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June 10, 2014
Editorial: Information on oil trains can't get sidetracked

oil_train.JPG(June 10 - By the Editorial Board)

Emergency officials absolutely must have all the information they need about oil trains passing through California. The public should be privy to as many details as possible as well.

That kind of transparency has to be a basic requirement for railroads that want to ship crude oil through the Sacramento region and elsewhere in California. If rail companies won't be good corporate citizens, then regulators and lawmakers should force them.

It's crucial that these disclosure rules be in place before the surge in rail shipments of oil gets any larger. As it is, first responders and local officials are increasingly worried about protecting the public in case of a derailment, spill or other emergency.

Each day, Valero plans to put together two 50-car trains filled with oil at a railyard in Roseville and run them on the Union Pacific line that goes through Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis on the way to Valero's refinery in Benicia, The Sacramento Bee's Tony Bizjak reports. The oil trains would share tracks that carry Capitol Corridor passenger trains.

BNSF acknowledges that it is transporting highly flammable Bakken oil from North Dakota in California but is refusing to release information on the shipments to the public, saying it is a trade secret that only first responders should know. Oil trains also are expected to travel along the Feather River to the Bay Area and traverse the Tehachapi Pass to Los Angeles-area refineries. It would likely be an expensive proposition to reroute trains around population centers, but we should at least start the discussion.

Oil companies are shifting to rail because more crude is being produced by hydraulic fracturing in North Dakota, Canada and other areas inland. While less than 1 percent of oil imports came into California by rail in 2012 - about 1 million barrels - that total increased to more than 6 million barrels last year. The state projects that by 2016, rail could account for one-fourth of oil shipments to California.

In response, a working group of state agencies jointly issued a report Tuesday that calls for more rail safety inspectors, improved emergency preparedness and response programs and more transparency from the railroads. The recommendations make sense as far as they go, but the ones regarding railroads are voluntary.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat, is pushing legislation that would require railroads to submit quarterly reports on all shipments of oil and other hazardous materials to the state Office of Emergency Services. The state office would then have to share with local officials the details they need to develop emergency response plans.

Unfortunately, Assembly Bill 380 would exempt the information from the Public Records Act. Ideally, the public and media would have access to the same information. The bill passed the Assembly on May 29, and was approved by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee last week.

Officials and advocacy groups complain that the federal government hasn't done enough to address the risks of increased oil shipments by rail. They're right.

Canada is much more advanced on oil train safety, with mandatory measures. It does tend to focus the mind when one of these trains derails and blows up a small town. Last July in Quebec, a train filled with Bakken crude derailed and exploded, incinerating 47 residents and leveling the town center.

It would be unforgivable if it took a deadly derailment in California or elsewhere in the United States to do what's needed.