Tag Archives: Sacramento River

Plumas Co. Grand Jury: Scathing indictment of hazardous material transportation through Feather River Canyon

Repost from Plumas County News
[Editor:  This Grand Jury report is thorough and well written – an excellent resource and alarming in its analysis.  Its findings and recommendations (near the end of the report) might be a valuable resource for communities everywhere.  There are a number of references to “after-action reports.”   Question for our research: how can concerned citizens obtain such reports?  – RS]

Hazardous material transportation a roulette wheel for potential disaster

Feather Publishing

6/5/2015

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of midterm reports submitted by the 2014-15 Plumas County Civil Grand Jury.

SUMMARY
Early in the morning Nov. 25, 2014, a Union Pacific freight train derailed in the Feather River Canyon just east of Belden, sending 11 railcars full of corn off the tracks and down the steep embankment. In a press statement shortly afterward, a State Office of Emergency Services official was quoted as saying, “We dodged a bullet” because the train was only carrying corn.

Based on a rash of recent derailments and spills of hazardous materials happening throughout the United States and Canada, “a bullet” in fact grossly underestimates the potential devastation, magnitude and scope of the consequences left from these horrific incidents. Luckily, it was only corn that spilled. With the recent surge in crude-by-rail domestic crude oil transports between oil fields in North Dakota, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania and Bay Area refineries through the Feather River Canyon, the aftermath could have wrought far-reaching disaster had it been the high-flammable Bakken crude in the tanker cars.

According to sources, the number of crude-by-rail trains passing through the Feather River Canyon has tripled in number within the past three years. With developments in hydraulic fracking technology coming about in domestic oil fields, the petroleum market has seen a profound shift from importing foreign oil to extracting it in domestic oil fields in the United States. As a result, thousands of jobs have been created and oil prices have plummeted since this recent boon in domestic oil production. In addition, other hazardous chemicals are transported throughout the United States by rail and by truck. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, only the railroads are required to know what’s in the cars they’re shipping.

The grand jury found it extremely important to examine the recent corn derailment other recent crude-by-rail disasters in the U.S. and Canada to determine whether Plumas County agencies and private transportation operators are adequately prepared in “worst-case” scenarios. In respect to the Plumas County corn derailment, because the corn was relatively harmless and could be immediately dealt with without invoking hazardous material protocols, local, state and railroad officials and crews did an excellent job in containment of the spill and clearing and repairing the tracks within the impact area.

As a result of a quick and well-coordinated response, the Feather River Canyon rail route was restored and passing rail traffic three days after the initial derailment. Nonetheless, the grand jury has found the incident to be a practical review for a county hazardous material spill and useful opportunity to compare and contrast the corn spill with other recent more disastrous spills. Plumas County did indeed “dodge the bullet,” and from this incident the grand jury believes it will provide valuable findings and recommendations which may in turn act as a catalyst and cast fresh perspectives and insights on dealing with future potential spills and hazardous material disasters.

BACKGROUND
In review of the Feather River Canyon corn spill Nov. 25, 2014, a total of 11 cars full of raw corn derailed and spilled down a steep embankment near Rich Bar. Luckily, the spill was only tons of kernels and husks, and the incident proved to have had only a minimal impact, environmentally speaking.

The corn spill turned out to be good opportunity to test the Plumas County emergency response system. The incident was first reported by Union Pacific Railroad Dispatch in Omaha, Nebraska, to the Plumas County Warning Center, stating, “12 rail cars close to Rich Bar at Hwy 70 MPM 265 on the Canyon Sub,” and that “12 rail cars loaded with grain derailed, it is unknown whether the cars are upright or on their sides, and that the derailment occurred in a canyon next to a stream or river and it is unknown at this time if the waterway was impacted.”

According to the after-action report on the incident, the State Warning Center notification included the Plumas County sheriff, California Highway Patrol, Plumas County Environmental Health, State Water Quality Board, State Department of Toxics, State Drinking Water, Cal Office of Emergency Services, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The accident occurred around 3 a.m. Nov. 25. By 8 a.m. Union Pacific had placed containment booms 100 feet down the Feather River. Fortunately, none of the cars landed in the river and only a small amount of corn spilled into the river.

One of the important facts that should be emphasized here concerns containment supplies and where they are located. It took roughly five hours for the railroad to have containment booms in place. According the Plumas County officials, Union Pacific does not have any spill containment kits in Plumas County. A formal request from the grand jury was emailed to Union Pacific safety representatives asking about the whereabouts of containment kits — according to their response (the grand jury received a very quick email reply that day), Chico, Roseville and Reno, Nevada, were the closest railroad facilities that had emergency containment kits.

Other revelations from the after-action report revealed that the Union Pacific Railroad Dispatch Center could not pinpoint the exact location in the Feather River Canyon to the Warning Center. In addition, dispatch was not “forthcoming” on what was spilled, although the center did state that the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department was notified that “there were no injuries, no hazardous materials released, and that no assistance was needed.” The corn spill after-action report in its conclusion posted its “corrective actions from railroad incident” review. Some of the recommendations are summarized here:

—Push Union Pacific dispatch for better initial report information.

—Use GPS to pinpoint incident location.

—Coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for any incident in the Feather River Canyon.

—The incident commander for any hazardous materials incident is designated as the primary law enforcement authority.

—Follow Plumas County Hazardous Materials Response Plan.

—The Office of Emergency Services will try to find a local Union Pacific dispatch contact person.

Evidently, the cause of the corn derailment was a section of the railroad track breaking or separating. Ironically, Union Pacific reported that all railroad ties along the Feather River Canyon were replaced in 2013. Union Pacific conducts track inspections at regular intervals and reportedly it conducts Feather River Canyon inspections every three months. Nonetheless, the corn derailment exemplifies that rail accidents can happen at any time.

In respect to the other crude-by-rail spills, the same results were concluded. Train speed was not a factor and rail and bridge inspections were documented before the incidents occurred. The crude-by-rail derailments were all on relatively flat landscapes. The Feather River Canyon route, with its rocky and unstable terrain, is much more prone to outside factors that can lead to derailments.

According to 2013 Plumas County Hazard Mitigation Plan, in 2007 and in 2012 a rockslide struck and derailed passing trains. The 2007 slide derailed 22 rail cars; 20,000 gallons of peanut oil ruptured from several cars and 30,000 gallons of highly flammable denatured alcohol also spilled down the embankment. The 2012 incident was caused by a large boulder that fell onto the tracks and was struck by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train. Over 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the train into the Feather River.

The recent crude-by-rail spills throughout the U.S. showcase the dramatic rise in domestic oil production and rail shipments to coastal refineries. According to railroad data, in 2008 there were reportedly about 10,000 oil cars carrying domestic crude. In 2014, there were over 400,000 crude-by-rail train cars, representing a 4,000 percent increase. Furthermore, the type of crude oil coming from shale deposits from Bakken oil fields (commonly referred as “light crude”) is high combustible. In almost every instance in which trains carrying Bakken crude derail and tanker cars are punctured, fiery detonation results. First responders and emergency service crews can merely watch it burn and concentrate on containment perimeters rather than extinguishing the oil fire. Without sensationalizing a disaster that occurred in another place, had any of the recent oil tanker disasters happened along the Feather River route, particularly at locations near population areas including downtown Portola, Blairsden, Twain and Keddie, where the railroad tracks are relatively close, the extent of the damage could have been far different.

The grand jury would first like to acknowledge as a matter of fact that hazardous chemical hauling is an integral part of our economy. As potentially dangerous as they are, crude oil, gasoline and chemicals are used safely every day. Without them our economy and all the things we do, all the products we require in our daily lives, the way we move would be changed; just about everything revolves around the consumer and the safe use of chemicals and their byproducts.

That being said, the vital role of both the national carriers of hazardous materials and our public safety officials at each level is to make safety the No. 1 priority. Safety, defined here, entails the complete processing of any particular product, from its extraction and refinement to transportation, delivery and ultimate usage.

Railroads carry over 40 percent of our nation’s freight. When conducted safely and securely, commodity transport over rail is proven to be economically the best and most efficient mode of transportation in terms of fuel efficiency, supply chain costs and safety. Intermodal traffic refers to the transport of goods on trains. Today, two major rail companies, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, transport intermodal goods through Plumas County. According to the Union Pacific Railroad, chemical transport is roughly 17 percent of total payload being carried. The breakdown of goods, however, is not representative of actual train payloads. In other words, trains passing through the county could have any number of railcars full of one particular commodity or another and the cars may be full or empty.

The grand jury has found that the mission statements, top priorities, primary focus and action plans are remarkably similar in commitment, scope and language between hazardous material producers, transport carriers and government officials at every level. In other words, everyone directly engaged in the production and distribution of everything delivered over rail, by air or on pavement — as well as their overseers — share a common pledge to make safety their top priority in the public domain and the environment.

In addition, the grand jury has studied the after-action reports of many of the most recent crude-by-rail derailments and public highway chemical transport accidents and learned that in nearly every case, there were inspections completed days or weeks before the incidents, rail and highway speeds were under the mandated limits and handling of the volatile payloads were properly done according to federal safety mandates.

According to official published reports, there has been more oil spilled from trains in the past two years than in the previous four decades. Between 1975 and 2012, around 800,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in the U.S. By comparison, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data, over 1.5 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars.

As a result of the series of ruptures and fires that have recently plagued the U.S., federal regulators are considering higher safety standards and further upgrades such as thicker tanks, rollover protection for chemical carrying tanker cars, electronic braking systems on individual rail cars and increased track inspections.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a notice for crude oil and high-hazard flammable trains tanker cars, calling for a phaseout of the older CTC-111A tanker car (commonly known as the DOT-111). Currently there are still around 300,000 CTC-111A cars still being used throughout the U.S. These tanker cars each generally carry between 20,000 and 30,000 gallons of oil. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation the older CTC-111As have the following safety flaws:

—Thin skins: Upon derailment, tanks often rupture.

—No head shields: Shields on both ends of tanker cars can prevent puncturing during collisions.

—Poor protection over valves and fittings.

—Lack of pressure relief devices for boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions.

In short, the older CTC-111A tanker cars were not designed for hauling flammable materials.

The new replacement tanker car, called the CPC-1232 (CPC is a railroad industry standard that stands for casualty prevention circular), features new standards for hazardous material railway transport. As of November 2011, all new tank cars built for transporting crude oil and ethanol must follow new standards, including half-height shields, thicker tank and head material, normalized steel, top fitting and gauge protection and recloseable pressure relief valves.

As of March 2015, there are reportedly 60,000 of the newer CPC-1232 tanker cars hauling crude in the U.S. In response to all the recent crude-by-rail derailments, Union Pacific, CSX and Burlington Northern Santa Fe have all stepped up in increased safety inspections and adapting new safety standards. The railroads are now relying on distributed power units, which place locomotives in the middle and/or both ends of the trains. Studies show that placing power locomotives on both ends and in the middle enhances safety because it even spreads physical forces on the train.

This revelation is significant — the 1991 Dunsmuir toxic chemical derailment was caused by this very reason. The power locomotive was placed in the rear of a 97-car train and light and empty cars flanked a full tanker car filled with 19,000 gallons of metam sodium. The investigation of the Dunsmuir disaster found that because all the power was placed at the rear of the large train, the uneven power distribution caused the train to buckle.

Metam sodium is a soil fumigant. When it spilled into the upper Sacramento River — because of poor containment action and the nature of toxicity of the chemical — it killed every plant and fish for approximately 40 miles downstream.

Railroads also use wayside electronic detectors to monitor railroad tracks. New safety detecting technology is also being used in their prevention and risk reduction process that features use of lasers and ultrasound to identify rail defects.

The grand jury has learned that many of the hazardous material railcars do not belong to the rail carrier but to the company producing and transporting the product. For example, most of the older CTC-111A and newer CPC-1232 tanker cars are actually owned by the crude oil fracking companies and refineries.

The number of trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials is actually based on sheer economics. For example, in 2014, when oil prices hovered around $100 a barrel, the price sent domestic oil production to an all-time high. Crude-by-rail oil shipments though Plumas County increased substantially as coastal refineries in Martinez and Benicia purchased more oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and other domestic oil fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

DISCUSSION
The grand jury chose a review of several recent U.S. crude-by-rail derailments for comparative reasons. The after-action reports provide valuable findings and recommendations from disasters that can happen anywhere, anytime. The reports are particularly invaluable to first responders, and public safety agencies.

After-action reports detail each incident from the time of the initial report that entails the scope and severity of the incident. In response to the above disastrous incidents, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a “call to action” in January, calling on “rail company executives, associations, shippers and state and federal agencies to discuss how stakeholders can prevent and mitigate the consequences of rail accidents that involve flammable liquids.”

The grand jury also believes that examining the recent corn spill in Plumas County and comparing it with the way other derailments were handled can lead to information and recommendations that enhance and hopefully improve upon the vanguards (prevention, preparedness, response, recovery) of any future local potential disaster.

The tenets from the PHMSA call to action report produced similar recommendations — a strategic approach that promotes “effective preincident planning, preparedness, response, outreach and training.” One important point that the grand jury kept hearing was a difficulty and lack of communication between the railroad and local emergency management officials. One of the key elements the PHMSA call to action report specifically addresses is the absolute need for interaction and relevant guidance to first responders and local emergency management teams to “safely and effectively manage incidents.”

The report also called for preincident planning and communication with all organizations to learn about what is being transported. Emergency response teams must have the training to safely contain and protect themselves and the contaminate zone affected. The need for a local hazmat team cannot be overemphasized.

The following crude-by-rail disasters summarized in this grand jury report illustrate some of the potential circumstances other public safety agencies have had to deal with. Despite all the mandated safeguards dealing with hazardous material hauling, i.e., safe speeds, upgraded rail cars, railcar and track inspections, specialized training, etc., accidents can happen anytime and anywhere within transportation routes of hazardous materials.

Plumas County and the surrounding 12 counties in northeastern California lie within Region 3 of the State Emergency Services System. At the time of this report, Plumas County has no hazmat team. Upon any need for hazmat response, Plumas County must contact nearby Butte or Shasta teams. In more serious incidents, Plumas County would have to enlist state or federal emergency service agencies.

Lac-Megantic, Canada: In July 2013 a train carrying 72 tank cars full of crude oil exploded after the train braking system released, sending the unmanned train on a downhill run into the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The runaway train crashed into a crowded downtown pub, killing 47 people and destroying over 30 buildings. According to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the train had been idling and unmanned for over seven hours and the emergency braking system disengaged. The train then rolled down the tracks for several miles, picking up speed and eventually derailing into downtown Lac-Megantic. Of the four disaster crude-by-rail spills mentioned in this report, the results from the official investigation determined that sheer neglect (train left running and unattended and braking system released, causing a runaway unmanned train) was the primary factor in the disaster.

Aliceville, Alabama: A 90-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in November 2013 and exploded. Nearly 750,000 gallons of its 2 million gallon load spilled in wetlands in Alabama. Officials still assail cleanup operations today and report that containment booms and absorbent products were ineffective.

Lynchburg, Virginia: In April 2014 a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the James River. Oil fires from the ruptured tanker cars burned for two days. Reports indicate that the tanker cars were all the new CPC-1232 model.

Casselton, North Dakota: In December 2013 a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train hauling grain derailed and fell across another set of tracks. Shortly after, a crude oil train heading in the opposite direction struck the derailed cars and derailed itself. Several tanker cars exploded. A slow response to the first incident set up the chain of events for the explosive second incident.

Montgomery, West Virginia: In February 2015 a train carrying crude oil in West Virginia derailed sending 27 tanker cars off the tracks. Twelve of those rail cars exploded, not at once, but randomly for up to 12 hours. The cause is still under investigation.

In the event of a local hazardous material disaster, the Plumas County Office of Emergency Services is notified and it determines the scope and magnitude of the incident and then contacts the Plumas County Board of Supervisors. Depending on the incident assessment of the Plumas County OES, the BOS has the authority to officially declare an emergency, which allows the Plumas County OES to request help from relevant local, state and federal agencies.

Through leadership and partnership with all first responders, each incident goes through a foundational process that includes prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The first three steps of the mitigation process rely on the safe containment of the hazardous material as quickly as possible with a special focus on protecting human life (isolate, deny entry, protect life safely, mitigate). The recovery phase, however, can last for years. The Dunsmuir toxic spill, for example, seriously impacted the area for several years after. At the time of this report, the crude-by-rail spills were all still in the recovery phase. Fortunately, the Plumas County corn derailment had a minimal effect on the environment. The first three phases of emergency services mitigation at the corn spill served as a great training exercise for all agencies and first responders involved.

Recovery, in this case, was at a minimum in terms of environmental impact.

In regard to Plumas County hazmat, the grand jury has learned that the county must rely on local volunteers to devote their time as first responders.

Plumas County has had a difficult time finding enough volunteers to cover the entire county, and retaining volunteers after hazmat certification and specialized training has not worked out. All the local fire districts within Plumas County have been actively seeking volunteers.

FINDINGS
F1) The grand jury finds that communication between Plumas County public safety agencies and railroad officials is profoundly inadequate.

F2) The grand jury finds that the lack of spill and containment equipment along rail routes in Plumas County poses a direct threat to public safety and the natural environment.

F3) The grand jury finds that relying on hazmat response teams from surrounding counties compromises response times and threatens Plumas County public safety and natural resources.

F4) The grand jury finds that the lack of training of first responders concerning hazardous materials that they may have to deal with could have profound consequences.

F5) The grand jury finds that population centers within Plumas County that are in close proximity to railroads have grossly inadequate protection resources.

RECOMMENDATIONS
R1) The grand jury recommends Plumas County Emergency Services and the Plumas County Environment Health Agency establish direct local contact with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe and any hazardous material carrier that operates within the county.

R2) The grand jury recommends that Plumas County negotiate with railroad officials to have spill containment booms and absorbent kits in key strategic storage facilities in Plumas County.

R3) The grand jury recommends that the BOS find the means to provide hazmat training and certification to in-county first responders.

R4) The grand jury recommends more hazardous material training between first responders and all those involved in mitigating hazardous material disasters. Union Pacific, for example, offers tank car safety training in Roseville at the California Office of Emergency Services Specialized Training Institute every year. The training involves practically all aspects of hazardous material incident mitigation.

R5) The grand jury recommends that the BOS and Plumas County OES conduct a “what-if” evaluation for population centers within Plumas County that are within potential “blast zones” of crude-by-rail tanker cars.

    Pittsburg CA: Critics blast proposed oil terminal, even without Bakken crude trains

    Repost from The Contra Costa Times
    [Editor:  Significant quote: “WesPac officials said they dropped inbound crude oil shipments by rail from their plans for several reasons, including public sentiment against it, an unstable regulatory environment surrounding those shipments, and drops in crude oil prices that have made such shipments less economically viable.”  – RS]

    Pittsburg: Critics blast proposed oil terminal, even without Bakken crude trains

    By Sam Richards, 04/07/2015 12:31:04 PM PDT

    PITTSBURG — Train loads of Bakken crude oil are no longer in the plans for a proposed oil storage terminal near the waterfront, but that does not mean the project is being welcomed to town with open arms.

    The City Council voted 5-0 Monday night to approve amending the environmental report for WesPac Midstream LLC’s proposed Pittsburg Terminal Project, which would renovate and modernize a long-dormant PG&E tank farm between West 10th Street and the Sacramento River waterfront.

    The key change is that the five previously planned 104-car trains of domestic oil, mostly the volatile Bakken crude, are no longer part of the project. The new EIR will reflect that.

    Councilman Sal Evola stressed that the vote reflected the council’s desire for “the process” to play out and fully vet the proposal.

    “Every project at least deserves its fair process,” Evola said. “I’m all for preserving our industrial base, but we have to do it safely, and fair process is needed.”

    Others were less interested in process, saying the WesPac proposal to bring an average of 242,000 barrels of crude or partially refined crude oil to be unloaded daily from ships and from pipelines, and stored in 16 tanks on 125 acres, is a problem for various reasons.

    Speakers told the council that vapors from the storage tanks, the possibility of spills into the Sacramento Delta and the danger of the tanks exploding — all near hundreds of downtown homes — are potential issues, and that the project should simply be rejected.

    “The only way you can mitigate this project is not do it,” said Willie Mims, representing the NAACP and the Black Political Association.

    And though some at the meeting Monday night are grateful that WesPac that no longer plans to bring crude oil to the terminal by rail, others told the council that leaving out rail shipments doesn’t come close to salvaging the project. Some 30 people holding up “No WesPac” signs or wearing similar T-shirts crowded the council meeting.

    Without the trains, the Pittsburg Terminal Project would now take oil from ships and a pipeline from the Central Valley and store it for later processing by refineries in Martinez, Benicia, Rodeo and Richmond.

    Pamela Aranz of Antioch, representing the group Global Community Monitor, was one of several speakers who criticized the WesPac proposal as a dinosaur — old-fashioned, with increasingly outmoded technology. Others said the oil terminal would be at cross purposes with a nicely developing downtown area. Developing wind and/or solar power on that land, Aranz and others said, would make better sense.

    Plans for the Pittsburg Terminal Project, first proposed in 2011, had been dormant for the past year, after local groups like Pittsburg Defense Council had protested the prospect of trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil rolling in to the city. Communities across the United States — including Pittsburg, Richmond and Berkeley — have come out in opposed to crude by rail shipments through their cities after several high-profile derailments, including one in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people and destroyed part of that city.

    The new environmental report, to be paid for by WesPac, will replace an earlier one that was criticized in 2014 by the state Attorney General’s office because it did not suitably analyze air pollution impacts, address the risks of accidents involving storing and moving oil, consider the project’s climate change impacts, and consider a “reasonable range of alternatives” that could reduce impacts. WesPac officials said they dropped inbound crude oil shipments by rail from their plans for several reasons, including public sentiment against it, an unstable regulatory environment surrounding those shipments, and drops in crude oil prices that have made such shipments less economically viable.

    If the needed approvals come at a typical pace, renovation work at the old PG&E tanks could begin in early 2016, and likely would take between 18 and 24 months.

    Representatives from several area labor union locals supported moving ahead with the environmental study. Some said Monday night they wanted the jobs, both to rebuild the terminal and to operate it. Others said they favored the environmental process determining whether the terminal would be a safe place for union workers to be.

    That, Evola said, is one benefit of continuing the process. “We want to be overly transparent,” he said.

    That is fine with Lisa Graham and other members of Pittsburg Defense Council.

    “We’ll be shining a bright spotlight on the project in the coming months,” she said.

      Are California foie gras, oil train court cases on parallel tracks?

      Repost from McClatchyDC News
      [Editor: Despite the curious analogy to foie gras, this is a SERIOUS discussion of Federal pre-emption and California’s attempt to regulate crude by rail.  Apologies for the auto-play video.  – RS]

      Are California foie gras, oil train court cases on parallel tracks?

      By Curtis Tate, January 15, 2015
      US NEWS RAIL-SAFETY 1 WA
      On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. CURTIS TATE — TNS

      WASHINGTON — Perhaps the only imaginable connection between trains and foie gras, the famous French delicacy obtained by force-feeding duck or geese to fatten up their livers, would be as an appetizer in the dining car of the luxury Orient Express.

      Ah. Pas vrai.

      A California court recently overturned the state law against selling foie gras because poultry regulation is a federal concern. And that’s just what the railroad industry is arguing about a state law enacted last year requiring it to develop oil spill response plans.

      The law came about as an expected increase in crude oil transported to California by rail raised concerns about public safety and emergency response.

      Like the restaurants that serve foie gras and the industry that supplies it, railroads have decided they won’t be forced to swallow a state law that they think is pre-empted by a federal one.

      In the foie gras case, a producer and a restaurant that served it argued that California’s attempt to choke off sales ran afoul of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act. Last week, a U.S. district judge agreed, citing the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the ability to displace state laws.

      Similarly, the Association of American Railroads, the rail industry’s principal advocacy organization, and two of California’s major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, argue that the Federal Rail Safety Act derails the state’s oil spill response requirements.

      According to some attorneys who know the issue well, California’s law is heading to the end of the line.

      “I don’t think the court will struggle with this,” said Kevin Sheys, a Washington attorney who advises railroads but has no involvement in the California case. “The law will be struck down.”

      Environmental groups, however, argue that other federal laws apply to the railroads. Patti Goldman, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group, said the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, the latter passed in response to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, gave states the power to enact stricter oil spill response requirements than federal ones.

      That’s in contrast to the Federal Rail Safety Act, which doesn’t allow states much room to exceed what’s required at the federal level. A court decision that weighs more heavily on the rail safety act would favor the railroads. A reliance on federal water pollution laws would favor the state.

      “The structures for pre-emption in there are almost polar opposite,” Goldman said. “The federal government sets a minimum standard, and the states can go further. All of that is a structure that is meant to preserve state authority.”

      Sometimes pre-emption works in California’s favor. Opponents of the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail system tried to slow down the project by arguing that it was subject to the California Environmental Quality Act and required extensive impact reviews.

      But in a 2-1 ruling last month, the federal Surface Transportation Board said the project was exempt from the state law. Last week, state and federal officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, broke ground on the project in Fresno.

      As a more practical matter, railroads have largely prevailed in pre-emption cases because courts have been sympathetic to the notion that a patchwork of 50 different state laws could unreasonably burden interstate commerce.

      In a notable case in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, a federal court struck down a local law that prohibited the shipment of hazardous materials by rail within two miles of the Capitol. A busy CSX freight line runs only blocks away, and the law would have forced lengthy and expensive detours of hazardous cargo.

      But a massive increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail in recent years, and with it an increase in high-profile accidents, has exposed gaps in safety and emergency preparedness. California is bracing for a big increase in crude by rail, and last year the legislature extended the state’s oil spill response requirements to cover inland waterways.

      That, naturally, affected railroads, which historically followed rivers because of the level terrain for heavy trains, including California’s Feather and Sacramento rivers.

      The Association of American Railroads declined to comment on the California case, but spokesman Ed Greenberg noted that railroads “have extensive emergency plans in place, which include procedures in working with local first responders” and have “stepped-up emergency response capability planning and training.”

      David Beltran, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who’s defending the law, wouldn’t comment on the case beyond what’s in court filings.

      State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, said the attorney general’s office had assured him that the law wouldn’t be pre-empted when it came before his committee last year.

      “We feel comfortable based on the legal opinions we have,” Hill said.

      He thinks it’s premature to predict that the law will be invalidated. But Hill said that he and others who supported it should be prepared for that outcome.

      “Everyone would regroup and try to find a way to meet the goals that we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

      Harris, who’s said she’ll run next year for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer, also defended the foie gras ban. She tried to have that suit dismissed by arguing that she had no present intent on enforcing the law while reserving the right to do so.

      That prompted a quip from Judge Stephen Wilson in his 15-page ruling striking it down: “Defendant seeks to have her paté and eat it, too.”

      Harris made a similar argument in the rail case.

      “I think it’s going to be decided the same way,” said Mike Mills, an oil and gas attorney in Sacramento. “I don’t see a different outcome.”

      Mills said the California case might put a federal solution on a faster track.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in August for a new regulation that would require railroads hauling crude oil to have comprehensive oil spill response plans. The rule would apply uniformly across all states, and it would achieve what California tried to do on its own.

      “Oftentimes, litigation will produce a decision that forms the basis for new legislation,” Mills said. “Potentially, it could happen.”