With elected officials sounding alarms about crude-laden trains rumbling through California, state lawmakers on Thursday pressed for more information about safety risks to cities and water reservoirs sitting near rail lines.
"We need to make sure neighborhood schools and businesses located near crude by rail routes are as protected as possible," said Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata. "It's of utmost importance that we keep up to speed with the emergence of crude by rail. It's not acceptable for us to wait until something bad happens."
Energy companies have increasingly looked to rail as a way to transport oil, including through Sacramento, spurring concerns that California will witness the fiery derailments that have engulfed oil trains elsewhere. The budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday imposes a 6.5 cent per barrel fee to fund inland spill response, while legislation seeks to crack open the secrecy often surrounding details about crude shipments. A separate Senate bill would charge oil transporter an additional fee to fund accident response.
A much-anticipated report released on Tuesday tamped down on those worries by depicting slim odds of an accident; in a sign of the dispute over the safety of transporting crude by rail, a prominent environmental group on Wednesday unveiled a report reaching the opposite conclusion.
Since interstate railroads are largely overseen by the federal government, California has limited authority to devise new regulations governing crude shipments. Instead, the state's role consists of enforcing federal rules.
"The state may find that some of what or most of what it wants to do has already been covered by federal regulations or orders," testified Jayni Hein of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.
Although Hein added California can craft state contingency plans or fortify fines, the general lack of authority over potentially dangerous rail lines clearly frustrated some lawmakers.
"I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
The California Public Utilities Commission can enforce locally specific rules in some circumstances, such as hazards to water supplies or urban areas, but mostly has an oversight role. Some 5,300 miles of railroad track fall under the PUC's purview, according to rail safety official Paul King, who noted the budget lawmakers sent to Brown would add seven inspectors to deal with an expected spike in train cars.
Beyond the new inspectors, King stressed the need for stronger tank cars, suggested retiring older tank cars from service and called for visible markings identifying which cars are carrying volatile oil.
Preparing first responders and cities for potential catastrophes has become a focus for concerned lawmakers. A state agency receives information about train schedules and can then pass that information onto local emergency responders. Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department Chief Kurt Henke advocated a secure site where first reponders could quickly get data and more funding to train responders for disaster scenarios.
"We need an ability to get in and get the information," Henke said, adding that "there has to be a commitment of money" to bolster training, including to build a hazardous materials training facility.
Currently, the state's Office of Emergency Services often does not receive details about crude shipments until the trains have already passed through towns.
"The notifications right now are coming so information is late," State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris testified. "We'd really like to see something the first responders can log into and get the information that they need," he added.
A representative of BNSF Railway touted some precautions the company has already undertaken, including training thousands of potential responders, investing in new infrastructure and enacting new rules around speed limits and train car composition.
"Just from a business perspective, we have a significant interest in safety," said Juan Acosta, a lobbyist for the rail line.
PHOTO: A crude oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way west through James, California just outside of the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley on June 5, 2014. By Jake Miille/Special to The Sacramento Bee.