My View: Crude Oil Disaster Could Have Been Here


Amid a growing national safety debate over rail transport of crude oil, the unthinkable happened in faraway Lynchburg, Virginia, sending flames and black plumes of smoke into the air near the waterfront along the James River.

While about 15 cars were involved in the derailment, the fire was quickly extinguished, the area evacuated, and there were no injuries reported. What could have been a tragic disaster turned into another alarm bell.

The Associated Press notes that the Lynchburg incident represents only the latest of several oil train accidents in recent months. Earlier this year, “Pennsylvania saw two derailments within weeks of each other: a CSX freight train carrying crude derailed in Philadelphia in January, nearly toppling into the Schuylkill River, and a Norfolk Southern train carrying Canadian crude wrecked and spilled between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of oil in western Pennsylvania in February.”

They add, “And in North Dakota last December, a train carrying crude collided with another, engulfing 21 cars in flames and spilling an estimated 400,000 gallons of oil.”

While no one has been injured in these accidents, the AP reports that “the rapid rise of oil shipments is raising fears of an explosive derailment like the one that occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. That accident killed 47 people and leveled the town’s center. Train service through Lac-Mégantic resumed in December, but the town has banned the transport of hazardous substances, including oil.”

The issue has local significance, as there has been a rising tide of calls for banning crude oil transport on the rail lines that go through Davis.

As Lynne Nittler, Milton Kalish, and Matt Biers-Ariel wrote in a Vanguard editorial back in February, the number of oil trains nationwide is expected to increase significantly in 2014 and beyond.

“Crude-by-rail is skyrocketing in California.  According to the California Energy Commission, in 2013 railroads hauled more than over 6 million barrels of crude oil in California.  In 2014 that number may jump to 50 million barrels or more, and by 2016 rail transport is expected to reach nearly a quarter of California’s total oil consumption, or approximately 140,000 barrels per day,” they write.

The immediate risk is that Valero has petitioned “Benicia to allow the oil refinery to enlarge its train terminal in order to increase its production by 70,000 barrels of crude every day. That’s enough to fill 100 sixty-foot-long tank cars with highly flammable crude oil.”

As they warn, “There are major problems posed to the communities and the sensitive areas the trains pass through.  The unsafe tank cars with their volatile cargo pose an immediate and serious safety risk.”

They note, “If the Benicia Valero Project is approved, trains carrying highly flammable Bakken crude oil in the outdated DOT-111A tank cars (intended for non-flammable liquids such as fertilizer) will pass through the center of Davis after crossing the Yolo Bypass on trestle tracks. The propensity for these tanker cars to rupture and explode on impact and to corrode inside is now well-documented.”

They add, “Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that the chemical composition of Bakken Shale oil itself is highly explosive and corrosive.  In addition, there are new challenges for rail inspections and the enforcement of existing safety codes with the sudden increase in long, heavy oil tank trains.  The safety of our families, our community and our environment will be increasingly at risk.”

In mid-February, Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk wrote a letter to Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson stating, “I am writing to express my and my constituents’ serious concerns over the proposed upgrading of the rail terminal at the Valero refinery to take in as much as 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day… The proposed upgrade would substantially increase the amount of crude oil passing through our community and others along the rail line each day, with much of that oil coming from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.  This oil appears to be more explosive, as demonstrated by the tragic accident in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year which killed 47 people when a train carrying such oil derailed.”

In mid-March, the council sought to pass a resolution stating that the city of Davis would oppose crude oil by rail transport through our community.

Council member Brett Lee expressed concerns that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open-ended to have the impact they were hoping for.  When Mayor Krovoza disagreed, Lee  posed the question, “Do you really think the railroad is going to stop transporting oil on the railroad line because the Davis City Council says we don’t want it passing through our community?”

He continued, “I think a more effective way would be to focus on the safety aspects so that our community is protected and other communities are protected.”  Lee clarified that he was not in favor of these cars coming through our community, and went on to say that he did not believe that having a symbolic gesture “excuses us or take us off the hook for dealing with the public safety issue.”

Ultimately, Krovoza put forth a motion, that was seconded by Lee, which directed staff to begin preparation of a resolution whereby the city of Davis would oppose crude by rail transport through our community due to public safety concerns until further consideration, including understanding of risks and needed mitigation measures.

This was brought back at the April 22, 2014 Davis City Council meeting.

The staff report notes, “The U.S. Department of Transportation recently classified crude shipments by rail as an ‘imminent hazard.’ It is taking steps to mitigate some of the risk, including testing of Bakken crude oil to ensure that proper safety measures are used during transport by the shipper, regulations to improve tank car safety, and a voluntary agreement to slow crude trains in urban areas and install safety equipment to respond to accidents.”

Staff adds, “How timely, or effective, these requirements will in improving safety is not yet known.”

They add, “Mitigating the impacts of transporting crude and other commodities by rail has been a challenge, as the railroads and other entities involved in the transport of crude claim they are subject to federal law but not to California law. They are asserting federal pre-emption and arguing that other agencies have no authority to mitigate their impacts.”

At the same time, staff argues this is not the complete story. They write, “This is not the complete story. Every permitting agency — cities, counties, and air districts — has the authority to deny land use and other permits if the applicant refuses to mitigate impacts. San Luis Obispo has authority over the land use permits to build the rail terminals that the Phillips 66 Santa Maria refinery is requesting. The City of Benicia has the land use authority over the Valero project.”

The Benicia Valero project Draft EIR has still not been released for review. They add, “While the Phillips 66 project EIR was completed in January of this year, staff has confirmed that the EIR will be re-circulated for additional public review. Staff is verifying with San Luis Obispo the anticipated dates for release.”

Staff adds, “Per City Council direction, staff has prepared the attached Resolution, which will set forth the general framework and City position on the topic of oil-by-rail. The Resolution will form the basis for direction on follow-up actions to be undertaken by the City Attorney and staff on individual projects, such as Phillips 66 and Valero, and to engage in regional action.”

While the resolution lays out a number of steps that the city will take, most of it involves verbs such as “work with,” “lobby,” “urge,” “demand,” “seek” and finally “request.” As these things go, that is not a lot of local authority to control the rail lines and protect the public safety of the citizens of Davis.

Lynchburg, despite the spectacular sight, was quite fortunate that the disaster was not far worse. Imagine a train derailing in Davis over the Richards Underpass at 9 am or along I-80 near Second Street – the ramifications could be far more serious.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    the real question is what the community can do to protect themselves here. from the resolution, the answer seems to be not much. that means that higher ups like garamendi and wolk need to get more involved.

  2. Tia Will


    I agree that there is little that our community can do in isolation for primary prevention in terms of limiting the passage of these materials through town. In terms of secondary prevention ( limiting the harm if such an event should occur) I believe that our safety community ( UCD and Davis firefighters) seem to be moving in the right direction proactively in terms of upgrading the training in management of hazardous materials for all staff members.

    1. hpierce

      Do not disaree, but would take it a step further… we should advocate (strongly) for well maintained rail lines, and proper design and inspection of rail cars.

      Am suspicious, though on how this came up… “fracked oil”. Why isn’t there concern about the anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, and other substances that could provide the same or greater risk? These have been transported thru this town (including munitions, during the Vietnam War) for years… what’s new? I surmise that the rail lines thru Davis (main line) are much better than most, due to the Capitol Corridor train system, provision of some funding, and a greater expectation of comfort and safety for passenger rail.

      Design and inspection/maintenance/repair of ‘rolling stock’ would be my priority. Banning fracked oil and leaving the door open to a wreck spewing out ‘regular’ oil products, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, etc. doesn’t trulu reduce risk.

      1. Tia Will


        Agree. Although I think that a multi pronged approach will probably get the best results. Proper upkeep of lines, equipment, cars, training of railway employees, car contents, and local preparedness all have critical roles in safety.

  3. tj

    While explosion and fire are the biggest concerns, contamination of waterways is often a problem with these spills.

    The more trains we have, the more air pollution we have.

    1. Alan Miller

      True only in the sense of more cargo being moved. If the train is taking cargo off trucks and airlines, the levels of pollution decrease due to the efficiency of rail. An argument could be made the locally air pollution would increase since the rail line passes through Davis. That would be one hell of a complex pollution scenario to model.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    More people, more immigration, legal and illegal, leads to more demand for oil.

    I thought I read of a proposal to route the train tracks around the city core? If this is really a big concern, speed up the process and find the money.

    Lastly, if people really fear this method of transporting oil, I suggest they back the Keystone XL Pipeline – touted as “the safest and most advanced oil pipeline operation in North America.”

    1. hpierce

      99.99995% sure the re-route concept is for the N/S line, not the E/W main line. That’s NOT the line under discussion related to oil shipments.

      1. Alan Miller

        You are correct about the proposed so-called rail relocation. The oil runs on the busy E-W main line that has about 60 trains per day. The so-called rail relocation is proposed by self- promoting fools for the N-S line. I say fools because they wish to spend $50 million oops $100 million oops . . . to move a line with only 4-6 trains a day, half of which are light engine movements.

    2. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      TBD, I, too, favor Keystone. But keep in mind that it, if built, will only transport a fraction of the crude now being moved by rail. What I think makes more sense is to back new, safer pipelines up to the point where no crude needs to be transported by train.

      Pipelines, even if built to the best standards available today, are not without certain hazards. But the great benefit, aside from the huge cost savings for refiners, is that they can be routed to avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive lands.

      In the meantime, the NTSB and other rail regulators need to set much higher standards to improve rail transport. It’s nuts having these rolling bombs rolling through thousands of cities and towns across the U.S.

      1. rogerbockrath

        If highly flammable and explosive crude oil is being transported in DOT-111A tank cars (intended for non-flammable liquids such as fertilizer), is it not the responsibility of the federal DOT to impose rules on railroads, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they are clearly more interested in their profits than the communities through which they run their trains?
        Isn’t that why we have a federal DOT to which our taxes flow?

        I’m not clear why Congress has to impose yet more laws to get compliance from railroads. If the DOT 111A tank cars are not approved for flammable and explosive fuels, then why are the railroads getting away with using them?

        It’s also interesting to note that fuel transport pipelines, which don’t exactly have a sterling reputation for safety, typically run on railroad right of ways and are owned by the railroad corporations. Seems like just one more example of the corporations running the government instead of the government enforcing rules by which corporations operate.

        If illegal tank cars are burning down towns and killing people the corporate officers who allow them to be used illegally need to be held criminally liable. You know, just like the bank presidents were!

        1. Alan Miller

          >is it not the responsibility of the federal DOT to impose rules on railroads, who have repeatedly demonstrated that they are clearly more interested in their profits than the communities through which they run their trains?

          Yes, and they are ON it . . . uh, tomorrow..

    3. Topcat

      TrueBlue Wrote: “I thought I read of a proposal to route the train tracks around the city core? If this is really a big concern, speed up the process and find the money.”

      There is no proposal to route the train tracks around the city.

      1. Alan Miller

        Well there is, it’s just a really stupid proposal that will never be funded unless a federal politician defrauds the national taxpayers by justifying a development scam as a flood control project.

    1. D.D.

      🙂 It’s always better to support local business when it is competitively priced. I never minded spending a few pennies more to shop in Davis, if I could avoid the stress of a car trip to a neighboring community.

      And I’d rather ride the Amtrak than fly anywhere!

  5. Alan Miller

    >In terms of secondary prevention ( limiting the harm if such an event should occur) I believe that our safety community ( UCD and Davis firefighters) seem to be moving in the right direction proactively in terms of upgrading the training in management of hazardous materials for all staff members.

    The is a straw non-solution. Should the low speed crossover just east of the Davis station Davis happen to be the spot where an oil train derails, however unlikely that may be, the south end of Old East Davis, the East End of Olive Drive, and the East edge of downtown Davis would be incinerated. All the training in the world will not prevent that outcome, and all the personnel in all the nearby cities would be overwhelmed by such a disaster.

    I would laugh at all the fuss over oil trains through Davis due to the strong safety record of the railroads were it not for two things: 1) The bizarre rash of oil train explosions that pretty much lays out that transporting oil by rail will by the odds apparently mean a town somewhere in North America will be incinerated every year or two; and 2) Seeing with my own eyes Union Pacific damn near derail two trains carrying tank cars with placards indicating flammable cargo, one in 2006 and one in 2009, one a unit train of liquified petroleum gas, both at the same 10mph crossover east of the Davis Amtrak Station and both due to overspeed errors by the all-too-human engineers.

    Yes folks, hazardous and flammable cargo already passes through Davis by rail. The City cannot ban the transport of such. The only powers Davis may have is 1) Asking real nice to have the dangerous 10mph crossover replaced with a standard 45mph crossover to eliminate the possibility of another human error overspeed near-miss or actual derailment; and 2) If the cities along the line all the way from North Dakota to Benecia / Santa Maria actually get together and raise hell, the political pressure may actually have an affect. This is a national issue with local consequences, that we only will have power over if we stop worrying about Davis itself and acknowledge the issue is that all cities through which this oil will pass have the same issue and the only way any of us have power is to say, “all these cities are in this together, and we all want the same for ourselves as we want for all the others”, and speak in a united voice with dozens of signers. That may get federal attention that will supersede the lack of power in local ability to regulate interstate transport.

  6. Tia Will


    “All the training in the world will not prevent that outcome, and all the personnel in all the nearby cities would be overwhelmed by such a disaster.”

    You are right. And that was why I made two distinctions. My first point I believe to be the same as yours.
    There is little to nothing that the city can do in isolation. My second point was to use a medical analogy that may not be common vernacular. The difference between primary prevention such as an immunization to prevent contracting a disease at all and secondary prevention which refers to limiting the harm done once the disease has hit such as administering Tylenol to the ill person to lower a fever or ease suffering.

    Just because the incineration itself would not be prevented by training does not mean that this training should be dismissed since it has the possibility of containment of the offending chemical and minimizing the harm done to those who happen to be on the periphery of the disaster. True, the people killed and buildings destroyed are beyond our help, and certainly beyond the scope of this training. Well trained first responders are critical to the survivors and can be trained and maintained locally. That was my point.

  7. Alan Miller

    Not disagree, however they should already be as trained as they could possibly be for such a horrific event. This isn’t like training for fire crews for a new toxic substance being shipped through town to know how to identify and handle a spill and the associated public risk for such. There is often little any responder can do at ground zero for an oil explosion but let the fireball burn itself out.

    My point was there is nothing in additional training that is preventative. It sounds good, but sans a helicopter capable of transporting a reservoir in one trip, no one is going to be able to trained enough to deal with this.

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