New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

07/04/2014 7:52 PM

10/07/2014 8:51 PM

A map put together by multiple state agencies in California shows that the location and capability of emergency response teams don’t always align with the biggest risks presented by an expected increase in crude oil shipments by rail in the coming years.

The map shows that the state’s largest population centers, including Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, have the most robust emergency response capabilities.

But rural stretches of California’s rail network, including locations with a history of derailments, have the least equipped and least trained emergency response teams, according to the map produced by the Interagency Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety.

The map shows large concentrations of hospitals, schools and neighborhoods around many rail lines through California cities. Additionally, it shows that the state’s rail network frequently intersects with fault lines, rivers and streams and sensitive wildlife habitats.

California has some of the best-trained and best-equipped emergency response teams in the country, according to some experts, but they’re not always where they’re needed.

“Proximity matters,” said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

Since Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a shift in state oil spill and prevention resources in his budget in January, members of the California Legislature have held hearings and offered legislation to improve the state’s preparedness.

“Everyone recognizes this is a critical need throughout the state,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills.

Starting next year, California will begin imposing a 6.5-cent-a-barrel fee on oil transported to the state by rail to fund oil spill response and prevention efforts. State lawmakers have introduced another bill to levy an additional fee to train and equip firefighters who may be called to respond to a rail incident.

California officials soon expect the state to receive as much as a quarter of its oil supply by rail, which means more frequent train movements through the state’s highest-risk areas.

“It makes what we’re doing that much more important,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

The map was presented last week by the state Environmental Protection Agency at a workshop on crude oil trends at Berkeley City College. It shows a dearth of response capability in locations where derailments have occurred more frequently, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

These include the Cantara Loop on the upper Sacramento River, the site of a 1991 train derailment that released thousands of gallons of pesticide, killing fish along a 40-mile stretch of the river.

They also include the Feather River Canyon, which according to documents released last week by OES, is the route of a twice-monthly train of Bakken crude oil. The trains, operated by BNSF, pass through Sacramento on their way to a rail terminal in Richmond.

“A spill into these sources of water makes it even more problematic,” Pavley said.

Another vulnerable site: Cuesta Grade, a steep, serpentine stretch of track north of San Luis Obispo. A proposed crude-by-rail terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria, south of San Luis Obispo, would bring five 80-car oil trains a week over the line, operated by Union Pacific.

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said that the railroad had reached out to fire departments across California in the communities where it operates and has offered “comprehensive” hazardous materials training to first responders around the state.

“We annually train local, state and federal first-responders on protocols to minimize the impact of a derailment in their communities,” he said.

BNSF, the railroad that hauls more crude oil than any in North America, is offering hazardous materials training for hundreds of firefighters, including some in Sacramento, according to spokeswoman Lena Kent.

Trains transporting crude oil are not new in California. From 1983 to 1997, Southern Pacific Railroad operated one such train every day between Bakersfield and South Los Angeles over the Tehachapi Pass.

But that oil was thicker California crude that doesn’t ignite easily, and it was also transported in specially designed tank cars. Much of the crude oil coming into the state today is lighter and more flammable, and it’s loaded into a fleet of tank cars with a long record of failure in derailments.

“In light of new risks, it’s essential for first responders to have the right training and equipment to prepare for and respond to accidents,” said Curtis Brundage, a hazardous materials specialist with the San Bernardino Fire Department, in a state Senate hearing last month.

The worst accident occurred a year ago, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. An unmanned Bakken crude oil train broke loose and derailed in the center of town. Massive fires and explosions killed 47 people and leveled entire blocks of buildings.

More derailments followed, though none fatal, as the railroads and the federal government initiated a series of safety improvements. Emergency response officials from all over the country have testified in Washington in the past few months that local fire departments lack the resources to confront large fires from trains carrying 3 million gallons of oil.

In a report last month, OES made a dozen recommendations to improve the safety of California communities, including increased track inspections, stronger tank cars, more funding for emergency response and better notification of hazardous shipments from the railroads.

Hill gives the railroads credit for taking the issue seriously with stepped-up track inspections, new operating procedures, orders for stronger tank cars and offers to train emergency personnel. But he added that state lawmakers and agencies were right to push for more before a trickle of oil shipments by rail to California turned into a steady stream.

“We saw what happened elsewhere,” he said. “This is just to make sure California is prepared.”

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