Laurie Litman, who lives a block from the rail tracks in midtown Sacramento, says oil and rail companies are about to put her neighborhood and plenty of others in danger, and she wants to stop it.
Litman is among a group of environmental activists in Sacramento and Davis who will gather this week at the Federal Railroad Administration office in Sacramento and at the Davis train station to protest plans by oil companies to run hundreds of rail cars carrying crude through local downtowns every day. The protests, on the anniversary of an oil train crash and explosion that killed 47 people in the Canadian city of Lac-Megantic, will spotlight a plan by Valero Refining Co. of Benicia to launch twice-daily crude oil train shipments through downtown Roseville, Sacramento and Davis early next year.
“Our goal is to stop the oil trains,” said Litman of 350 Sacramento, a new local environmental group. “We are talking about 900-foot fireballs. There is nothing a first responder (fire agency) can do with a 900-foot fireball.”
Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, an advocate for increased crude oil rail safety, will speak at noon Wednesday during the Sacramento event at Eighth and I streets. The Yolano Climate Action group was scheduled to distribute leaflets at the Davis train station during the evening commute Tuesday nightand again Wednesday. The Davis City Council recently passed a resolution saying it opposes running the trains on the existing downtown Davis rail line.
The protests are among the first in the Sacramento area in response to a recent surge in crude oil rail transports nationally, prompted mainly by new oil drilling of cheaper oils in North Dakota, Montana and Canada. In California, where rail shipments have begun to replace marine deliveries from Alaskan oil fields and overseas sources, state safety leaders recently issued a report saying California is not yet prepared to deal with the risks from increased rail shipments of crude.
Oil and railroad industry officials point out that 99.9 percent of crude oil shipments nationally arrive at their destinations without incident, and that the industry is reducing train speeds through cities, helping train local fire and hazardous material spill crews, and working with the federal government on plans for a new generation of safer rail tanker cars. Valero officials as well say their crude oil trains can move safely through Sacramento, and a recent report sponsored by the city of Benicia concluded that an oil spill along the rail line to Benicia is highly unlikely.
In a letter last week, however, four Northern California members of Congress called on the federal government to require oil and rail companies take more steps to make rail crude shipments safer. The letter was signed by Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento; George Miller, D-Martinez; Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; and John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.
“We are especially concerned with the high risks involved with transporting ... more flammable crude in densely populated areas,” the group wrote to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Should spills or explosions occur, as we have seen over the last year, the consequences could be disastrous.”
The four lawmakers said oil companies should be required to remove more volatile gases from Bakken crude oil before it is shipped nationally from North Dakota. The federal government issued a warning earlier this year about Bakken crude after several Bakken trains exploded during derailments. The California Congress members also encouraged federal representatives to move quickly to require railroads to install advanced train control and braking systems. Industry officials have said those systems, called Positive Train Control, are expensive and will take extended time to put into place.
Representatives from a handful of Sacramento area cities and counties are scheduled to meet this week to review Valero’s crude oil train plans, and to issue a formal response to the environmental document published two weeks ago by Benicia that concluded derailments and spills are highly unlikely. City of Davis official Mike Webb said one spill and explosion could be catastrophic, and that as more oil companies follow Valero’s lead by bringing crude oil trains of their own through Sacramento, the chances of crashes increase.
The Sacramento group has indicated it wants a detailed advanced notification system about what shipments are coming to town. Those notifications will help fire agencies who must respond if a leak or fire occurs. Local officials say they also will ask Union Pacific to keep crude-oil tank cars moving through town without stopping and parking them here. The region’s leaders also want financial support to train firefighters and other emergency responders on how to deal with crude oil spills, and possibly funds to buy more advanced firefighting equipment. Sacramento leaders say they will press the railroad to employ the best inspection protocols on the rail line.