Every day, someplace in Orange County, there's a truck or a train speeding along laden with hazardous materials. But under current state and federal regulations, those trucks and trains can usually zip through densely populated neighborhoods with no one aware of it.
While the state does require hazardous materials to be properly packaged and the vehicles that are carrying them to display a highly visible placard denoting the type of material on board, in almost all cases transport companies are not required to notify county officials that hazardous materials are coming through.
"There is so much commerce going on that emergency response agencies couldn't deal with real-time notification of movement of hazardous materials," said Ernie von Ibsch, a senior transportation operations supervisor at the state Public Utilities Commission. "It's happening so fast that you couldn't write it down."
Capt. Dan Young, a spokesman for the Orange County Fire Department, said current regulations on placarding and advance notification depends on the type and the amount of hazardous material being transported. The Fire Department must be notified in advance if a company is planning to ship rocket fuel through the county--which happened as recently as last week--but no advance notification is required for most other toxic chemicals, including nuclear waste.
Young said the operators of the San Onofre nuclear power plant usually notify county officials in advance when large shipments of waste are moving the county, which is a rare occurrence. He said there are other sources of radioactive material that frequently move through the county, such as medical products used in radiation treatments.
"There is radioactive material transported fairly routinely, but not every day," Young said. "That might raise some concerns, but it shows it's been done safely for years without a problem."
Vehicles carrying explosives or a variety of materials that are radioactive, combustible, flammable, corrosive or water-reactive must have placards visible from at least a quarter-mile away, or labeled with standard identification numbers that denote the chemical being shipped, Young said. But even placarding is not ordinarily required if the vehicles are carrying only small amounts of hazardous materials, he said.
State and legislative officials are working on more stringent regulations regarding hazardous-materials shipments, Von Ibsch said. The PUC is "formalizing procedures" that would require railroads to provide fire departments and other emergency response agencies with information on the types of hazardous materials typically shipped, which Von Ibsch said would allow fire departments to better develop response plans.
The state Senate and Assembly passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) that would require railroads to provide system maps and emergency handling guidelines to local and state emergency service officials. Gov. George Deukmejian has until Sunday to sign the bill.
Bob Fredenburg, a legislative consultant, said the bill would require rail companies to tell officials "what they are likely to find on those trains."
"What the railroads would have to do is report on what's being hauled," Fredenburg said.
Jim Loveland, a spokesman for Southern Pacific railroad, which was transporting the Navy munitions from the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station to Crane, Ind., when Tuesday's accident occurred, said the railroad opposes the legislation.
"If you give the states authority over transportation of hazardous materials, then you'll have 50 sets of rules for different states," Loveland said. "Our argument is there should be one set of rules for everybody."
Even if stricter regulations mandating advance notification of transport of hazardous materials existed, they would have had little or no effect on Tuesday night's derailment in Westminster of a Southern Pacific train carrying Navy munitions, Young said.
"When it comes to the military, all bets are off," Young said. "Whether we have a Navy jet that crashes in the hills or a train derailment like in Westminster, the Navy comes in and takes over the scene. I guess the easiest way to say it is they come in, and that's the end of that."
Although the Westminster Fire Department responded to the derailment Tuesday, hazardous materials teams from the Navy also responded to the accident, and military police secured the area around the train.
Despite Tuesday night's derailment, federal officials said safety records show that the safest way to transport hazardous materials is by train, although much of the nation's hazardous materials are moved by truck.
Claire Austin, a spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said that nationwide, only one death directly connected to a hazardous-materials accident involving a train has occurred in the past 10 years. That accident occurred in the Pacific Northwest.