Repost from Chico Enterprise-Record
Editorial: Train derailment in canyon a cautionary tale11/29/14
When a train derailed in the Feather River Canyon above Belden on Tuesday and dropped tons of corn in the river, it was natural to chuckle uneasily that it was only corn.
Nobody was injured, no animals died, the river’s ecosystem will recover and Union Pacific, while on the hook for a difficult cleanup operation in a steep area, talked largely about how the company was fortunate — because it knows it could have been a whole lot worse.
What should be worrisome to the rest of us is that only Union Pacific seems to know how bad things could get — and Union Pacific isn’t sharing, apparently not even with government officials.
With a surge in crude oil pumped from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana and not enough pipelines to move it across the United States, oil companies have taken to moving the explosive type of oil on railroads. Union Pacific is undoubtedly being compensated handsomely to do so. But moving it from east to west means coming through the picturesque Feather River Canyon, along Highway 70 above Lake Oroville.
Oroville residents have noticed an alarming increase in the number of oil trains, with their black tanker cars, coming through town, headed south. But nobody knows how many trains. The railroad keeps that information close to the vest. Still, the Butte and Plumas county offices of emergency services should know, just in case it has to respond to a derailment, which likely would be accompanied by an explosion. One would think …
But Plumas County’s director of emergency services, Jerry Sipe, says Union Pacific hasn’t advised the county of when or how often the trains come through. Sipe said he’d like the rail companies to provide training and equipment needed to respond to oil train derailments.
Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, when asked by a reporter about the frequency of oil trains, answered in an email.
“For safety and commercial-competitive reasons,” he wrote, “Union Pacific provides specific commodity route information for its trains only to appropriate response agencies. We cannot address what commodities may travel on other railroads. This route is one where oil may be transported based upon the needs of our customers.”
Well, we think those who live along the route and those who might be asked to respond to a disaster deserve better answers. Local lawmakers from Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, to Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, and state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, should intervene to demand more transparency.
Nobody should wait until after the first explosion of an oil train to say, “We need to do something about this.” The best time to act is now.
Though Union Pacific’s Hunt points out repeatedly that UP has reduced derailments by 23 percent in the past 10 years, the fact is that trains still derail, and all it takes is one. An explosion would be disastrous. An oil spill in the river system would be as well.
The Feather River Canyon is a treacherous stretch of track, with curves, rock slides and erosion all factors that can contribute to derailments. The fact that UP says it doesn’t know what caused last week’s derailment means, so far anyway, it will be less likely to prevent them in the immediate future.
Let’s get out in front of this problem. As other states have learned, explosions are an increasing possibility. We like first responders to be prepared, not left in the dark.