Since the start of 2021, 334 trains have derailed in California
Vallejo Times-Herald, by Harriet Rowan and Eliyahu Kamisher, February 18, 2023
The menacing cloud of toxic smoke over East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailment earlier this month is hovering in the thoughts of Leisa Johnson every time a train chugs past her neighborhood along the coast in Richmond: Could a disaster like that happen in her own backyard?
Stuck at the train crossing for as long as 30 minutes sometimes, Johnson has a lot of time to think about what could go wrong as long trains with dozens of black tanker cars head to and from the Kinder Morgan crude oil processing plant and other industries.
“Most people in the public have no clue what’s on them,” said Johnson. “A few years ago, there was a freakin’ train derailed,” she recalled, sharing photos of a large black tanker car tipped on its side, houses visible directly behind it. Luckily there was no leak or spill that time, as far as she knows.
Every day, hazardous materials and toxic chemicals are transported through the Bay Area to oil refineries, pesticide plants, bleach manufacturers and agricultural centers in the area and around the state. Train traffic is especially heavy through the industrial hubs such as the Port of Oakland and the Richmond refineries.
Since the start of 2021, 334 trains have derailed in California — nearly one every other day — including four that led to hazardous material spills, according to data from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.Some fear an accident like the one that shook Ohio could be next.
“It could happen anywhere,” said Patti Goldman, a senior attorney with Earth Justice, an environmental advocacy group that has sued the federal government over rail safety regulations in the past.
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, leading to a leak of vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make PVC pipes. Authorities evacuated the town of East Palestine and conducted a controlled burn of the leaking chemicals to prevent an explosion. EPA officials say the air and municipal water is now safe, but residents have reported health complications and concerns about returning.
Specifics about which hazardous chemicals are shipped through the Bay Area are hard to come by, partly for national security reasons. But crude oil coming in and out of refineries in Richmond is often a focus of concern. One report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 50,000 people lived within a half-mile federally mandated evacuation zone for a derailment in the Richmond area.
Adam Springer, an assistant director of Contra Costa County’s HazMat team, said hazardous chemicals are “constantly” shipped through his county, including flammable gases, sulfuric acid, alcohols and anhydrous ammonia.
Springer said one of the most common problems is overfilled tankers loaded on trains that can release toxic chemicals through pressure valves when the liquid expands under heat.
“That happens actually quite often,” he said. But Springer said the county’s hazmat team is still waiting to see if Ohio’s derailment disaster highlights any specific risks in the Bay Area.
Union Pacific and BNSF the nation’s two largest rail companies have successfully fought multiple attempts to increase hazardous materials regulations. A 2015 California law that tacked on extra fees for hazardous material shipments to bolster the state’s emergency railway spill response was struck down by a court.
“These companies are putting the pursuit of lower operating costs, lower operating ratios and higher profits above safety,” said Louie Costa, the California State Legislative Director for Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union (SMART), which represents train conductors and other rail workers. “The cuts they are making are putting the communities these trains run through, our employees and the citizens in those communities at risk.”
A threatened nationwide rail strike in 2022 made the public aware of complaints from the unions about the safety of our rail systems. The unions say understaffing and a new operating system are increasing the risk of accidents for the sake of profits.
“Trains have gotten longer and longer, which puts a lot more wear and tear on the tracks and the infrastructure,” said Costa, who says the workforce has been cut and the remaining staff are stretched thin. “All of that leads up to potential situations, like the one that happened in Ohio, and can happen here.”
Industry officials say trains are the safest way to transport many dangerous but critical substances and point to the much higher accident rates for trucks.
In a short statement, Union Pacific said the railroad has an emergency response center operating around the clock and “robust” emergency management plan in place for railway disasters. “Union Pacific shares the same goals as our customers and the communities we serve — to deliver every tank car safely. We are required by federal law to transport chemicals and other hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil and chlorine.”
Texas-based BNSF declined to offer detailed comments about its operations.
California has seen some major train derailment disasters in the past. In July 1991, a train carrying an herbicide derailed in Northern California, spilling 19,000 gallons of the hazardous material into the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir.
“Every living creature in the water, downstream from the spill, died,” according to the summary report from the over decade-long recovery project. “The chemical plume left a 41-mile wake of destruction, from the spill site to the entry point of the river into Shasta Lake.”
Other train derailments involving hazardous materials have happened in the Bay Area more recently, with less catastrophic results.
Costa said that from the perspective of the workers, rail transport has “gotten exponentially … less safe.” As a former conductor, he said he took pride in delivering his cargo safely, but concerns among the workers are growing. “If you go into the crew rooms, that’s the talk,” he said, “something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna happen.”
“Well something happened, and we pray that it doesn’t happen here,” Costa said.
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