SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Although most people think of oil spills in California as potential beachfront disasters, there is new anxiety in Sacramento about the surge of crude oil now coming through the state each day by train.
Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers want to avoid the sort of fiery disaster that killed 47 people in July in southern Quebec when tank cars exploded as they carried oil from the booming Bakken oil fields of North Dakota through Canada. Other less spectacular oil tanker car derailments occurred in Aliceville, Ala.; Casselton, N.D.; and Lynchburg, Va., during the past 12 months.
With a steady increase of oil now being shipped into California from out of state, policymakers are scrambling to come up with spill-prevention programs to lower the risk of potentially deadly accidents. Proposals under consideration include hiring new state railroad inspectors, developing better spill-response plans and improving communications between rail carriers and emergency services agencies.
“California is seeing a huge shift in the way we import oil,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, one of two lawmakers pushing oil-by-rail safety bills this session in the Legislature. “We need to address the new and unique hazards of crude-by-rail transportation.”
The threat to California communities is particularly dire, environmental justice groups contend, because many of the state’s busiest rail lines run through densely populated areas, and refineries often are in low-income neighborhoods, such as Wilmington in southern Los Angeles County and Richmond in Northern California’s Contra Costa County.
Railroads question the need for new state regulations that could conflict with the federal government’s historic oversight of all aspects of rail safety, operations and working conditions. Rail companies say they have “a 99.997 percent safe delivery record of hazardous materials” and they are eager to cooperate with state officials to ensure even safer operations.