Sacramento activists protest the oil and rail industries for transporting potentially dangerous crude on trains

They call expanding the railroad infrastructure for oil transportation as a move backward

Sacramento-area activists opposed to increasing the shipping of potentially dangerous crude oil via train will protest at the local Federal Railroad Administration office this week.

Sacramento-area activists opposed to increasing the shipping of potentially dangerous crude oil via train will protest at the local Federal Railroad Administration office this week.

illustration by brian breneman

Millions of barrels of crude oil are passing through Sacramento on cargo trains destined for the state’s refineries, mostly in the Bay Area and near Los Angeles. Opposition to the escalating shipments is snowballing. Meanwhile, rail companies are ramping up plans to deliver more and more oil by rail in the coming years. Much of the combustible cargo is coming via northern corridors, making the chance of a spill along the Sacramento River a very real danger.

“A spill could cripple the state’s economy,” said Suma Peesapati, a staff attorney with the group Earthjustice, based in San Francisco.

In more urban areas, the risk of explosion threatens millions of people. The Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that in Northern California alone almost 4 million people live close enough to major train tracks that an explosion could injure or kill them.

While Gov. Jerry Brown, recognizing the new environmental threat, has set aside state funds to help with inland oil-spill cleanup efforts, some activists say leaders need to think more about spill prevention, not response.

Around the country, accidents involving oil trains are becoming more frequent, according to a state report titled “Oil by Rail Safety in California.” The most disastrous of these events was a year ago in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 47 people died when a train derailed and the oil it was carrying exploded, incinerating the town center.

This rise in accident rates parallels a sharp increase in oil-by-rail shipments. Trains delivered about 50,000 barrels of crude oil into California in 2009 and 6 million barrels in 2013, according to the state’s report. In 2016, 150 million barrels—almost a quarter of the oil delivered to the state’s refineries each year—will arrive by train. The report also states that “industry is currently investing heavily in rail infrastructure and rail tank cars,” apparently as oil producers plan on moving more and more oil overland by train rather than pipeline.

To Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, this investment is a move in the wrong direction.

“In an age when we’re trying to revert away from dirty fossil fuel use, we don’t think it makes sense to develop the infrastructure to move this oil,” she said.

Much of the incoming crude-oil shipments are of a type called Bakken, which is exceptionally pure and easier for refineries to treat. It is also more vaporous, however, which makes it extremely flammable and potentially dangerous. Bakken oil, most of it sourced by fracking in North Dakota, has been involved in the most publicized of recent large explosions involving derailed oil trains.

Predictably, rail companies are downplaying the chances of serious accidents along their tracks. In a recent risk assessment conducted for the city of Benicia, where plans are advancing to ramp up deliveries by train to the town’s Valero refinery, it was calculated that just one oil train might derail every 111 years on a 69-mile length of tracks between Roseville and Benicia. That calculation factors in two 50-car trains arriving every day and includes spills as small as 100 gallons.

Rail companies have also been reluctant to publicize information about oil shipments. Only after a huge, though nondeadly, explosion occurred along a Virginia rail line in April did the U.S. Department of Transportation order railways to disclose information about any Bakken oil shipments of more than a million gallons to state emergency officials.

Still, the information is not easy to find; it is available on some state websites but still under guard by rail companies. When contacted by SN&R, Lena Kent, spokesperson with BNSF, said she could not provide route information for security reasons. She also declined to provide information on what type of oil and how much of it BNSF is shipping.

But this is precisely the kind of information that must be shared to ensure safety, argues state Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis, who has co-authored legislation that would require rail operators transporting hazardous materials to fund emergency crew training and community preparation for accidents involving spilled, possibly burning, oil. Wolk told SN&R she believes more information must reach emergency responders in communities through which oil trains are passing.

“The people who come into contact with an accident need to have the equipment they need to address it, the right training and strong lines of communication,” Wolk said.

Activists have been quick to note that tragedies and disasters are already occurring simply because of accidents, not terrorist activities.

“The train in Quebec was abandoned by the crew, and it rolled off down the hill,” said Daniel Barth, an independent environmental activist. “It’s not like they were guarding it from vandals.”

Outdated and unsafe tank cars have also been the subject of much discussion. Most oil is currently carried in DOT-111 legacy tank cars, widely considered to be too thin-hulled for carrying potentially explosive materials. The DOT-111 cars have been called “soda cans on wheels” by critics and are being phased out of use. A more advanced car, the CPC-1232, is considered an improvement over the DOT-111. The CPC-1232 car, however, was involved in the fiery explosion in Lynchburg, Va., in April. A newer, safer model has been introduced, but they are not required.

As a preliminary defense move against a rail-side oil spill, Gov. Brown recently signed a new budget that grants state emergency crews access to a $55 million piggy bank that was previously reserved strictly for marine oil spills. Inland oil spills have historically required officials to work with limited resources and staffing, according to Alexia Retallack, spokesperson with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state branch responsible for leading oil-spill cleanups.

“But the new source of funding will allow us to respond rapidly with a fast, vibrant cleanup effort,” Retallack said.

Retallack says marine oil spills are generally easier to manage than inland ones, where steep terrain can impede crew access and moving river waters can disperse spilled oil across large areas. While the governor’s provision of cleanup funding is a gesture in the right direction, Peesapati at Earthjustice feels that planning so far ahead is, in a sense, countereffective.

“We need to talk about prevention, not cleanup,” she said.