Senator Wolk Attempts Legislation to Address Rail Accidents Involving Hazardous Materials

LoisWolkHeadshot_2012WB-665As the EIR on a proposal to transport crude oil through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the City of Benicia was delayed from June 10 to June 17, Senator Lois Wolk, concerned about the proposal to expand shipments of crude oil by train through Benicia, the Capitol Corridor, and other heavily-populated areas of the California, late last week introduced a measure to provide funding for adequate local emergency response to accidents and spills involving rail transports of crude oil and other hazardous materials.

“California needs to keep in step with the significant increase in shipments of these dangerous materials in order to respond to the growing risk to California’s citizens. Starting early next year, there are plans to run 100 train cars of crude oil a day through the heart of the Capitol Corridor to the Valero Refining Company in the City of Benicia, in my district. And, as things stand, local governments along these transport corridors don’t have sufficient funding to protect their communities,” Senator Wolk said.

She added, “This measure will help communities like those in my district prepare and respond to potential accidents or spills.”

Senate Bill 506, which is being jointly authored by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), Chair of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Environmental Quality, would levy a fee on railroad tank cars transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials in California to fund developing and maintaining an emergency response system to deal with accidents and spills involving these materials.

Several destructive crude oil rail accidents have taken place in the United States and Canada in recent years, including the July 2013 derailment of 72 tanker cars loaded with two million gallons of flammable crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, that killed 47 people and caused more than $1 billion in damages.

Oil shipments by train increased in California by more than 500 percent to 6.3 million barrels last year, and are expected to increase by up to 150 million barrels by 2016, according to a report released Tuesday by the California Public Utilities Commission, California Environmental Protection Agency, and other state agencies. The report recommended more state rail inspectors, emergency response program improvements and real-time information from railroads.

Under SB 506, railroad operators transporting hazardous materials by tank car in California will be required to register with the State Board of Equalization, which will collect the fees on a quarterly basis, based on the number of tanks cars transporting hazardous materials.

Her legislation comes a few days after Senator Lois Wolk called on legislators to support a proposal to strengthen the state’s railroad safety inspection force, in light of the growing volume of crude oil shipments through heavily-populated areas of California and the numerous crude oil rail accidents in recent years.

In her letter to Budget Conference Committee members, she writes, “I urge you to support the Governor’s budget provisions to add seven inspectors to the railroad safety staff of the California Public Utilities Commission.”

“If funded, these federally-certified inspectors will not only enforce critical federal and state safety regulations addressing railroad track, bridges, tank cars, locomotives, and hazardous material shipping practices, but will also hold the railroads accountable for complying with the Federal Railroad Emergency Orders and the voluntary safety agreements the railroads have made with the U.S. Department of Transportation following recent Canadian and U.S. crude oil train explosions.”

The Senator wrote, “On February 24, 2014, the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee held an informational hearing titled ‘Safe Rail Transport of Crude Oil: What’s on the Horizon and Are We Prepared?’ Information presented in that hearing revealed that California is slated to see a 25-fold increase in crude oil shipped by rail within the next few years, and that this increase in traffic will pass through many highly populated areas in our state.”

“However, there has not been a corresponding increase in regulatory oversight capacity to address this significant increase in risk to California’s citizens,” the Senator added in a letter to members of the Legislature’s Budget Conference Committee, scheduled to hear Governor Edmund G. Brown’s budget proposal to add seven inspectors to the CPUC’s railroad safety staff. “Additional oversight is needed to provide some assurance that these shipments are made safely and in compliance with federal and state regulations, as well as other known safety practices.”

Back in early February, Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk wrote Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson “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.  I should make clear that I am writing this as an individual Councilmember; I am not speaking for the City Council or the City of Davis.”

He wrote, “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.”

The Davis City Council has been concerned about the issue of crude oil transported through the Davis Community but has been limited in its ability to address the issue.

Valero is proposing the “Crude by Rail Project” which would allow the refinery to receive a larger proportion of its crude oil deliveries by railcar.

The Land Use Permit Application states,  ”The primary purpose of the Project is to allow Valero access to more North American sourced crudes that have recently become available. The only viable option for transporting the crude oil from the North American sources to the Refinery is by railroad. Therefore, the objective of this Project is to enable Valero to replace up to 70,000 bbl per day of the crude oil currently supplied to the Benicia Refinery by marine vessel with an equivalent amount of crude oil transported by rail cars.”

The City of Davis has put forward a resolution whereby the city 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.

However, despite unanimous support from council, concerns were expressed by councilmembers, such as Brett Lee, that a resolution of this sort was largely symbolic and too open-ended to have the impact they were hoping for.

As he put it, “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.”  Councilmember 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.”

City staff wrote, “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.”

Ultimately, Mayor 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.

—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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3 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    it will be interesting to see what the eir says, this type of legislation doesn’t help us that much as it aims at mitigation rather than prevention.

  2. Alan Miller

    What will this legislation do to prevent a quarter mile in diameter fireball of burning oil? The legislation will hire new inspectors and probably give training on emergency response to personnel, maybe a little money for equipment. Rail transport of flammable/hazardous substances is generally very safe; Union Pacific and the Capitol Corridor have invested many millions in the physical infrastructure of the route thus the railroad is in much better shape than it was twenty years ago when UP bought the Southern Pacific and the Capitol Corridor began with three round trips.

    The problem is the sheer quantity of oil and the sheer lack in number of tanker cars capable of withstanding an impact. When these extremely rare events do occur, it is an everything-went-wrong scenario. In Canada, a string of oil cars got away and rolled into town at high speed, derailing in a populated area. In North Dakota, the train slammed into a train that had just derailed in front of it, thus derailing the oil train. Had the North Dakota event happened in a town, which could have happened, the results would have been similar to Canada in terms of life and property loss. The problem is, you can’t hire enough inspectors or train enough emergency personnel to prevent an extremely rare catastrophic perfect storm. The problem is with mass quantities of oil on the nations rails, the odds of a catastrophic event somewhere, someday, increase greatly.

    The problem in Davis is there is a 10mph crossover near a 30mph curve coming off a 79mph straightaway. I have twice witnessed UPRR trains pass through this switch at much higher speed (once at 47mph) and nearly derail. While there is another crossover a few miles east now, trains are still routed through this switch on occasion, and it should be rebuilt as part of oil train mitigation.

    In a perfect world, unit oil trains would not even run until the country had a fleet of durable, modern, double-walled tank cars. The oil trains, however, are already running and stopping an economic machine in the billions of dollars is unlikely. Unfortunately, the one thing that could actually stop that machine is the incineration of a couple of US downtowns, and no one wants that.

    1. tribeUSA

      Good info. Alan Miller. Hopefully the rail-lines will rebuild the switch as you suggest; not sure how such public comment is assessed and acted on by regulatory authorities and rail-line operators (how do we get thru to them?)

      Scary news about the gross speed limit violations–in these modern times; wouldn’t the train speed be logged automatically and semi-continuously; so there is a record of actual speed traveled at all locations? Regulatory authorities could review this record of speeds; for oil trains violating the speed limits the penalties should be very steep to discourage/prevent such violations.

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