Pointing to the catastrophic derailment in Quebec of a train transporting oil and similar accidents, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, proposed legislation Thursday to get emergency responders more information about crude-carrying trains that roll through California.
As the United States reaps the fruits of a domestic energy boom, driven in part by huge volumes of natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing, the amount of oil transported by rail has grown apace.
According to the California Energy Commission, 6.1 million barrels of crude chugged into California on trains in 2013, accounting for 1.1 percent of the amount processed at California refineries.
“It is safe to say that we’ve all become alarmed with learning about the large increase in certain types of crude oil and oil products that California refineries will be receiving,” Dickinson said during a news conference at the downtown Sacramento train station.
Cities have begun raising the alarm about safety hazards, and officials have testified to Congress that most communities are ill-prepared to handle the aftermath of a derailment. In addition to the deadly derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, oil trains have jumped the tracks and ignited in Alabama and North Dakota.
Now, with a Bay Area refinery planning to move huge amounts of crude oil on a rail line running through downtown Sacramento, Dickinson has proposed legislation requiring railroads to disclose more information about oil shipments to those who would be dispatched to handle a potential rail accident.
“Because of this rapid change in the transportation of crude by rail, state safety rules are simply not what they need to be,” Dickinson said.
Currently, railroads don’t have to notify cities in advance about their cargo. Trains carrying hazardous materials, like oil or acid, must have warnings stenciled on the side of the cars containing the dangerous commodities.
Under Dickinson’s bill, local officials would receive blueprints detailing facts like the volume of oil being transported in a given day, how many cars are being used and the characteristics of the oil being conveyed. The state agency that now obtains that information would be compelled to share it with local fire and police departments.
“If (responders) know what they’re dealing with,” Dickinson said, “they’ve got a much better chance of controlling and containing the incident and also protecting their own lives.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has also noticed the burgeoning appeal, and the associated risks, of transporting crude oil on trains. Under the governor’s budget, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife would get more money and staff to deal with the growing possibility of inland oil spills. As it stands now, the agency responds to oil spills in marine areas.
Even with Dickinson’s bill and the governor’s budget infusion, California has little control over trains that traverse the state. The Federal Railroad Administration delegates limited authority to the California Public Utilities Commission, and Dickinson and allies conceded on Thursday that state and local officials have few tools at their disposal.
“The local community – elected city council members and boards of supervisor members – has a great deal of ability to influence where commodities like (oil) are kept around the community: when they’re on a tanker truck, when they’re in a storage facility. They have no jurisdiction when it comes to rail,” said Rick Martinez, chief of the West Sacramento Fire Department.
A spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad said in an email statement that the company moves a slender amount of its total crude oil shipments through California: about 800 to 1,000 carloads a month last year, out of 163,000 carloads nationwide in all of 2013. The company has invested billions to upgrade its infrastructure and cut down on derailments, spokesman Aaron Hunt said.
“Union Pacific reaches out to fire departments as well as organizations along our lines to offer comprehensive training to hazmat first-responders in communities where we operate,” Hunt said. “We annually train local, state and federal first-responders on protocols to minimize the impact of a derailment in their communities.”
While saying it is important to ensure police officers and firefighters are prepared for the worst, Catherine Reheis-Boyd of the Western States Petroleum Association called the rail resurgence “good news for California consumers.”
“It does take advantage of this energy renaissance everyone’s talking about in the U.S.,” association President Reheis-Boyd said, adding that “rail transport, by all measures, has been among the safest and most efficient means of moving the goods throughout the nation.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.