Letters to the Editor

Retired Templeton fire chief: Do not understate risk of oil trains

Greg O’Sullivan
Greg O’Sullivan

Columnist John Peschong in his Aug. 23 column “Local responders are up to task” describes the extensive training and dedication of our emergency responders. This (in his opinion) means “emergency medical technicians and fire crews stand ready to protect us from any disaster,” including an oil train derailment and fire.

Having retired from the fire service after 38 years in the profession, as well as being a qualified hazmat technician and hazmat incident commander, I feel I can speak with greater authority about the ability of local responders to respond to an oil train derailment involving a fire and/or spill.

Mr. Peschong is correct when he states that many hours and dollars have been spent to train our emergency responders and they are capable of mitigating most emergencies. What he doesn’t explain is that an oil train derailment involving multicar fires in a highly populated area could result in hundreds of deaths, despite herculean efforts of first responders. For the incident commander of a hazmat incident, the team’s first responsibility is the safety of the public and our responders. In the case of a multiple car derailment involving fire, evacuation would be the highest priority.

If a life hazard exists, efforts focus on fire suppression to protect rescue operations. The area is isolated, and mutual aid as well as other authorities are notified to assist in the emergency. If evacuation has been successful and no further life hazard exists, then, and only then, could tactical decisions be made concerning whether or not fire suppression should be attempted, or whether the fire should be allowed to burn. It should be noted the closest Type 1 or 2 hazmat team is in Santa Barbara County.

Phillips 66 recently delivered beautifully designed surveys to some area residents expounding the virtues of its oil train project. But nowhere does it explain that approval of the project means five oil trains per week coming through San Luis Obispo County, each train pulling 80 tank cars filled with highly flammable Canadian crude oil. (That would be 500 million gallons per year.)

Al Fonzi in his Oct. 9 Viewpoint “Fear campaign against Phillips” declares that the tar sands crude oil (dilbit) Phillips 66 wants to transport from Canada is no more dangerous than the California crude from San Ardo that has been transported through the county by train for several decades. Mr. Fonzi bases this claim on the fact that the Canadian crude and San Ardo crude have similar vapor pressures.

Vapor pressure is only one measure of the hazard of a liquid. Fire professionals are far more familiar with flash point as the main determinant of flammability of a liquid. The flash point of California crude, like that found in San Ardo, ranges 199 to 232 degrees Fahrenheit (MSDS Product 94-0007-02). In contrast, the flashpoint of Canadian crude is reported to be minus 30 degrees (MSDS Heavy Crude/Diluent mix), comparable to gasoline at minus 42 degrees, both of which are considered highly flammable.

Suppose a derailment involves only a spill. What would a single car rupture spilling 30,000 gallons of oil in the Salinas River do to the water supply of Atascadero, Templeton and Paso Robles? The train tracks parallel the Salinas. Mr. Fonzi says opponents of the oil trains are running a “cynical campaign to terrorize the public.”

It is unfair and inaccurate to label the many organizations and individuals who oppose the Phillips 66 oil train project as uninformed, fearful citizens. Opponents of the oil train project include such well-respected bodies as the League of Women Voters, National Education Association and 40 public bodies including city councils, school boards, fire chiefs’ organizations and elected officials, as well as the editorial board of The Tribune.

The final Environmental Impact Report is nearing completion, which will bring the project before the Planning Commission. Because of the serious local and regional safety issues of the project, I agree with and support the League of Women Voters that the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors must “insist upon full and enforceable mitigations” for all risks, and that if these safety requirements cannot be enforced by the county, the project should be denied.

As a retired fire service professional, I believe protecting the safety of communities along the rail corridor outweighs any perceived benefit of the project. Don’t be misled by PR firms (similar to the one John Peschong represents) who are paid to spin the topic for Phillips 66. Please take the time to get the facts for yourself.

Greg O’Sullivan spent 38 years in the fire service, including 12 years as Templeton fire chief. After retiring, he served four years on the Board of Directors of the Templeton Community Services District.

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