PUC Issues Rules on Toxic Rail Cargo : Regulation: The order is aimed at improving railroads’ communication with local emergency agencies. Its effect is limited because most areas are under federal jurisdiction.


In the wake of July’s back-to-back toxic rail spills, the California Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday issued rules requiring railroads to make immediate reports to local emergency response teams of potentially dangerous spills and to have plans for dealing with such emergencies.

The action culminated three years of efforts by regulatory, rail, labor and emergency response officials to develop tougher standards for transporting hazardous materials by rail through California.

However, the scope of the new rules is limited, because federal regulations take precedence in matters relating to rail shipments.


“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.”

PUC President Patricia M. Eckert, Ohanian and two other commissioners voted unanimously to approve the rules at a regular meeting in San Francisco. A fifth commissioner was absent.

Issuance of the rules follows on the heels of the recent Southern Pacific derailment in Seacliff, which shut down a portion of U.S. 101 for five days, and the catastrophic July 14 spill from a Southern Pacific train of the weedkiller metam-sodium into the Sacramento River.

That chemical destroyed most plants and fish along 45 miles from Dunsmuir to Lake Shasta. In Seacliff, the main chemical spilled was hydrazine. While it is potentially lethal to human beings, the spill did not cause any immediate environmental damage.

Ironically, even if the new rules had been in place at the time of the Dunsmuir spill, they might not have alleviated the widespread damage. Metam-sodium is not included on the federal Department of Transportation’s list of dangerous substances and therefore would not have been covered by the new regulations.

Under the regulations, effective immediately, each railroad will be required to maintain a list of 24-hour phone numbers for the emergency response teams along its routes. In the event of a toxic spill, the railroads will be required to notify local response teams in addition to state and federal offices.

Although state law already requires railroads to notify local fire departments immediately in the event of a toxic release or threatened release, the new rules “clarify” that requirement, according to David Zocchetti, state program manager of the hazardous materials division of the state Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento.

The rules also enable emergency response 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.

Railroads will also be required to train workers in the handling of hazardous substances and to have emergency procedures for dealing with potentially dangerous spills. These will include ways to limit the release of a toxic material to minimize potential harm to individuals or the environment. Many railroads already have such plans in place.

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 manifest about the hazardous chemicals aboard that train.

Federal rules determine which materials are considered hazardous, how those products are to be packaged and labeled and in which types of rail cars they may be shipped. So all those subjects, and many others, were off limits for state regulators.

One key purpose of the state 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 operators and rail yard personnel in California.

Jones expressed concern that railroads operating in the state might launch a legal challenge to the rules. In Ohio last year, railroads got a judge to block regulations of hazardous rail shipments imposed by state officials who contended that federal enforcement did not go far enough. The state has appealed.

Among other states with rules governing rail shipment of hazardous substances are Arizona, Texas and Oregon, which provided a model for the California rules.

Mike Furtney, a spokesman for Southern Pacific, said that 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.