Repost from The Record, Stockton, CA
[Editor: Significant quote: “‘These aren’t rail cars filled with rubber duckies. They’re filled with dangerous crude oil,’ said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.” – RS]
Crude oil transport danger for Stockton?
Deadly 2013 explosion in Quebec among incidents fueling concernsBy Alex Breitler, Record Staff Writer, August 03, 2014
It’s no misprint: Explosive crude oil shipments into California last year increased 506 percent.
And a series of high-profile derailments and fiery explosions across North America has fueled fears that those seemingly ubiquitous tanker cars could someday spell disaster here, too.
The surge has really just begun. In a few years the quantity of oil rolling down our railways will be “huge,” said Michael Cockrell, director of the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.
“You’re looking at some really major transportation of oil, and it’s everywhere,” Cockrell said. “It’s going to be all up and down the state.”
The spike is tied to increased domestic drilling in North Dakota, where the Bakken shale formation produces especially valuable and especially volatile crude oil. Trains provide a fast and flexible way to transport that oil to West Coast refineries.
Stockton’s a bit off the beaten path for at least some of these shipments, which often enter the state via Donner Pass or the Feather River Canyon, traveling through Sacramento on the way to Bay Area refineries.
Still, with Stockton serviced by two major railroad companies and with tracks stretching through urban areas to the north, west and south, advocacy groups argue there is a risk here.
“These aren’t rail cars filled with rubber duckies. They’re filled with dangerous crude oil,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
It’s impossible to say how many oil trains already roll through town. Railroads don’t divulge that information, citing security concerns. Only recently did they begin notifying local emergency response officials about incoming shipments.
But there are indications Stockton may have a part to play in the oil transportation boom.
Documents describing a controversial proposed terminal in Pittsburg show that trains carrying oil would come from the east, from Stockton. Plans call for up to one train per day, five days a week to arrive at the Pittsburg terminal. From there, the oil would be shipped through pipelines to refineries.
Plans are also in the works for a $320 million terminal at the Port of Stockton. Commissioners in 2012 approved a lease for the petroleum terminal and storage facility on 33 acres near Washington Street and Navy Drive, said Port Director Richard Aschieris.
It hasn’t been built yet. But Reuters reported last month that trains would deliver 70,000 barrels of oil per day to the port’s Targa Resources Partners terminal. The Houston-based company would then load the oil onto ships to be delivered to refineries.
Aschieris said that in addition to petroleum, Stockton’s terminal will also handle ethanol, natural gas, propane and other materials. He said it will generate $1.2 million a year in taxes for the city and county combined, along with 20 full-time, high-paying jobs.
Aschieris said the project makes sense from a safety perspective.
“No matter what they’re moving, if they move it onto a barge or ship, I would contend that is safer than putting it on trucks and taking it right in through the Bay Area,” he said.
As for the trains that would deliver the oil, Stockton’s flat terrain decreases the odds of a derailment, said Aschieris, who added that private railroads have made “huge investments” in improving local tracks.
The debate over the transportation of crude oil spreads far beyond Stockton and California.
In Quebec, 63 tanks cars of crude oil exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people. Eight other major accidents have been reported in the past two years.
Tellingly, train accidents involving crude oil have increased even while the overall number of train accidents and hazardous material spills has declined.
In late July, acknowledging that the growing reliance on trains “poses a significant risk to life, property and the environment,” the federal government announced plans to phase out older tank cars within two years. They also took action to improve notifications about oil shipments, to reduce the speeds at which oil trains travel through towns, and to encourage railroads to choose the safest routes.
Most crude oil is still transported by marine vessels. But the quantity sent by train has skyrocketed from 1 million barrels in 2012 to 6.3 million barrels last year, and experts say the number could climb as high as 150 million barrels by 2016, according to a report by a working group convened by Gov. Jerry Brown.
For Cockrell, with county Emergency Services, the oil shipments are yet another potential disaster to worry about.
Since railroads are regulated by the federal government, he said he’s concerned that local governments may have difficulty seeking assistance responding to a derailment, and that it might be difficult to seek reimbursement from the private railroads.
Many people could be affected by a large spill in an urban area, Cockrell said.
One advocacy group, San Francisco-based ForestEthics, recently issued “blast zone” maps showing the half-mile evacuation zones overlaid on rail routes that could conceivably carry shipments of crude oil. And the Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that almost 4 million Californians could be at risk.
Opposition has grown to the proposed new oil terminal in Pittsburg. Other projects are in the works in Bakersfield, Benicia, Santa Maria and Wilmington (Los Angeles).
Mike Parissi, with San Joaquin County’s Environmental Health Department, said the county’s multi-agency hazardous materials team trains for potential railroad disasters – though not specifically for crude oil spills.
“The big thing with the crude oil is it’s very flammable,” he said. “But we can deal with any kind of flammable liquid incident that might come.”
Back at the port, Aschieris said crews there are used to handling hazardous materials. So are the railroads, said a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, whose tracks pass through Stockton.
“We’ve actually handled hazardous material for many, many years, and we’ve done so safely,” said spokeswoman Lena Kent. “Unfortunately there have been a few high-profile incidents.”
She would not say how much crude oil her company sends through Stockton. She did say two crude oil trains per month enter the state, a tiny fraction of the 1,600 all-purpose trains that Burlington Northern operates throughout the country on any given day.
Union Pacific did not respond to a request for information about its shipments.
Bailey, the scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the trains should be rerouted, adding that they have a “stranglehold” on the cities through which they pass.
“I haven’t really seen anyone entertain this conversation,” she said. “Does it make sense to bring mass quantities of really dangerous crude oil through people’s cities, so close to their homes?”