SF Chron: flood of oil tank cars “potential environmental disasters on wheels”

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com

Lots of oil in rail tank cars about to be coming to Bay Area

Phillip Matier And Andrew Ross
Sunday, March 23, 2014

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2012 file photo, DOT-111 and AAR-211 class rail tankers pass by on the background as a man works at the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File) Photo: Nati Harnik, Associated Press

FILE – In this Aug. 8, 2012 file photo, DOT-111 and AAR-211 class rail tankers pass by on the background as a man works at the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region are an “unacceptable public risk,” and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014.  The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing.  (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)  Photo: Nati Harnik, Associated Press.

Oil is flooding into the Bay Area – in rail tank cars that amount to potential environmental disasters on wheels.

In 2011, about 9,000 tank cars filled with crude oil were shipped into California by rail. In the next two years, thanks to the oil boom in North Dakota and Canada, the number is expected to jump to more than 200,000, according to the California Energy Commission.

About 10 percent of the oil will be headed to the five Bay Area refineries, which means traveling through Contra Costa and Solano counties. The question is, are we prepared to handle the spills or fires if there is a derailment?

“No,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to 2 1/2 hours of testimony from emergency responders the other day at a hearing in Sacramento.

In a nutshell, the state has plenty of money for responding to waterborne accidents like the Cosco Busan oil spill in the bay in 2007 – but virtually nothing for handling spills on land.

“It’s not that crude oil is any more dangerous than ethanol or other products that we currently see on the rails,” said Chief Jeff Carman of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “It’s just that with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.”

First on the scene of any accident is likely to be the local fire department – but in Contra Costa and Solano, some agencies have closed fire stations in recent years or reduced the number of personnel per shift to deal with budget cuts.

Contra Costa Fire, for example, is down to 75 on-duty firefighters a day to cover 400 square miles and 600,000 people, compared with the 90 firefighters a day just two years ago.

To give an idea of the potential scale of an accident, the amount of oil that spilled from the Cosco Busan equals about 1 1/2 tank cars of crude. A full train could carry 60 times that amount.

“There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems,” Hill said.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or e-mail matierandross@sfchronicle.com.
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