Stop that train

Climate change activists want to end rail transport of crude oil through Butte County

Dave Garcia and members of environmental group Chico 350 gathered on the third anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Dave Garcia and members of environmental group Chico 350 gathered on the third anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

Photo by Ken Smith

Last Friday (July 8), about 20 activists gathered at the railroad tracks on First Street in Chico to remember the lives lost in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster and to protest the practice they feel led to those deaths—the transportation of crude oil by rail.

“On that day [July 6] three years ago, 47 people were incinerated,” said Dave Garcia, an organizer for Chico 350, a local chapter of national climate change action group Garcia gave a brief account of the accident, in which a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, causing some of the oil cars to explode.

Since the accident, there have been more than a dozen other Bakken oil train derailments in the North America, with many resulting in explosions and oil spills. The most recent was in Mosier, Ore., where last month several cars jumped the track near the Columbia River Gorge; four exploded, and 42,000 gallons of oil was spilled, some into the river.

Garcia and other speakers at the rail-side rally, including Chico 350 co-founder Jake Davis, said trains carrying the same type of oil through Chico and the Feather River Canyon present significant risks to Chico residents and local water.

“We’re here to announce our intention to stop the movement of crude oil through Butte County,” Davis said. “The tracks we’re standing on run right through the middle of Chico, and we’re less than 100 feet from Chico State, which 20,000 students and faculty attend daily. If one of these trains blew up here, we’d be in big trouble.”

Garcia and some others at the rally are also associated with Frack-Free Butte County, the grassroots group behind the successful ballot initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing. The oil trains—which detractors commonly refer to as “bomb trains”—are a related issue, as some domestic crude oil is extracted from the Bakken Formation of Montana and North Dakota via fracking.

Bakken crude is more volatile than other crude oils due to a higher concentration of flammable liquid gases, such as propane. Increased domestic oil production has led to more oil shipments by rail in recent years.

Speakers noted trains run on a particularly steep and winding track alongside the Feather River, which runs into Lake Oroville, and that the tracks through Chico run along the Sacramento River. Both have been sites of previous derailments. In November 2014, 11 cars carrying corn derailed and fell down a cliff, spilling contents into the Feather River. In July 1991, a derailment on the Upper Sacramento River near Dunsmuir dumped 19,000 gallons of pesticide into that river, causing an ecological disaster.

At the rally, Davis said that “every day, multiple trains with multiple cars” carrying crude oil pass through Chico and the Feather River Canyon.”

But it’s not Bakken crude oil, at least not in Chico at this time, according to Justin Jacobs, director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific, which owns the track through town.

“Union Pacific shipped approximately 89,000 carloads of crude oil on our 23-state network in 2015; 11,396 of those carloads were transported through California,” Jacobs said by email. “We do not move any crude oil in California originating from the Bakken region. Additionally, crude oil currently represents less than 1 percent of our business.”

“We do not release specific information in regard to scheduling for safety and security reasons,” Jacobs wrote in response to questions about the frequency and amount of oil transported through Butte County.

Officials from BNSF Railway, which uses the tracks along the Feather River under a trackage rights agreement with Union Pacific, did not respond to requests for comment on whether Bakken crude oil is currently transported on that line, though it has been in the past.

Chico Interim Fire Chief Bill Hack said local railways are used to ship additional dangerous chemicals as well.

“Trains are the No. 1 transportation method for hazardous materials in our country, and any derailment presents the risk of those materials being released into the environment,” he said. “As we live in a highly populated area, there’s significant potential for accidents.”

Hack said Union Pacific owns 4.5 miles of track running through 13 controlled intersections and over three waterways in Chico. The biggest risk for derailment in Chico is a train colliding with a vehicle, a situation he said happens all too often.

All Chico firefighters have hazardous material and first responder training, Hack said, and 12 are state-certified hazardous material specialists. Special equipment for the Interagency Hazardous Material Response Team is housed at CFD’s Station 5 near the Elk’s Lodge.

Russ Fowler, battalion chief with Cal Fire-Butte County and head of that team, was unavailable for comment at press time, but previously expressed concerns to the CN&R about the safety of transporting oil through the Feather River Canyon (see “Russian roulette on the railways,” Greenways, May 25, 2015). Earlier this year, the department received a $30,000 grant to buy equipment to contain and clean oil spills on water.

While there may be no Bakken oil on local tracks today, oil company Valero plans to expand infrastructure at its Benicia refinery to bring two 50-car trains carrying up to 70,000 barrels of crude oil daily, which the oil company says would include Bakken crude. The Benicia City Council is expected to make a decision on whether to allow the project in September.