Once in 111 years? Could be tomorrow…

Repost from The Vacaville Reporter
[Editor: The author convincingly makes the case that when it comes to oil trains, public safety is a roll of the dice.  He then suggests that the only way to win at crude oil craps is to buy insurance and prepare for the inevitable disaster(s).  In his next column, maybe Mr. Kimme will consider a statistically proven casino strategy: don’t play the game.  NOW is the time to say NO to big oil, and to promote, develop, plan for and build clean energy.  – RS]

The odds are, tanker safety needs to be discussed

By Vacaville Reporter columnist Ernest Kimme, 09/22/2014

Many people in Vacaville live in flood plains, and pay flood insurance. The city keeps the flood maps. They show the 50 year flood zones, 100 year flood zones, and 500 year flood zones.

People often believe that means that houses in a 50 year flood zone will flood once every 50 years. If you have a flood, then the next flood will be in 50 years. Sadly, this is incorrect.

Instead, every year, nature rolls a 50 sided dice. If the dice stops with “50” showing, your house gets flooded. If you are lucky, you could roll 100 times (once a year), and never see a “50”. But if you’re not lucky, you might get “50” twice in a row. Or three times in 10 years. Probability is a fickle mistress. You might know the odds, but you just never know what is going to happen each year.

So now let’s talk about train wrecks and oil fires.

The Valero Refinery in Benicia would like to import a lot of oil by train. The trains would start in Roseville, and travel 69 miles to the Benicia Refinery. Part of that journey would be in the Suisun Marsh. Several long trains of tanker cars would make the trip each day. So people have concerns.

Some bright mathematician calculated the odds of a derailment leading to a fire. Without going into the math (your welcome), he found that the odds of a train wreck and oil fire in Solano County were once in 111 years. So every year, the lords of chaos roll a 111 sided dice, and if it comes up “111,” then that year Solano County has a terrible oil fire on the railroad tracks. The fire might not happen for 200 years, or we could have 3 fires in 3 consecutive years. It’s all luck.

For comparison, Vacaville has about 6 to 8 house fires a year. The odds of one particular house — your house — burning are about 1 in 3,500. Take a dice with 3,500 sides you get the idea. Yet we still faithfully pay for fire insurance, and pay taxes for a fire department.

Now, go back and look at the chances of a train wreck, and the chances of a house fire. Did you notice that train wrecks are more likely than house fires?

But let’s not let our knickers get all twisted up — yet. Just like a house fire, oil tanker fires are not likely to happen. We should, however be prepared. We would like the fire department to be able to put them out quickly, if and when they happen.

That’s the rub. Oil fires do not quietly flicker out. They give off big clouds of toxic smoke, often with heavy metals and sulfuric acid in them.

Oil fires burn so hot that firefighters often have trouble getting close. And oil fires need special foams and equipment. Water just spreads it out and makes it worse.

So the obvious question is: Who pays for the extra training for the firefighters and the special equipment? The taxpayers? The refinery? The railroad?

Normally the taxpayers have to pay, and then file claims after the accident in an attempt to recover costs. Usually the railroads carry insurance in case of accidents, so it becomes lawyers arguing with lawyers. Makes you wonder: What if the county got insurance to cover their costs?

We can regret the need for oil and gasoline in our society, and we should make every effort to use less fossil fuel. But until that day, we need to safely transport oil and gasoline. With that in mind, Supervisor Linda Seifert is hosting a community discussion on the tanker trains and safety, Monday, Sept. 29, 6 to 8:30 p.m., in the Supervisor’s Chambers, 675 Texas St, Fairfield. For more information, call her office.

The author is a Vacaville resident and member of The Reporter editorial board.