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Solano County focuses on rail safety

Repost from the Fairfield Daily Republic

Solano focuses on rail safety

By Barry Eberling,  September 30, 2014

FAIRFIELD – Solano County wants to let people know about its rail emergency plans and to identify weaknesses, even as a Valero pursues a controversial proposal to ship crude oil by rail through the region.

The county held a rail safety workshop on Monday billed as a “community conversation.” About 60 people attended the evening meeting in the county Board of Supervisors chamber.

This meeting came against the backdrop of a proposal by Valero to transport crude oil by rail on the Union Pacific tracks to its Benicia refinery. The tracks passed through the heart of Fairfield, Suisun City and Dixon, as well as the wetlands of Suisun Marsh. Crude rail derailments in other areas have caused explosions.

County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Linda Seifert said there are already various hazardous materials that pass through Solano County by rail on the way to factories and other destinations. Local governments cannot regulate these freight rail trips because of interstate commerce laws, she said.

County Emergency Services Manager Don Ryan and Dixon Fire Chief Aaron McAlister talked about the local response system for emergencies. They talked about how local emergency responders work together, with a mutual aid system in place. Various fire departments and other emergency responders train together on possible disasters ranging from hazardous materials spills to shooter situations.

“The fire rescue system in California, the mutual aid system, is one of the finest in the country,” McAlister said.

Chris Howe of Valero Refinery talked about the crude-by-rail proposal and stressed the safety measures that Valero takes and the emergency resources that it has. He noted that Vallejo called on Valero to help respond to a major asphalt spill within that city.

“Preventing accidents is a top priority of ours and it’s something we focus on constantly in our business,” Howe said. “We handle flammable materials every day. That’s our business.”

Union Pacific spokeswoman Liisa Stark talked about the inspections done by her company by running equipment with computers and sonar over the tracks. She talked of detection boxes along tracks that can tell if a train has a hot wheel bearing or other problems.

“I just can’t say enough about how much we invest in time and energy to ensure we continue to run safely,” she said.

Investigative journalist Antonia Juhasz said that crude-by-rail trips have increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 last year. Bakken crude oil coming from North Dakota is more flammable, volatile and dangerous than other crude, she said.

“This is a new phenomena,” she said. “This is a new problem.”

She showed a photo of a fireball in the sky from a crude oil derailment on Jan. 1 in Casselton, North Dakota. She showed a photo of a April 30 crude oil derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia that left an oil slick 17 miles long in the James River. Altogether, she showed photos of 10 derailments in the United States and Canada, all during 2013 or this year.

“We don’t know how to regulate it yet,” Juhasz said.

Danny Bernardini spoke on behalf of state Sen. Lois Wolk. Wolk has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation containing suggestions and recommendations for crude-by-rail shipments. Among other things, she recommended the speed of these trains within all cities be set at 30 mph and that shippers and carriers have sufficient insurance or financial means to cover the costs of crashes and spills.

Also speaking were Paul Hensleigh of the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District, Brandon Thomson representing Rep. John Garamendi and Solano County Resource Management Director Bill Emlen.

Then the gathering broke into three groups and members of the public talked about their concerns.

Karen Schlumpp of Benicia expressed concern about the time it might take for regulations to be passed and implemented to deal with the new crude-by-rail issues.

“After tonight, I’m feeling like we’re on a huge catchup on a train that’s already rolling,” Schlumpp said.

Katherine Black of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community expressed skepticism that crude-by-rail shipments can be done safely.

“This is too dangerous,” she said. “It’s like preparing for an atomic bomb.”

The meeting lasted for two-and-a-half hours. Participants wrote down their concerns and ideas and turned them into the county.

“This is an essential conversation that needs to happen,” Emlen told the gathering.

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