and one in six Valley children is diagnosed with asthma.