By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Environmental groups on Thursday sued a California regulator that permitted trains carrying crude oil to begin making deliveries at a terminal in Bakersfield, arguing the permit was issued in secret and the volatile crude could cause explosions.
The plaintiffs asked the California Superior Court to stop operations at the newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal in Taft until a full environmental review is conducted. The terminal, located in Kern County, began receiving crude in November from North Dakota and Canada and is owned by Plains All American Pipeline LP.
In their complaint, the groups point to emails obtained through a public records request that they say show the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District helping the company avoid environmental and public reviews of the project.
The terminal can currently receive one 100-car unit train a day carrying crude from the Bakken shale formation as well as heavier tar sands crude from Canada. The terminal will ultimately expand to receive two unit trains per day, carrying as much as 61 million barrels of crude a year, making it one of the state's largest crude-by-rail terminals, the groups said.
Crude oil shipments by rail in California have jumped in recent years as producers seek to move cheap, landlocked crudes from North Dakota and Canada to refineries along the West Coast.
The increase has raised environmental and safety concerns due to a series of fiery derailments, most notably the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec in July 2013, which killed 47 people.
“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," said Vera Pardee, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the five environmental groups who are plaintiffs in the case.
Annette Ballatore-Williamson, an attorney for the air district, said the lawsuit misrepresents the nature of the permit, which only covered the construction of a couple storage tanks that emit about a half a pound of air pollution per day.
The facility and the rail terminal underwent significant environmental review and analysis by Kern County several years ago, she said.
"The problem from (the plaintiff's) perspective is the statute of limitations on their claim against Kern County expired quite some time ago so now they are just looking for a target," she said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)