KFBK News Radio: How safe is Sacramento?

Repost from KFBK News Radio, Sacramento CA
[Editor: Two part series, both shown below.  Of particular interest: a link to 2014 California Crude Imports by Rail.  Also, at the end of the article an amazing Globe and Mail video animation detailing the moments leading up to the devastating explosion in Lac-Megantic Quebec.  – RS]

Part 1: How Safe is Sacramento When it Comes to Crude-by-Rail?

By Kaitlin Lewis, January 16, 2015

Two different railroad companies transport volatile crude oil to or through Sacramento a few times a month. The trains pass through Truckee, Colfax, Roseville, Sacramento and Davis before reaching a stop in Benicia. Last week, a train carrying the chemical Toluene derailed in Antelope.

KFBK’s Tim Lantz reported that three cars overturned in the derailment. There was initially some concern about a possible Hazmat leak.

Union Pacific Railroad insists over 99 percent of hazardous rail shipments are handled safely.

Most of the oil shipped in California is extremely toxic and heavy Canadian tar sands oil, but an increasing portion of shipments are Bakken crude, which has been responsible for major explosions and fires in derailments.

Firefighters around the region are being trained on how to respond to crude oil spills.

However, Kelly Huston with the California Office of Emergency Services says 40 percent of the state’s firefighters are volunteers.

“They’re challenged right from the get-go of being able to respond to a catastrophic event like a derailment, explosion or spill of a highly volatile compound like crude oil,” Huston said.

Since 2008, crude by rail has increased by 4000 percent across the country.

By 2016, crude-by-rail shipments in California are supposed to rise by a factor of 25.

Union Pacific Railroad hosted a training session in November 2014.

Six out of the eight state fire departments listed as having completed the course confirm they were there.

“We were trained in November,” Jerry Apodaca, Captain of Sac City Fire, said.

When asked when he received the first notification of crude oil coming through, he said he didn’t have an exact date, but that it was probably a month or two prior to the training — in September or October.

Apodaca says the U.S. Department of Transportation requires railroads to notify state officials about Bakken oil shipments.

“Basically it just says in this month’s time, there should be 100,000 gallons going through your community. So it didn’t really specify when, or where, or how many cars or what it looks like,” Apodaca said.

And Paul King, rail safety chief of the California Public Utilities Commission, says it’s not easier to distinguish which lines transport Bakken oil through an online map.

“It was hard to interpret and it was too gross. Basically, the whole state of California on an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper with what appears to be a highlighter pen just running through the counties,” King said.

See a map of North American crude by rail.
California rail risk and response.
2014 Crude Imports by Rail

PART 2: How Sacramento’s First Responders Will Deal with Oil Spill

KFBK told you Sacramento’s firefighters were being trained on how to respond to a crude-by-rail derailment after shipments had already been going through the region in Part 1.

In Part 2, KFBK’s Kaitlin Lewis will tell you how Sacramento’s first responders will handle a possible oil spill, and what caused that train derailment along the Feather River Canyon.

It’s called a bomb train.

On July 6, 2013, 47 people were killed in Canada when a 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed.

About 30 buildings in the  Lac-Mégantic downtown district were destroyed. The fire burned for 36 hours.

“If we have a derailment and fire of crude oil, fire departments are going to throw large quantities of water and foam to cool the tanks and to put a blanket on the liquid that’s on the ground to help smother that fire,” Mike Richwine, assistant state fire marshal for Cal Fire, said.

Richwine says that’s the only operation for a spill/fire.

In December, 11 cars carrying corn derailed along the Feather River Canyon.

Paul King, rail safety chief of the California Public Utilities Commission reveals the cause was a rail line break.

“That was probably the most concerning accident because that just as well could have been one of the Bakken oil trains, the corn, you know, ran down the bank. It was heavy, and it consequently does put more force on the rail, but it’s about the same weight as an oil train,” King said.

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific says California has more than 40 track inspectors and 470 track maintenance employees.

“In addition to that, cutting edge technology that we put in to use for track inspection. One of those technologies is our geometry car. It measures using lasers and ultrasonic waves, the space between the two rails — makes sure that space is accurate,” Hunt said.

But Kelly Huston, deputy director of California’s Office of Emergency Services says the real challenge is preparedness in remote areas like the Feather River Canyon, which is designated as a High Hazard Area due to historic derailments.

“In some more metropolitan areas, your response may be quicker and they’ll have that gear and the training and knowledge of, like, how do we fight this kind of fire? And in some areas, like in the more remote areas like we talked about in the Feather River Canyon there’s going to be perhaps maybe volunteer firefighters that have the basic equipment,” Huston said.

The Feather River feeds the California Water Project, which provides drinking water for millions of Californians. The nearest first responder is Butte County Fire Department, which is approximately 31 miles away.