A coalition of concerned citizens, environmental groups and health and safety advocates were claiming victory Tuesday after the California Court of Appeal in Fresno found two errors made by the County of Kern in certifying an environmental impact report that would have allowed the Alon Refinery in Bakersfield to unload more than 100 rail cars of crude oil per day.
The groups contended the massive refinery and rail project would further harm air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and subject residents to the catastrophic risks of a derailment involving tanker cars filled with volatile Bakken crude oil.
Compared to heavier crudes, Bakken crude from North Dakota may be more likely to explode in a rail accident, the court said.
The court's 67-page opinion reverses a judgement by Kern County Superior Court and compels the county to set aside its final approval of the EIR and its approval of the project.
Essentially the project was stopped in its tracks. At least for now.
"We have the worst air quality in the nation," said Tom Franz, president of the Association of Irritated Residents, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "It is not fair for Alon to go through a permit process that did not reveal all of the impacts related to the transportation of crude oil by rail into Kern County."
Earthjustice Attorney Elizabeth Forsyth agreed. "The People of Kern County deserve better than to have their air further degraded, and to be placed at greater risk of danger and tragedy due to an accident from a dangerous method of crude oil transportation," she said in a press statement.
Deputy County Counsel Charles F. Collins was on vacation Tuesday and had not had a chance to read the opinion. Nevertheless, Collins said he was surprised and disappointed by the court's direction.
"It's too bad because this project would have produced jobs," he said, "the kind of jobs people need, long-term, well-paying jobs."
The California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, agreed with plaintiffs on two key points.
The EIR, the court found, underestimated the likelihood of release of hazardous materials by rail accident by fivefold. The county also wrongly ignored the air pollution and other environmental impacts generated indirectly by the project.
"We’re glad the court saw through the county’s attempt to minimize the incredible risks this crude-by-rail terminal poses to nearby communities, from explosions to hazardous chemical spills,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Sierra Club was also a party in the case.
The county's Collins said that, at this early stage, it's impossible to know whether the EIR will simply need to be amended or a whole new one required.
The original was a good EIR, he said. All the pertinent information was made available for review.
Said Collins, "It wasn't like anyone was hiding the ball."