Crude Oil By Rail In California: Official Evasions and Omissions
By Paul W. Rea, PhD

Mile-long freight trains are hardly quiet, but somehow a drastic increase in oil trains coming into California has, until very recently, gone largely unheard.

Since 2007, the state has experienced an increase in crude-oil trains of 400%; in 2013, the trains shot up 506%. And the number of trainloads could spike still higher by 2016. These stunning increases mean that railroads and refineries are both expanding, often subjecting the public to additional risks. Increasingly, too, railroads are routing oil trains through urban areas—including the East Bay.

Fire Bombs on Rails These trains commonly include 100 tank cars and run a mile long. And they often carry highly flammable crude of the sort that caught fire in Quebec last year, when 63 tank cars exploded: a firestorm killed 47 people and destroyed much of a town. Here in California, oil-train accidents shot from 3 in 2011 to 25 in 2013. How can all this go on without more attention from the news media and more action from government?

While federal agencies largely control railroad traffic, surely state government has an obligation to protect both the citizens of California and the state’s environment. Last winter, Gov. Jerry Brown finally convened an Interagency Rail Safety Working Group to deal with the oil-train juggernaut.

But rather than asking how much oil trains can haul without posing unacceptable risks to health and safety—and then finding ways to limit their length and number—the Working Group simply recommended safety measures for trains and sought to improve emergency responses. The Group’s report, “Oil by Rail Safety in California” made many recommendations but mandated few regulations:

These recommendations are utterly inadequate to handle current risks, let alone those involved with still more oil trains. The report assumes that environmental damage can be mitigated. But surely the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has seriously challenged our ideas about restoring damaged environments. And tragic experience with forest fires should teach us that the prospect of first responders controlling huge fireballs pouring out toxic smoke is, as the lawyers say, nolo contendere, “no contest.”

The Recent Workshop in Berkeley: Intended to Reassure by Hardly Reassuring. The Rail Safety Working Group didn’t take long to publish a report and even hold a conference. Held in Berkeley on June 22nd, this day-long California Energy Commission’s Workshop was led by top state officials: Energy Commissioner Janea A. Scott, Chair Robert Weisenmiller, and Public Utilities Commission President Michael R. Peevey. Since this event required a full day from highly-paid administrators, it cost taxpayers a lot of money.

The Workshop was highly instructive: one could not only learn about the dangers posed by oil trains but also about the attitudes of state and local officials toward them. In both cases, the basic message was unsettling: “Still more trains will keep coming, but we’re getting more ready for the accidents.” But are rail accidents the only threat? Although arson, terrorism, and earthquakes are always potential threats to infrastructure, especially in California, officials made almost no mention of them.

To describe the event neutrally, one could infer that its main purposes were toinform and reassure the public (especially people living along the East Bay rail corridor) that state and local governments are getting prepared for the increased threats posed by the previous year’s 506% spike in oil trains.
An Opportunity to Promote Official Policies To understand the accepting, often endorsing tone of the event, one might regard it as an expression of the Brown’s administration’s stance on energy production. Much like its support for fracking, the administration has avoided policies that restrict incoming tanker trains, slow “the energy boom,” or otherwise reduce exports and corporate profits.

The morning sessions hewed closely to the party line, finding few problems with the 400% increase in oil trains since 2007. The afternoon sessions, while less overtly welcoming to the energy boom, represented only a slightly more nuanced approach to the spike in crude oil trains coming into California. Throughout the day, mounting dangers to public health and safety—not to mention the environment—were repeatedly underestimated.

Discussion did not include scenarios such as that of an overloaded oil train derailing on an old trestle, polluting highly-sensitive waterways. With increasing frequency, oil trains are traversing such trestles over the 1.7- mile Benicia-Martinez Bridge over the Carquinez Straight and the 1000-foot Clio Trestle spanning the Feather River Canyon. The former was built in 1930, and the latter in 1909. That’s 105 years ago, folks.

Rapidly increasing numbers of mile-long oil trains are rumbling down that canyon, a key source of water for millions of Californians.

The Skeptics Are Marginalized The agenda featured representatives from state agencies plus the oil and railroad industries, but offered very few opportunities for environmental, environmental-justice, or public-health groups. Only toward the end of the day were County Commissioner Caren Ray from San Luis Obisbo and two scientists from environmental groups allowed to present far more realistic—and far more scary—disaster scenarios. All three speakers stressed that responders cannot be fully prepared when they’re denied information about what’s coming down the track.

The public was invited to speak at 5:00—at the very end after most attendees had left—and these speakers were allowed only three minutes. These speakers did, however, raise cogent issues: one suggested that though attendees likely did not consider themselves “climate deniers,” they as a group were ignoring the fact that if all the earth’s coal, oil, and gas were burned, all of us will be “cooked.”

Why would California, a state that prides itself on its environmental policies, be enabling the mining of fossil fuels that, when burned, will aggravate climate change?
Clearly this Workshop was about normalizing the abnormal, about making mile-long trains carrying highly flammable crude seem inevitable and acceptable. The fact that the event was held in the East Bay (and notably in Berkeley) suggested that top state officials are well aware of increasing public unrest as more and more of these trains come into highly urbanized areas.

The Biggest Issues Are Completely Omitted Rather than admit that the US is now awash in an oversupply of oil, speakers from both government and industry left the impression that the crude coming into California would serve the needs of its residents. Tom Umenhofer, Senior Environmental Advisor to the Western States Petroleum Association, asked the audience to believe that “crude by rail [is] needed to supply the Western US.”

These speakers made little mention of the fact that the petroleum industry targeted these refineries because they are situated near deep-water ports—and that, once refined, much of the increasingly low-grade crude is already being exported, mostly to Japan, China, and India.
To listen to these officials, one would hardly glimpse the larger challenge faced by the industry: finding ports up and down the West Coast through which it can ship gas and oil. Resistance to pipelines in Canada has put more pressure on American carriers—notably railroads.

Assuming That Environmental Damage Can Be “Restored” Several presenters from state agencies did acknowledge that additional long and heavily-loaded trains pose risks to public health and safety; however, they also conveyed the notion that more and better trained-first responders were getting ready to handle nearly all exigencies—and that environmental pollution could be “cleaned up” and the ecosystem “restored.”

While presenters did acknowledge that some “high-hazard areas” were not well covered, these were located away from urban areas. While some did speak about “full restoration” of damage, the emphasis was on helping people deal with fires and fumes. Long-term health consequences that so often follow large industrial fires received very little discussion. Nor was there much mention of increased air pollution (particulate matter from trains, toxic fumes from engines and refineries), even if no accident ever occurs. But of course accidents can and do happen.

Presenters made no mention of catastrophic oil spills occurred in the Prince William Sound in 1989 or the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Nor did they make much mention of the risks to California’s dwindling water supply: they talked about the high-hazard tracks above the Feather River, but not about what a the wreck of a hundred-car oil train might do to Oroville Reservoir, which stores a significant part of the state’s water.

While the meeting provided a great deal of useful information, it also showed activists that they are likely to run into resistance at high levels of state government—and to receive the best reception from conscientious local officials.

Public and Private Officials Hummed the Same Tune When representatives of private industry spoke, their priorties the typically echoed those of public officials. An appropriate tension between the regulators and the regulated seemed strikingly minimal.

Tom Umenhofer, Environmental Advisor to the Western States Petroleum Association, reiterated that “crude by rail needs to supply the Western US,” making no mention of the extensive oil and gas exports. He went on to proclaim that “rail safety has been and always will be number one” for the industry he represents. If that were the case, why would railroads be resisting replacement of antiquated tank cars and braking systems?

In so many ways, the Brown administration officials have failed to provide any appraisal of the additional risks to health, safety, and the environment posed by the ever-greater number of oil trains, especially given their greater length, weight, and increasingly flammable cargo.

No one seemed to wonder, How many is too many?”

Paul W. Rea, PhD, is an author and activist in Newark.