You’d think that local officials would be told when trains full of highly flammable oil are rolling through their cities so they could be ready for derailments and other emergencies.
But fire officials do not get detailed information on oil shipments from the railroads, and they are only just finding out that as many as 100 train cars filled with crude could be traversing the Sacramento region daily on the way to a proposed terminal at Valero’s refinery in Benicia.
The oil trains would use the Union Pacific line that runs through the downtowns of Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis and that also carries the Capitol Corridor commuter service, The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate of McClatchy’s Washington bureau reported Wednesday.
Last week, they reported that since at least September, oil trains have pulled into the former McClellan Air Force Base, where crude is transferred into tanker trucks – without a required air quality permit and without local emergency officials being notified.
What is becoming increasingly – and alarmingly – clear is that regulations and disclosures are not keeping pace with more frequent rail shipments of oil. Local and state officials are right to push for better preparation and training, funded at least partly by railroads and oil companies.
Crude oil coming into California by rail increased from 1 million barrels in 2012 to more than 6 million in 2013, according to the state Energy Commission. Oil companies are shifting to rail because more crude is being pumped out through hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota, Canada and other inland areas.
Some oil from fracking is more flammable than conventional crude, and the safety risk is not hypothetical. Last year, an oil train derailed in Quebec, sparking a massive fireball that killed 47 residents and leveled the entire town center. There’s also the danger of environmental damage. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than in the previous four decades combined.
Federal regulators and the rail industry have cooperated on voluntary safety measures taking effect July 1, including slower speeds through major cities and more frequent track inspections, and are working on better-reinforced tank cars. These common-sense rules should be mandatory.
Californians don’t need to look back too far to see the devastation that can happen when corners are cut on safety and local officials are kept in the dark.
A PG&E pipeline exploded in San Bruno in 2010, killing eight people and leveling nearly 40 homes. Company officials fell down on maintenance and ignored safety threats, even after a similar 2008 blast in Rancho Cordova killed a man and destroyed five homes. Tuesday, a federal grand jury indicted PG&E on 12 criminal counts of violating pipeline safety laws.
Every energy source comes with some risk. It’s good that America is reducing its reliance on foreign oil, particularly from the volatile Persian Gulf. But domestic oil must be transported safely. Rail could be one avenue – but not until safety and disclosure rules are much stronger.