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California safety officials ill-prepared for increasing oil imports

State needs to better prepare for increasing oil imports by rail

California safety agencies are currently ill-prepared for a significant increase in transporting oil by rail through the state, but steps are being taken to catch up, experts told state lawmakers Thursday.

Oil imports by rail to California have grown from 70 tank cars in 2009 to nearly 9,500 tank cars in 2013, and they could increase to up to 230,000 carloads by 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.

The state needs to step in to address safety issues inadequately handled by the federal government, a California Interagency Rail Safety Group reported during a joint hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

“In sum, while the federal actions taken to date are significant, they do not go far enough to address the risks of increased oil by rail transport,” the group’s report concluded. “The state should press both the federal government and the railroad industry to take additional safety measures.”

The study group said trains transporting crude oil travel via the Feather River or Donner Pass to the San Francisco Bay Area, and via the Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield and into Los Angeles.

The working group recommended the state strengthen its inspection and enforcement staff. There are only 52 positions to handle railroad operations and safety inspections, which the group's study said is “seriously inadequate given current and projected numbers of oil shipments.”

The state budget approved Sunday by the Legislature allows for the hiring of seven additional rail inspectors for the California Public Utilities Commission, which should meet the need, said commission spokesman Paul King. He added that better tank cars and clear markings are needed to increase safety.

The working group also recommended more funding for local emergency responders, and better planning.

“Emergency responders currently lack basic, critical information needed to help plan for and respond to oil by rail incidents, including what resources railroads can provide in the event of an accident, and how they would respond to potential worst case scenarios,” the group found.

Lawmakers including Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) said they have introduced bills to improve the ability to prevent and respond to rail accidents involving oil.

“It’s not acceptable for us to wait until something bad happens,” Pavley, chairwoman of the senate committee, said during the three-hour hearing at the Capitol. “Unless the locals have adequate resources to be prepared” and the state and federal officials cooperate, “we’re not going to be able to deal with it if a catastrophe strikes.”

She noted that a Federal Railroad Administration official declined to attend the hearing.

“We don’t have that cooperation yet,” she said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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