Backcountry Route Proposed for Vandenberg's Rocket Fuel

Times Staff Writer

Yet another route for trucks hauling hazardous rocket fuel to Vandenberg Air Force Base has been proposed by the Defense Department, this one bypassing most Southern and Central California population centers.

The new route--which must be approved by the California Highway Patrol--would pass through the desert north of Los Angeles, cut across to Interstate 5, go north through the Grapevine Canyon and turn west to the coast and Vandenberg.

"We'll throw this (recommended route) into our evaluation mill as soon as we receive it," said Kent Milton, commander of the CHP's public affairs division. He said the portions of the route on I-5 through the Grapevine and on the two-lane California 166 through the coastal mountains "are potential concerns" that CHP experts will be evaluating.

"Some of our people have been asking questions like what would happen if those trucks got caught in a snowstorm (on the Grapevine)," Milton said. Such questions are to be assessed by the CHP and state highway engineers, he said.

The deadly nitrogen tetroxide, used as an oxidizer in liquid fuel rocket motors, is explosive and burns rapidly, giving off a cloud of gas, according to Highway Patrol officials. In an emergency police would have to evacuate people up to three-quarters of a mile away from any accident site, according to CHP Chief Roy Short, commander of the enforcement services division.

Short said the toxic material, manufactured by Vertak Chemical Corp., of Vicksburg, Miss., has been trucked across country for two decades without an accident, passing through the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles on its way to the big Air Force rocket center at Vandenberg, near Lompoc. That route was changed late last year, after Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley complained of the danger posed to the city.

The trucks were rerouted through Kern County in December, passing through Bakersfield, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Residents of these areas protested, stirring another storm of controversy.

"Somebody made the decision that Los Angeles lives are worth more than Bakersfield lives," Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Ken Pluskamp said after two truckloads had passed through that city. Several California congressmen joined the protest and the Defense Department quickly ordered the new route study.

The route announced Wednesday would enter California on Interstate 40, as in December, coming west to Barstow, where the trucks would jog north to state Highway 58 and travel west through Mojave. There the trucks would turn south on California 14 to California 138, heading west through the mountains to Gorman.

West Turn on 166

At Gorman the trucks would turn north on Interstate 5 through the Grapevine and down into the San Joaquin Valley, turning west again on California 166, through Cuyama and over the Coast Range, down into Santa Maria. In Santa Maria the route would turn south on U.S 101 briefly then jog to S-20 and pass through Orcutt and on Vandenberg, going in Santa Lucia Avenue to the base's Pine Canyon Gate.

"This (Defense Department) report clearly indicates the U.S. Air Force prefers a new route that would skirt major population centers and some well-known traffic hazards in Kern and San Luis Obispo County," said Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield). Thomas said the Air Force is also studying possible seaborne transportation to Vandenberg. That evaluation report is due later this year, he said.

The route was proposed by a private consultant hired by the Defense Department to study the problem, according to department spokesman Glenn Flood. "This route presents the lowest risk to the populace, it bypasses all major populations," he said.

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