Update, Friday, July 25: On Wednesday, the federal Department of Transportation proposed new regulations aimed at improving the safety of trains carrying oil.
Original story (Monday, July 21):
The number of trains carrying crude oil across California is increasing rapidly, and two official reports say the state is not ready. Regulators are preparing, with funds for disaster response and more track inspectors, but they’re limited in how much they can do to make rail transport safer.
"My view is it's pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state," said Paul King, deputy director for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).
"These trains explode," King said. "If that were to happen in a town, there's no telling the damage. And of course we know what happened in little Lac-Mégantic." That's the town in Quebec where a train carrying crude from North Dakota's Bakken formation derailed last July. The explosion killed 47 people.
Bakken crude is volatile. In the past year, trains transporting crude from the Bakken have also exploded in North Dakota, Virginia and Alabama.
Trains carrying Bakken crude traverse California, too, bringing the oil to refineries here. And while the CPUC regulates rail in California, the state can't actually do much when it comes telling the railroads how they can operate. Almost all of those rules are up to the federal government.
'Our Hands in California Are Tied'
The state can't set speed limits on crude oil trains. It can't tell railroads to choose less hazardous routes. It can't tell oil companies not to bring trains carrying the volatile crude through cities. It can’t tell oil companies to ship that crude in stronger tank cars. It can't require upgraded braking systems.
Neither can local governments, though the cities of Davis, Richmond and Berkeley have all passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the transport of crude oil by rail.
"I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities," State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a democrat from Santa Barbara, said at a hearing last month.
Trains carried nearly 6.3 million barrels of oil into California in 2013. That's more than five times more than in 2012. According to the California Energy Commission, by 2016 that number could balloon to more than 100 million barrels.
That's because there's an oil boom in the middle part of the continent, and to get that crude from Alberta and North Dakota to California, oil companies have to use trains.
Steps Towards Safer Shipping
There are ways to make the trains safer.
Most of the tank cars used to transport crude oil, including the volatile Bakken crude, are old, and can't protect against explosions. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada required that the most dangerous of the cars -- the same tank cars that carry as much as 82 percent of crude oil in the U.S. -- be removed from service, and that the rest be retrofitted.
The U.S. is considering stricter tank car standards. Last week, the advocacy group Earthjustice sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging the agency to move faster by issuing an emergency order immediately banning the use of the unsafe cars.
But California can't require any of this. The CPUC intends to urge the DOT to "move expeditiously" to update its tank car regulations. That, and other recommendations, are laid out in a recent report on crude-by-rail safety in the state. The state wants the feds to require that there be newer braking technology on oil trains and a GPS-based system that prevents accidents on oil train routes. According to King, the CPUC will submit those recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration soon.
The railroads have already adopted some voluntary safety measures, including lower speed limits and increased track inspections. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the company that is currently transporting large amounts of Bakken crude in California, is asking railcar manufacturers to submit bids to build 5,000 safer cars. (The railroads typically don't own the cars used to ship material; the oil companies themselves either own or lease them.)
The CPUC has done one of the main things it can: hire more railroad safety inspectors. The CPUC keeps a list of the most hazardous sections of track, and according to a recent report, the most frequent cause of derailments at those sites are track problems. The new state budget adds seven positions, bringing the CPUC's inspection staff to 38. CPUC staff checks all the tracks in California once a year and, going forward, will check the tracks on Bakken oil train routes twice a year.
A Past Disaster
California once tried to introduce stricter railroad regulations.
In July, 1991, a train derailed in Northern California at a bend in the track where it crosses the Upper Sacramento River, near the town of Dunsmuir. It spilled 19,000 gallons of a pesticide called metam sodium into the river.
"It killed everything down to the bacteria," said Mark Stopher, who was hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the damage to the river.
The poison killed more than a million fish, and every insect and plant in the river for 40 miles. "Nobody's ever seen anything like that before," he said. In video from the time, you can see fish struggling to escape the river and get into tributaries. Stopher said they all died.
"It was kind of a blow to the heart to lose the river," said Phil Dietrich, executive director of a conservation group called River Exchange.
The Upper Sacramento had been a popular fishing destination. So when the fish were gone, the tourists, and their money, disappeared too.
But it was a pulse of poison; metam sodium doesn’t linger. A few years later, the fish were back. The tourists are back, too. It could have been worse, if what spilled had been a substance that lasts in the environment for a longer time. Oil, for instance.
After the accident, the CPUC tried to require stronger track at Cantara Loop, to keep it from happening again.
"We were trying to adopt regulations where there were none," said King. But they couldn't. The railroad sued the CPUC, and eventually the court sided with the railroad, reinforcing the Federal Railroad Administration's jurisdiction. There is a large rail in place on the bridge now, to help keep trains from derailing into the river. According to the CPUC, there have been four derailments in the area since 2009.
"Our role is limited," King said. "Our role is to ensure that the regulations that the federal government has in place are followed."
Beefing Up Clean-Up
Even if the the state can't do all it wants to keep an accident from happening, it can prepare to respond to one.
In June, dozens of fire fighters, public health experts and Red Cross volunteers gathered near Cantara Loop to run a drill. The scenario was that an oil train had collided with an illegal marijuana grower's truck at the site of the '91 spill. The truck wrecked, and the train derailed and spilled oil into the river.
Firefighters pulled the casualties (volunteers marked with paint) away from the scene, a helicopter brought tools to treat people who'd been doused in dangerous chemicals and a team deployed a drone to get a view of the (largely imaginary) disaster scene from above.
"We want to make sure California's prepared to respond," said Alexia Rettalack of California's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). "Spills happen. When product moves, things happen."
OSPR got more money in this year's budget, so that it can prepare for inland oil spills. Until now, the agency focused only on marine accidents. The state Office of Emergency Services is also looking for ways to better prepare emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers, for an oil train explosion. And state lawmakers are considering a couple of crude-by-rail bills that would improve emergency responses.
Dietrich emphasizes that what happened in Dunsmuir in 1991 was a rare event, and yet, the memory lingers.
"It comes down to we care about our river and about our towns," he said. "And we hope that the agencies and the railroad are on top of it."