A view of the waterfront in Pittsburg, Calif. Thursday, February 26, 2009.  (Kristopher Skinner/Staff Archives)
A view of the waterfront in Pittsburg, Calif. Thursday, February 26, 2009. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff Archives)

PITTSBURG -- A huge parcel of industrial land near homes and the city's waterfront would be transformed into a facility to unload crude oil from ships and rail cars, store it in giant round tanks, then send it through pipelines to local refineries under a $200 million development proposal.

Backers of the plan say it will bring jobs and revenue to the city while helping refineries use more domestic crude oil to meet their supply needs. Opponents contend the project is unsafe and will create noise problems and hurt air quality, among other environmental concerns.

After the project's draft environmental impact report was released last year, WesPac Energy-Pittsburg LLC opted to add rail delivery of domestic crude oil to the proposal, which originally called for only imported crude oil to be delivered by ships to a marine terminal. The revised project will be able to offload an average of 242,000 barrels a day of crude oil or partially refined crude oil from both ships and rail cars.

The project will strengthen the Bay Area's oil storage and transfer capacity, according to Art Diefenbach, vice president of engineering at Irvine-based WesPac. Adding rail delivery was in response to a request made by oil refineries, which are looking to use more domestic crude oil from Midwest oil fields, he said.

But the rail component will also be beneficial to air quality, according to Diefenbach.

"The rail portion of our project benefits air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area because crude oil delivered by rail has less than one tenth of the air emissions per barrel compared with crude oil delivered by ship," he wrote in an email.

Similar projects that use rail cars to deliver crude are being developed elsewhere in California, including Benicia, where city officials are considering a use permit for the Valero refinery to offload 70,000 barrels a day of North American crude oil by rail. The proposal has received several dozen complaints.

The addition of the rail component to the Pittsburg proposal required that a recirculated draft environmental impact report be done. The report, which is more than 2,000 pages long, was released in late July. The city will hold a public workshop to hear comments on the report on Aug. 26. A final environmental impact report is tentatively expected to be released in November.


WesPac has an option to buy the 125-acre parcel where the storage tanks are located from NRG, an energy company that operates a power plant on the site, if the required approvals are obtained. Up to 225 jobs would be created during the construction phase, while the finished facility would provide about 40 permanent full-time jobs.

The project, which would take about two years to complete, calls for existing facilities and equipment to be replaced, upgraded and repaired to bring the facility into compliance with industry standards and regulatory requirements. Once used by Pacific Gas and Electric to store fuel oil that was burned to generate electricity, the 16 empty tanks would be replaced, repaired or retrofitted to store crude oil.

Despite mitigation measures, the project would have a significant impact on air quality during the construction phase of a marine wharf, primarily from tug and barge emissions, the report said.

"Significant and unavoidable impacts to aesthetics, aquatic and terrestrial resources, hazards and hazardous materials, public utilities, land use and recreation, and water resources could also occur in the event of an accidental release of oil at or near the Terminal, Rail Transload Facility, or associated pipelines, even after implementation of mitigation measures. However, spill probabilities are low, and a number of federal and state regulations have been enacted that address design and construction standards, operational standards, and spill prevention and response measures," the report said.

But those assurances are not enough for some residents who have concerns about the project.

Jim McDonald is worried that the storage tanks will be vulnerable to fuel spills even though the tanks have containment walls.

"I think the tanks are not safe, that's the main issue," said McDonald, a former trustee on the Pittsburg Unified School District who lives near the marina and about a half-mile away from the proposed project. "If it blows up, I'll have a front-row seat." Mcdonald is also concerned the project will increase cancer and asthma rates.

Daniel Lopez lives near where the project's rail component would be built on a separate existing rail yard next to railroad tracks that parallel North Parkside Drive.

"We already suffer from noise and vibrations" from rail traffic, said Lopez, who is concerned the project will not only bring more noise and vibrations, but also create the potential for fires and other safety hazards.

"I'm just totally opposed. There are a lot of issues with this project," he said.

Brad Nail, who retired last year as Pittsburg's economic development director, is supportive of the project.

"I think it's a great project," said Nail, who used to live near the marina but has since moved to another part of Pittsburg. "The Pittsburg waterfront has been industrial since the turn-of-the century ... It's putting unused or underutilized land back to work. It's going to create property taxes, it's going to create jobs."

And while some residents may have concerns, Nail is confident the project's environment review process will address those concerns.

"This project is going to have all kinds of people looking at it," he said.

The Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce has not yet taken a position on the project.

"Right now we are in the process of reviewing it," said Harry York, the chamber's chief executive officer. "It's quite interesting."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her at Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED
What: Public meeting to gather comments on a recirculated draft environmental impact report for the WesPac Pittsburg Energy Infrastructure Project:
Where: Pittsburg City Hall, 65 Civic Ave.
When: 6 p.m. Aug. 26.
A copy of the report can be obtained at http://www.ci.pittsburg.ca.us/index.aspx?page=700
. Copies are also available at the Pittsburg Library at 80 Power Ave. and Pittsburg's planning department at 65 Civic Ave. Written comments, which are accepted through 5 p.m. Sept. 6, can be emailed to kpollot@ci.pittsburg.ca.us, faxed to 925-252-4814 or mailed to Kristin Pollot, 65 Civic Ave.,Pittsburg, 94565.