Calif. lawmakers assail U.S. officials for timid handling of rail oil shipments

Regional official of the FRA a last-minute no-show at committee hearing


June 20--SACRAMENTO -- State lawmakers, concerned about the safety risks associated with a sixfold increase in crude oil shipments by rail into California, hoped on Thursday to get an update on what the federal government is doing.

But a regional official of the Federal Railroad Administration who had been scheduled to testify before a joint committee hearing regarding crude oil rail transport was a last-minute no-show.

Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said she received a call on the eve of the hearing from a high-level federal administrator in Washington, D.C., informing her that no one from the agency would testify.

It will take coordination between the state and federal governments to protect California from a spike in accidents that has led to fiery derailments and oil spills elsewhere, Pavley noted.

"We don't have that cooperation yet," she said. "There are a lot of things they can do. They need to step up to the plate."

Other lawmakers -- who are mostly powerless to act because they are pre-empted by federal law -- shared her view.

A point of contention is the belief of many state and local officials that information about upcoming shipments of carloads of highly flammable crude oil should be publicly available. But railroads, citing national security concerns, have released that information only to emergency-response agencies, which must agree not to publicly disclose it.

"We've seen what happens when they explode," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. "It sure seems like in California our hands are tied. There's so little we can do."

Jackson asserted that security concerns should dictate public disclosure. "National security means the security of people who live in the nation," she said.

Under pressure from state officials in Montana, it appears federal officials may have decided to relent on that issue.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered railroads to give state officials specifics on oil-train routes, and Montana officials intend to publicly release that information next week.

Rail-oil shipments have skyrocketed across the United States and Canada in recent months because there are no pipelines from which to ship oil extracted from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota.

In the last year, derailments have resulted in fiery explosions in three Canadian provinces and in Virginia, and there have been more rail accidents involving oil spills than over the previous 30 years combined.

In Northern California, the issue has become front-page news in recent weeks, as city officials in the East San Francisco Bay city of Benicia are considering a permit application from a Valero oil refinery that would enable the refinery to accept two, 50-car trains every day.

If that refinery expansion is approved, the trains would wind through a narrow mountain pass in the Feather River Valley, and then pass through the populated corridor from Sacramento to Benicia, passing within a quarter mile of 27 schools.

Similar scenarios could unfold elsewhere around the state, testified Gordon Schremp of the state Energy Commission. He said six refinery projects have been proposed to accommodate rail shipments -- two in Bakersfield, and one each in Benicia, Pittsburg, Santa Maria and the Port of Stockton.

As those projects come on line, Schremp said the commission expects the percentage of oil coming into California by rail to increase from 1 percent today to 23 percent by 2016. Most imported oil now arrives in the state either via marine tankers or by pipeline from Alaska.

A report issued last week by the state's Interagency Rail Safety Task Force lists thousands of miles of track it identifies as "areas of concern," including the Union Pacific line that runs down the Central Coast to Ventura and then bisects Ventura County.

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