Editorials

We need open debate on oil train safety

Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year.
Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, questions a witness last year. <137>MCT <137>Tribune News Service

As oil trains rumble through the Sacramento region, a key House panel held an important hearing on how rail and pipelines can keep up – safely – with the boom in domestic oil production. For two hours, top rail and oil industry executives testified and answered questions on this crucial issue.

Then Rep. Jeff Denham had to go and spoil it.

The Turlock Republican, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, ended last week’s hearing on an unfortunate note – an unnecessary dressing down of a rail car manufacturing executive who called on federal regulators to speed up the rollout of safer oil tank cars.

Though his firm (which has a repair shop in Modesto) would benefit financially, Greg Saxton, senior vice president and chief engineer at the Greenbrier Companies, happens to be right. The National Transportation Safety Board, which put rail tank car safety on its “most wanted” list for 2015, points out that more than 100,000 outdated cars carry crude, increasing the risk of leaks and explosions. Denham also says he’s concerned that the U.S. Department of Transportation missed its own Jan. 30 deadline to submit new rules on oil tank cars.

So what was Saxton’s transgression, according to Denham? He had the temerity to talk to lowly newspaper editorial writers, as well as esteemed members of Congress.

Denham lectured Saxton that he didn’t want the “wrong people” – whoever they are – “talking to the ed boards across the country” and creating a “misperception” that “our industry” is unsafe.

“I just want to make sure we’re all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together in improving that industry,” the congressman said, as pointed out by Mike Dunbar, opinions page editor at The Modesto Bee who talked to Saxton last month.

Last time we checked, acting as a public relations consultant for the oil industry isn’t Denham’s job. He should care much more about keeping his constituents in Modesto and Turlock safe. As chairman of this important panel, he should encourage open debate. Instead, his spokeswoman said Tuesday, Denham stands by his remarks to Saxton.

Thankfully, officials in Benicia actually listened to people who exercised free speech.

They announced last week they will redo parts of an environmental study on the proposal for two 50-car oil trains a day to traverse Sacramento and other Northern California cities on the way to the Valero refinery in Benicia.

Benicia officials are responding to environmental groups, Sacramento-area officials and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who had all properly pointed out that the report fell short in analyzing potential oil spills and fires in the middle of urban areas and didn’t even consider possible harm east of Roseville.

The updated study, to be released June 30, also needs to at least consider suggestions from Sacramento and Davis leaders that Union Pacific Railroad be required to give advance notice of oil shipments to emergency responders and be banned from parking oil trains in urban areas.

They’re the sorts of ideas that people might just want to explain to a congressional committee – or perhaps even an editorial board.

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