Tough New Spill Rules Ordered for Railroads : Transportation: The state requires the firms to immediately report potentially dangerous incidents to local agencies.
Ten days after a derailed Southern Pacific train spilled a load of toxic chemicals at Seacliff, the California Public Utilities Commission voted Wednesday to require railroads to report potentially dangerous spills immediately to local emergency agencies and to have a plan for handling such events.
The new PUC rules, culminating three years of efforts to develop tougher standards for transporting hazardous materials by rail through California, are effective immediately. They require railroads to maintain a list of 24-hour numbers for emergency response teams along their routes, and to notify them in case of a toxic spill.
The rules also enable emergency agencies to request a list from railroads of hazardous substances that have been shipped through their areas in the previous 12 months. The goal is to allow response teams to improve training programs. Railroads will be required to supply such information within 60 days.
Issuance of the rules follows the recent Southern Pacific derailment in Seacliff, which shut down a portion of the Ventura Freeway and forced the evacuation of 49 houses for five days, and the catastrophic July 14 spill from a Southern Pacific train of the weedkiller metam-sodium into the Sacramento River.
Ventura County Fire Chief George Lund said the new PUC rules would not have helped had they been in effect July 28, when 12 cars of a freight train derailed at Seacliff. The crash spilled 440 gallons of toxic hydrazine and flung a 5,000-gallon tankful of flammable naphthalene against an embankment.
The hydrazine, a suspected carcinogen that irritates the eyes, skin and respiratory tract and can be lethal, mildly sickened 11 cleanup workers who encountered its fumes while cutting apart the train wreckage last Thursday.
“Certainly, being notified immediately is proper,” Lund said. “The wreck occurred in front of our fire station, so we were immediately aware there was a wreck.
“The fire captain made contact with the train’s conductor and got a bill of lading, and we knew there were hazardous materials on board,” he said. “The problem from that point was to determine where they were in the pile of cars.”
Lund also said that a 12-month-long list of toxic cargo that has passed over the rails in Ventura County would be of little use.
“I’m sure it would be a very extensive list,” he said. “There’s, I guess, six to eight trains coming through Ventura County every day. The majority have hazardous materials on board, from propane to the more exotic products. I don’t know what good it would do us to gather all that data. We would not be able to manage all that data.”
Lund, however, said his department will have no difficulty implementing the rules.
Southern Pacific is drafting plans to test the soil in two remaining hot spots of spilled hydrazine, and to remove the soil if necessary. The hot spots are capped with 18 inches of sand, fenced in and guarded around the clock, and they are not exuding any trace of hydrazine, according to officials from the California Environment Protection Agency.
Southern Pacific is testing the air near the hot spots twice a day, state EPA spokesman Richard Varenchik said.
The new PUC rules also require railroads to train workers in the handling of hazardous substances and to have emergency procedures for dealing with potentially dangerous spills.
Many railroads already have such plans in place, including Southern Pacific.
The PUC vote on Wednesday culminates lengthy safety efforts by regulatory, rail, labor and emergency response officials that began long before either of the recent train accidents.
“I would like to see more stringent regulations, but we are prohibited from doing so by existing law,” said PUC Commissioner John B. Ohanian, who shepherded the rules through the negotiation process. “I hope that recent tragic events involving toxic spills provide the impetus for our congressional delegation to return more safety authority to the state.”
The rules do not require railroads to notify officials before a hazardous substance is shipped through an area, nor do they deal with the issue of poorly worded or vague shipping manifests. Authorities said emergency crews were hobbled in their efforts to clean up the Seacliff spill by a lack of specific information on Southern Pacific’s list about the hazardous chemicals aboard that train.
One key purpose of the rules “was to get more communication between the railroads and local emergency response agencies,” said Judith Allen, a staff attorney for the PUC who worked on the regulations.
“I’m glad to hear it passed; it’s a good beginning on addressing the problem,” said J.P. Jones, state legislative director in Sacramento for the United Transportation Union, which represents 12,000 conductors, brake persons and rail-yard personnel in California.
Jones expressed concern that railroads operating in the state might launch a legal challenge, as railroads in Ohio successfully did last year after state regulatory officials, contending that federal enforcement did not go far enough, attempted to regulate the rail shipment of hazardous materials. The state has appealed.
A Southern Pacific spokesman, however, said he has “heard nothing to suggest that we plan to challenge. In fact, our people have been working with the commission and are hoping that (the rules) can be implemented as relatively painlessly as possible.”
In a related action, the PUC postponed until Aug. 21 consideration of an order to begin an investigation into the two Southern Pacific spills.
Martha Groves reported from San Francisco and Mack Reed from Ventura.
Highlights of New Rail Rules
* SPILL NOTIFICATION: In the event of a toxic spill, each railroad will be required to immediately notify by phone the appropriate community emergency response agencies.
* RESPONSE TEAMS: Railroads will be required to provide response teams with a current 24-hour emergency number.
* TOXICS LIST: Within 60 days of a written request by an emergency response agency, the railroad must provide a list of all hazardous substances transported through that agency’s region in the previous 12 months.
* EMERGENCY PLAN: Each railroad must have an emergency plan, including procedures for limiting potential harm or damage to individuals or the environment. Railroad personnel must be taught what actions to take in the event of an accident.
* COMMUNICATIONS: All trains transporting hazardous materials must carry at least two radios so that train crews can communicate.
* TRACK STANDARDS: A railroad may not operate over a track that falls below standards set by federal code.