BNSF Railway trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials rumble through this Lassen County community every day – past homes, churches and a scant block from the downtown commercial center.
If a tank car were to derail and explode, Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen would take the only action he’s equipped for: Evacuation. Of all 1,000 residents.
Westwood has no consistent source of water, and the closest trailers with enough foam to extinguish a large blaze are a full four hours away, he said: “We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.”
Rural officials like Duerksen have been worried for decades about the chlorine, ammonia, propane and crude oil transported through their northern California communities by BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad. But a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported a 1,700 percent increase in crude oil transportation by rail.
That’s slowed significantly in the last year, a change generally attributed to a drop in the price of oil. But emergency responders worry that the volume will swell again when crude oil prices rise. In recent weeks, many have observed an increase in the number of tank cars on trains running south toward Sacramento and San Francisco.
That could be a precursor to the half-mile long oil trains planned for travel through Northern California to Benicia. Valero Refining Co. has proposed building a rail loading station that would allow importing oil on two 50-car trains a day to the city 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas.
We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen
On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council postponed until September a decision on Valero’s appeal of a February planning commission recommendation that unanimously rejected the proposal.
Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.
No one was hurt in 2014, when 11 cars derailed on Union Pacific tracks in the Feather River Canyon, spilling corn down a hillside above the river that supplies drinking water to millions of people as far south as Los Angeles. The cars could easily have been carrying crude oil, with substantial environmental consequences far beyond the Feather River, said Jerry Sipe, director of Plumas County’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We were lucky,” he said.
In 2015 there were 574 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Of these, 114 were in California, and three in Roseville, site of a large rail yard. Most were minor, and none involved fatalities.
Officials in California’s up-rail cities, including Sacramento, have raised objections to plans to expand oil train traffic, saying not enough attention is being given to safety concerns. But these large urban jurisdictions are far better equipped to respond to incidents than their counterparts in rural Northern California, where train tracks pass through some of the state’s roughest terrain.
In these rural areas, the people responding first to oil spills and accidents are generally local fire departments like Duerksen’s, one of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire organizations. Among the small rural communities along BNSF’s tracks through Northern California, the Westwood Fire Department is one of the better equipped for a hazardous materials accident.
Duerksen took advantage of a BNSF program at the railroad industry’s training and research center in Pueblo, Colo. That gave him hands-on experience in using water and foam on a burning railcar, and taught him advanced techniques for containing spills.
1,700 percent Increase in crude oil transportation by rail in 2015
Since then, several volunteer firefighters from Westwood and communities along the BNSF line have attended the training. Quincy and other fire departments along the Union Pacific line have also sent volunteers to Pueblo.
Plumas County was recently awarded a grant to acquire an oil spill trailer with firefighting foam and 1,200 feet of “hard booms,” which can contain large quantities of hazardous materials. Sipe said it will be positioned along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon, where aging trestles and sharp curves make it among the most accident-prone rail lines in the state.
“We’re better protected now than a year ago,” Sipe said.
Despite the improvements, many fire departments remain untrained and poorly equipped. In Greenville, where the BNSF line passes directly through residential and commercial areas, none of the 25 volunteers has been to the oil-spill training in Pueblo, said Chris Gallagher, general manager of the Indian Valley Community Services District, which oversees the fire department. Four of the department’s 10 pieces of equipment have been deemed inoperable by the California Highway Patrol, he said.
“We definitely need some help,” said Gallagher.
That could come through an innovative program taking the Pueblo emergency response training on the road. Rail safety experts will travel to communities around the country providing hands-on accident preparedness to firefighters. Funded by a $2.4 million award from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the mobile training program is expected to train about 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities in 2016.
The award is part of a $5.9 million grant to provide hazardous materials training for volunteer or remote emergency responders. Plumas County has already requested the mobile training, Sipe said.
BNSF strongly supports these programs, said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. Last year alone it trained 10,000 first responders, 1,500 of them in California.
Duerksen, the Westwood fire chief, said he feels much safer than he did two years ago, when the increase in oil-train traffic had emergency responders on edge. “We’re better trained and better prepared now,” he said.
But not everyone is content with the increased training and beefed-up emergency response equipment. Larry Bradshaw, a retired therapist and community activist in Westwood, is advocating for additional safety requirements for BNSF. He wants to see a high-risk rail designation extended from Greenville to Westwood, imposing a 45 mph maximum speed and increasing the number of inspections.
“We’re not prepared at all. There’s no way we can respond to a spill. The only thing we can do is evacuate,” Bradshaw said.