The city of West Sacramento and a Texas-based gasoline company are battling over whether it’s riskier to ship large amounts of ethanol through city streets on trains or on tanker trucks – a dispute that last week spilled into court.
Every day, six train cars full of the fuel additive arrive at a mixing terminal on West Sacramento’s riverfront south of Highway 50.
Saying the city is uncomfortable with trains, some of which sit unattended with their volatile cargo outside the terminal for days, the West Sacramento City Council refused on Wednesday to renew the company’s rail transport permit. The company, Buckeye Terminals, mixes the ethanol with gasoline at its South River Road plant for sale at Northern California gas stations.
Councilman Bill Kristoff noted that the train cars often park in the city’s Bridge District near a residential area, and that city officials are not allowed to know exactly what the cars carry. “I don’t understand the rail business well enough to know why all of these cars have to stay in our community for as long as they stay, and at the same time we don’t get to know what’s in them,” he said. “That is sort of alarming to me.”
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Several crude oil and ethanol trains have been involved in crashes and explosions nationally in recent years, prompting concerns in cities along rail lines.
Buckeye officials quickly fired back, suing the city and contending that the permit denial creates a greater risk to the public because it likely will force the company to quadruple the number of tanker truck deliveries it receives daily at the plant, as a replacement for the rail deliveries.
In the lawsuit, filed Friday in Yolo Superior Court, the company accuses the city of failing to conduct adequate traffic studies in the new development areas along South River Road. Those studies, if done, would show safety risks where ethanol trucks mix with traffic, said Braiden Chadwick, a Buckeye attorney.
“The last thing anyone wants to see is a car vs. tanker truck (crash); that is a bad combo,” Chadwick said. “It is just a recipe for disaster.”
City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they are reviewing it.
West Sacramento’s decision to stop the ethanol trains represents another step in a decades-long effort by city leaders to transition the old industrial waterfront south of the Raley Field ballpark into modern live-work neighborhoods with condominiums, row houses, offices, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues. The city previously ushered industrial companies out of the Bridge District around Raley Field and shut down a rail line along the waterfront to clear the site for redevelopment.
The city has accelerated those efforts in the Pioneer Bluff area near the Buckeye facility in recent months. A row of unused cement company silos is being torn down on the riverfront. The city has shut its sewer treatment plant. It also is planning to close its corporation yard to open space for waterfront development. The city opened a new bridge this month to connect South River Road to the Southport area, bringing more vehicles past the Buckeye site.
Although the Buckeye facility does not fit West Sacramento’s plans for the area, the permit refusal “is absolutely not intended to try to drive Buckeye out of the district,” Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said. Buckeye is one of several fuel-related industries still operating in the area south of Highway 50.
“The existing Buckeye facility is absolutely welcome to remain and operate at its existing site to the extent that it is complying with the terms of its permits (and) that it is not invading the public right of way,” Cabaldon said.
Buckeye’s attorney disagreed, saying the city’s actions suggest it is trying to squeeze the company out. “The confluence of events lead us to that conclusion,” Chadwick said. “It looks like they are trying to make operations of the Buckeye facility more difficult.”
Buckeye’s rail shipment permit for ethanol expires at the end of this month. The company had sought a permit to continue train deliveries of six cars a day through 2019. The site has been an ethanol station since 2002, when the city agreed to the first of a series of limited permits to allow a previous terminal owner to receive rail shipments of the additive. Buckeye bought the facility a few years ago. The company mixes the ethanol with gasoline that is piped to West Sacramento from the Bay Area.
The dispute is part of a growing national debate over the safety of rail transport of flammable commodities. Federal transportation officials are contemplating additional safety regulations for train transports after several explosive crashes in recent years. The federal focus has been on crude oil shipments to refineries. But safety experts say ethanol trains also should be subject to more requirements, citing crashes that caused explosions and fires.
Testifying this week before the West Sacramento City Council, Fire Chief Rick Martinez expressed a preference for tanker truck ethanol shipments over rail shipments, acknowledging both have risks.
Martinez noted that the city has almost no legal control over rail operations, so it cannot prohibit trains with hazardous commodities from parking overnight next to residential areas. The federal government pre-empts city regulation of rail activities. But, Martinez said, the city can manage the risk of tanker truck shipments, controlling where the trucks drive, and at what speed, and can prohibit those trucks from sitting unattended overnight.
Martinez and other city officials said Union Pacific has been parking a dozen ethanol train cars at times on side tracks, some near the Ironworks Lofts housing area, where they wait until there is room to shuttle them onto the Buckeye property. The parking area runs from Raley Field under the Pioneer Bridge to 15th Street. City officials say UP frequently moves train cars back and forth across 15th Street at Jefferson Boulevard to make room in its yard.
Martinez said his department also has noted ethanol train cars parked along Jefferson Boulevard.
“This practice puts the adjacent residential neighborhood at increased risk from a hazardous materials incident,” Martinez said in a recent memo. “By removing the ethanol rail cars from their current location, the risk potential is significantly reduced.”
Buckeye attorney Chadwick contends that increasing the number of tanker trucks making daily ethanol deliveries is a risky move. He said the trucks would have to make left turns on South River Road to get to the plant, and would have to deal with more traffic as the city turns the Pioneer Bluff area and the Bridge District into populated communities.
Buckeye officials say they currently receive ethanol on two to three tanker trucks a day, in addition to the six rail cars. A city staff report suggests as many as four trucks may arrive on weekdays. The city analysis says Buckeye could bring in nine additional tanker trucks daily to its plant after rail shipments are halted this month.
Chadwick said that number is low, and that his company estimates 15 or more additional tanker trucks would be needed daily. He said he did not know what route the trucks would use to get to West Sacramento, but said they likely would arrive via area freeways.
The lawsuit, he said, maintains the city failed to adequately study how much extra traffic would use South River Road, and how that traffic would mix with daily ethanol trucks trying to make left turns.
“Buckeye views that lives might be at risk here,” Chadwick said. “Help us keep the facility safe, because we are not going anywhere.”
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.