There isn’t a moment to lose. Gov. Jerry Brown should issue an executive order to ensure that the state is prepared to deal with the highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming by rail and water into California.
There should be no hesitancy in taking this step, and no excuse. The exponential increase in the shipment of this “peculiar” crude is documented and has the attention of my community, and my sister communities in Solano, Contra Costa, Yolo and Sacramento counties. Citizens have organized to ask local and state officials to address their concerns about the safety of the increased rail transport of crude in what many experts – and the National Transportation Safety Board – say are the notorious DOT-111A tank cars, whose design makes them prone to puncture in accidents.
Last year’s explosive tanker rail accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, destroyed its small downtown and spilled fuel that burned on the lake and its shore. As the Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk noted in his letter to me, “A similar accident in Davis as the one in Quebec would likely produce even more catastrophic results, in terms of loss of life and the destruction of our downtown.”
According to the California Energy Commission, crude by rail shipments will increase in 2014 to more than 50 million barrels from the 6 million barrels in 2013.
We have seen fiery accidents documented last year with 10 major explosions involving oil trains in the United States and Canada. Clearly these increased crude-by-rail shipments in unsafe tank cars pose imminent danger to the small rural communities, such as Dunsmuir (Siskiyou County), the site of a 1991 derailment that dumped thousands of gallons of pesticide into the Sacramento River, dense urban settings in the Bay Area and all that lies in between.
Public safety must be addressed. Rail incidents involving crude oil spills increased exponentially from fewer than five in 2000 to 90 in 2012, as reported by the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration. And there is more: While the burning of Mégantic Lake is an environmental disaster, our stressed and endangered rivers, delta and wetlands alongside the tracks in California are also at risk.
These shipments of Bakken formation oil are carloads of hazardous chemicals, often incorrectly labeled. How would the Suisun Marsh survive a potential spill, explosion and fire? What contaminants could enter our delta waterways – a water source for 25 million Californians – from several vulnerable rail crossings?
The governor should waste no time in issuing an executive order that would address:
Are we prepared? The governor should direct state agencies, working with federal authorities, to assess the state’s prevention and response rules, as well as inspection programs, involving the transport of petroleum products.
Who responds? Which are the relevant local agencies? Are there well-trained, well-equipped personnel ready to respond to rural, urban and environmental incidents?
What’s the law? Does the Legislature need to change the law or regulations to enhance safety and improve coordination with federal agencies to improve the state’s ability to prevent and respond to incidents?
As mayor of a small city affected by the increase in crude-by-rail traffic, oil and hazardous materials off-loading, I expect nothing less than my state to focus its attention and resources on these public health and safety concerns – for the sake of us all.
Elizabeth Patterson is the mayor of Benicia, a refinery town.