Trains crisscross California day and night, pulling long strings of tanker cars carrying volatile gas, chemicals and crude oil.
These shipments have long played a key role in powering the state economy, providing materials for medical supplies, computers and fertilizers, as well as fuels for vehicle fleets. But they also pose the risk of catastrophic spills.
Jolted by a series of oil train explosions nationally, including one in Oregon last month, the state this summer has drawn up a list of what it says are the 25 most hazardous materials shipped on rail in California. It plans to impose a new $45 fee later this year on every rail car carrying one of those materials. The money will be used to ramp up the state’s emergency spill and fire response capabilities.
The state Legislature ordered the fee program after a Governor’s Office of Emergency Services analysis found significant gaps in California’s ability to deal with spills, especially in rural and remote areas, such as San Luis Obispo County.
The fee plan is disputed by the state’s major railroad companies that say they think it’s illegal.
When one of these trains derails, it puts lives, property and the economy at risk. And right now, we don’t have surge capacity to deal with a major spill.
State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris
The top 25 list of hazardous materials includes many that are dangerous to humans either by direct contact or because they are highly flammable. They include ammonia, chlorine, propane, butane, fertilizers, acids, petroleum gases and oils.
“When one of these trains derails, it puts lives, property and the economy at risk,” said State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris. “And right now, we don’t have surge capacity to deal with a major spill.”
Because of the secrecy shrouding shipments of
hazardous materials, it is hard to know how big a risk they pose. State safety officials and private shippers refuse to disclose the amount, frequency, routes or timing of hazardous material shipments, citing federal safety regulations and state health and safety law restrictions, as well as concerns about terrorist or other criminal acts.
Even local fire departments typically don’t know in detail what materials are coming through, although they can get some after-the-fact information about hazardous materials that have traveled through their areas if they request it.
However, hazardous materials in train tanker cars can be identified, at least generically, by the identification numbers on diamond-shaped placards displayed on the sides of cars.
City fire chiefs in San Luis Obispo County said keeping track of the trains that traverse the county daily and carry hazardous materials would be an exhausting endeavor.
San Luis Obispo fire Chief Garret Olson said although he does not know which train is carrying which hazardous material at any given time, if a derailment should occur, chief fire officers throughout the state have access to a smartphone application called AskRail, which allows users to input a rail car’s identifier and find out instantly what that car is carrying.
If needed, those officers also have the ability to request manifests from Union Pacific Corp. ahead of time.
California’s planned fee of $45 per train car will pay for the creation of 12 specially trained hazmat teams to be spread out geographically near the “gap” areas where there is a lack of expertise and equipment to deal with major spills, said officials with California’s Office of Emergency Services.
Most will be in the lower Central Valley, on the coast and in Southern California.
In a March 2015 report, the Office of Emergency Services said the region encompassing Monterey, San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties had a “substantial gap” in its ability to respond to a hazardous spill, because its hazmat team had a Type 3 designation, although the area is considered “major high hazard” because of densely populated neighborhoods near the railroad tracks.
50Approximate number of spills in the Roseville railyard in 2015
Paul Lee, a Cal Fire battalion chief and manager of San Luis Obispo County’s Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team, said the state upgraded the region’s team to Type 2 in January after a series of inspections of safety response equipment and team training, which included a multiagency, simulated oil train derailment at Camp San Luis Obispo in October.
As a result, the area will no longer be listed as having a gap in response capabilities, Lee said. A Type 2 designation essentially means the county can respond to “known and unknown chemical” spills, Lee said. A Type 1 designation would require the hazmat team to be able to respond to incidents involving a “weapon of mass destruction,” Lee said.
“Hazardous materials have been coming down the tracks for years,” Lee said. “But we are much better off now than ever before.”
Disputing the fee
Railroad companies contend the proposed fee is illegal under federal law, which prohibits states from putting any constraints on interstate commerce via rail. Under the state’s plan, the companies that own the hazardous materials must pay the fee, but railroad companies must collect the fee from them and convey it to the state.
Union Pacific and BNSF Railway — the two main hazardous materials shippers in California — sent letters to the state last month saying the fee interferes in the railroads’ business dealings with their shipper customers, and they demanded that the state desist.
“These emergency regulations violate federal law; therefore, (California) must abandon the process of adoption,” Union Pacific Assistant Vice President Phillip Christensen wrote. “No state can regulate the rates or charges a railroad collects from its customers. This kind of ‘economic regulation’ is categorically prohibited” by federal interstate commerce law.
Union Pacific officials declined to be interviewed for this story. The company sent an email saying that safety is the railroad’s primary focus when transporting hazardous materials. The email did not say whether the railroad might sue the state to stop the fee.
In San Luis Obispo County, the new fee could cost Phillips 66 more than half a million dollars if its rail-spur proposal is approved.
Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss declined to comment on the proposed fee and what it could mean for the rail-spur project. He said, however, that ahead of the rail-spur project, the company has collaborated with the state Office of Emergency Services and worked with the San Luis Obispo County Hazardous Materials Response Team to be prepared for a potential emergency incident.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents hazardous material shippers, said its members are concerned that California’s actions could lead to dozens of states imposing rail fees, creating what chemistry council spokesman Scott Jensen called a confusing “patchwork” of regulations without certainty about how the money would be spent, beyond creation of some hazmat teams.
Dow Chemical regulatory affairs official Dale Backlund said his company would like the state to meet more with the industry to talk about the best approach to conducting emergency response training.
“Can we slow down the train and think through the implications of this?” he said.
No state can regulate the rates or charges a railroad collects from its customers.
Union Pacific Assistant Vice President Phillip Christensen
Despite such complaints, state Office of Emergency Services officials say they plan to impose the fee later this year, although they expect to continue talking with the railroad companies and shippers about fine-tuning the program.
“It is law now,” said Zagaris, the Fire and Rescue chief. “We are following the law.”
The state plans to collect up to $10 million annually from hazardous materials shippers, to be placed in the Regional Railroad Accident Preparedness and Immediate Response Fund. The fund will be capped at $20 million.
Although hazardous materials also are shipped on highways, the fee is being applied only to rail shipments, mainly because the threat of a major spill incident is greater on rail, Zagaris said.
Assessing the risks
Railroads and hazardous materials shippers argue that the risks of oil and hazmat spills are being overplayed by anti-oil advocates and some community leaders. Very few trains derail, they noted, and most hazardous material spills are small. A crude oil train crash in a Canadian town three years ago, though, unleashed a firestorm that killed 47 people — some in their sleep.
A Sacramento Bee review of the state’s rail spill database found that hundreds of hazardous material spills occur annually. The database represents an incomplete listing, based only on initial reports, not on post-response findings. But it does offer a glimpse at the many types of hazardous materials that run on local rails.
Most spills are small and many happen in railyards around the state, such as the Union Pacific yard in Roseville. There were about 50 reported spills in the Roseville yard in 2015.
Larger spills, though rare, can be devastating to wildlife and rural economies. The most notorious modern rail-related toxic spill in California occurred 25 years ago when a train derailed and spilled 19,000 gallons of the pesticide metam sodium into the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir, killing aquatic life on a 40-mile stretch of the river for years. Rail safety improvements have since been made at a tight rail curve at that spill site.
Tribune staff writer Matt Fountain contributed to this report.
The state wants to impose a $45 fee on rail cars that transport the 25 materials the state considers most hazardous. The list, with the hazard identification number of the materials:
- Acetonitrile 1648
- Alcohols 1987
- Ammonia, anhydrous 1005
- Ammonium hydroxide/ ammonia solutions 2073, 2672, 3318
- Calcium hypochlorite 1748, 2208, 2880, 3485, 3486, 3487
- Chlorine 1017
- Corrosive liquid, basic, inorganic 3266
- Diesel fuel/fuel oil/gas oil 1202, 1993
- Environmentally hazardous substances, liquid 3082
- Ethanol/ethyl alcohol 1170
- Gasoline; when shipped as flammable liquid 1203, 1993, 3295
- Hydrogen peroxide 2014, 2015, 2984, 3149
- Liquefied petroleum gas 1075, 3161
- Methanol/methyl alcohol 1230
- Methyl ethyl ketone 1193
- Nitric acid 2031, 2032
- Petroleum crude oil 1267, 1270
- Phenol 1671, 2312, 2821
- Phosphoric acid 1805, 3453
- Potassium hydroxide/caustic potash 1813, 1814
- Propylene 1075, 1077, 3138
- Sodium hydroxide/caustic soda 1823, 1824, 3320
- Sulfuric acid 1830, 1831, 1832, 2796
- Toluene 1294
- Vinyl acetate 1301
Source: California Office of Emergency Services