Danger on a train: Crude oil traveling through Sacramento needs regulation, transparency

Hundreds of cars of explosive Bakken crude will pass through Midtown, downtown, West Sac and Davis neighborhoods every day

Let the California Public Utilities Commission public adviser (public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov) and the National Transportation Safety Board (www.ntsb.gov/about/contact.html) how you feel about dangerous crude oil being transported via rail through your community.

Imagine for a moment that the Army wants to transport explosives from a depot in Nevada to the Bay Area. And rather than transporting it in specially constructed safe containers with top security, they’re going to put it in empty milk jugs and trundle it down Interstate 80 tied down in the back of old pickups.

Those of us who live along the route wouldn’t be too pleased with that, even if we were willing to acknowledge the necessity of transporting such an item from one place to another.

But that is—even though it sounds extreme—a rough analogy of the process by which crude oil is transported from shale oil fields by rail to refineries in the Bay Area. According to recent news reports, two 50-car trains per day could be transiting rails in Sacramento and the suburbs as soon as the end of this year.

The Valero Refining Company, for instance, plans to route trains through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis. These trains would visit communities along the Interstate 80 corridor, then travel into downtown adjacent to the forthcoming McKinley Village neighborhood. Then, it would cruise parallel to B Street on the north edge of Midtown, past the River District, across the I Street Bridge, and finally through West Sac and Davis on its way to Benicia.

Some of these trains may contain what is called Bakken crude oil, which experts say is more unstable. They also say most trains today aren’t ready to move this oil.

Last January, the National Transportation Safety Board issued guidelines that call for the tank cars used to transport this oil to be upgraded. The NTSB also called for route planning that would avoid populated and environmentally sensitive areas; requirements that carriers have adequate response abilities in the event of an accident, derailment or spill; and audit carriers to ensure that shipments are properly labeled and that the carrier has appropriate plans in place in the event of an incident.

And there have been disasters. The Lac-Mégantic derailment in Quebec was less than a year ago: a 74-car train derailed, exploded, and killed 47 people. It also destroyed a big chunk of that city’s downtown.

Since then, there have been similar incidents across the country, including one in Lynchburg, Va., in April that dumped crude oil into the James River.

We understand that the oil needs to get to the refineries and that rail is an efficient means of transportation. However, the current car stock is inadequate to the task. Even as federal regulators work to create new standards for the tank cars, dangerous crude oil is rolling over the rails in cars that are not up to snuff.

We also worry that California lawmakers and local-government leaders have been kept out of the loop. That shouldn’t happen.

The risk is simply too great. We urge readers to contact the NTSB and the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees rail safety, and tell them that rail shipments of crude oil be transported only in upgraded tank cars and at lower speeds to avoid accidents.

The likelihood of an accident may be small, but the consequences are catastrophic.