Railroad blames local company for derailment; handbrakes not set

Repost from the Contra Costa Times
[Editor: Significant quote: “‘…if they didn’t set those handbrakes before they decoupled those eight, they could start rolling. And that looks like what happened,’ said Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa county’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer.”  – RS]

Union Pacific Blames Local Company for Martinez Train Derailment

By Ted Goldberg, January 28, 2016

Update, 3 p.m. Thursday: The company handling three tanker cars that derailed in Martinez last week failed to apply enough brakes, according to a report that Union Pacific filed with the Federal Railroad Administration.

When the firm, Eco Services, pulled eight cars into its plant near the Benicia Bridge last Wednesday, a dozen other cars they were separated from began rolling away and under Interstate 680.

“There’s handbrakes on the cars to keep the cars stationary, and if they didn’t set those handbrakes before they decoupled those eight, they could start rolling. And that looks like what happened,” said Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa county’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer. “It is a cause for concern.”

The Union Pacific report also found that the incident caused more than $13,000 in damage.

Eco Services, Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration have yet to comment.

Original post: The California Public Utilities Commission has opened an investigation into the derailment of three tanker cars carrying oil-refining chemicals in Martinez last week.

The CPUC’s probe of the incident just south of the Benicia Bridge comes amid new disclosures that the company in charge of the train at the time lost control of a dozen cars carrying spent sulfuric acid just before the derailment.

And county officials say the local agency in charge of responding to hazardous material incidents was not notified about the derailment until two hours after the cars left the tracks.

The company that was handling the material was Eco Services. Union Pacific delivered 20 tanker cars to the firm’s plant in Martinez on Jan. 19.

Early the next morning Eco Services workers began moving eight of the cars into its processing facility, according to a company incident report filed with county officials this week.

“As soon as the separation took place, the remaining 12 cars started rolling southward and down gradient toward Marina Vista Ave[nue],” wrote Anthony Koo, a senior environmental engineer at Eco Services.

The fact that a dozen rail cars carrying chemicals were briefly out of control near a busy freeway, Interstate 680, and one of the region’s major bridges prompted concern from the county’s chief environmental health and hazardous materials officer, Randy Sawyer.

The tanker cars “were moving when they weren’t supposed to be moving,” Sawyer said in an interview. “I would think they would have some kind of braking system that would keep them from doing that.”

According to the report, the three cars that left the tracks first passed under the I-680 overpass before hitting a derail device just west of the structure.

Sawyer said that device is a safety feature designed to prevent rail cars from entering a main track and colliding with a moving train. That safety system worked. No chemicals leaked from the three derailed cars, and no one was injured.

Sawyer also expressed concern about the delay in notifying his agency — a process that took nearly two hours.

“We would expect notification sooner,” he said.

According to the Eco Services report, the derailment occurred at 6:45 a.m. on Jan. 20. The company says it notified Union Pacific 17 minutes later.

Sawyer said the rail company then contacted the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which then sent the county an email about the incident at 8:33 a.m.

Eco Services said it made a “courtesy call” to the hazardous materials program just over an hour after that.

The delayed notification was most likely because no hazardous materials spilled, but “they did not notify us as quickly as we would have wished,” Sawyer said.

The CPUC, meanwhile, is looking into whether Eco Services or Union Pacific were following state regulations at the time of the derailment, that agency’s spokeswoman, Constance Gordon, said in an email.

Eco Services has not returned calls for comment.

A Union Pacific spokesman says the company will cooperate with the CPUC in its investigation.