Vallejo Times-Herald: Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules

Union Pacific, BNSF Railway argue federal law pre-empts state regulations
By Tony Burchyns, October 9, 2014

California’s two major railroad companies filed a lawsuit this week to argue that the state lacks authority to impose its own safety requirements on federally regulated crude oil train traffic.

The lawsuit follows a new state law imposing regulations on the transportation of crude oil by rail in California. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway filed the case Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to argue that federal law pre-empts California and other states from enforcing such regulatory regimes.

“The new state law requires railroads to take a broad range of steps to prevent and respond to oil spills, on top of their myriad federal obligations concerning precisely the same subject matter,” the railroads argue. “UP, BNSF and other members of (the American Association of Railroads) will be barred from operating within California unless a California regulator approves oil spill prevention and response plans that they will have to create, pursuant to a panoply of California-specific requirements.”

The railroads also will be required to obtain a “certificate of financial responsibility” from the state, indicating they are able to cover damages resulting from an oil spill. Failure to comply with the new state rules will expose railroad employees to jail time and fines, according to the lawsuit.

The California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The state law was passed in June following a sharp rise in crude-by-rail shipments in California from 2012 to 2013 and several high-profile oil train derailments in other states as well as Canada. In the Bay Area, crude-by-rail projects in Benicia, Richmond, Pittsburg, Martinez and Stockton have drawn local attention to the prospect of mile-long oil trains snaking through neighborhoods, mountain passes and sensitive habitats such as the Suisun Marsh.

Last week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to Benicia challenging plans to ship 70,000 barrels of crude daily by train to the city’s Valero refinery. Valero is seeking city approval to build a rail terminal to receive two 50-car oil trains daily from Roseville. The train shipments would originate in North Dakota or possibly Canada.

Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, criticized the city for underestimating the project’s safety and environmental risks. The letter was among hundreds received by the city in response to its initial environmental impact report. City officials say they are in the process of responding to all of the comments, and plan to do so before the project’s next, yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing is held.