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Southern Pacific Defends Actions in Cleanup of 2 Spills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Southern Pacific railroad official said Wednesday that second-guessing by critics of July’s train accidents at Seacliff and at Dunsmuir in Northern California will not alter the fact that both the railroad and local agencies responded to the incidents quickly and professionally.

“There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking that goes on after these incidents,” Herby L. Bart, director of Southern Pacific’s emergency response program, told a hearing called by the Ventura County Transportation Commission to study the accidents.

Jim Dantona, a commission member who chaired the meeting--which billed itself as a “rail safety summit"--said its purpose was “not to point fingers, assign blame or demand retribution. We are here to ask questions, seek solutions and make recommendations.”

But almost as soon as the meeting was called to order at Simi Valley City Hall, questions with contentious overtones were directed at railroad representatives, particularly those from San Francisco-based Southern Pacific.

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Bart deflected several of them by declaring that the railroad violated no federal laws in the accidents, both of which triggered chemical spills.

In the case of the Seacliff derailment, Bart called “not true” Dantona’s suggestion that there was a lengthy delay in implementing the toxic cleanup because the train’s chemical manifest could not be immediately deciphered.

“It (the manifest) was furnished within 10 minutes of the occurrence” to fire officials, he said.

During the hearing, Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn, a member of the panel, disclosed that the county this week billed Southern Pacific $572,104.47, representing the full cost to the county of containing the accident.

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The bill, he said, was based on the claims of several county agencies, including the Ventura County Fire, Sheriff’s, Environmental Health and other departments.

Additionally, Flynn said Southern Pacific was sent a second bill this week for $144,636.76, representing claims of other jurisdictions stemming from the Seacliff accident. Included were the cities of Ventura, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Montecito, and Los Angeles and Kern counties.

During a lunch break, Bart said Southern Pacific would pay the agency claims “in a timely manner.”

Railroad, government, union and safety officials and private citizens from several counties attended the all-day meeting.

The July 28 derailment of 12 cars at the Ventura County coastal town of Seacliff did not cause serious injuries. But it did trigger the evacuation of hundreds of residents, disrupted Amtrak train service and closed a 10-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway for five days, forcing motorists to use a 35-mile detour over twisting mountain roads.

It was the second derailment of a Southern Pacific train that month. On July 14, a tank car spilled a pesticide that fouled 45 miles of the Sacramento River.

Among the most critical remarks were those presented by Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Carpinteria), who said Southern Pacific sat on its hands both in the immediate aftermath of the Seacliff accident and during the cleanup operation.

“From the beginning, Southern Pacific failed to cooperatively participate in the response and cleanup activities at the site,” he told the panel.

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“The final insult,” O’Connell said, “is the fact that Southern Pacific has yet to pay up to 90% of the claims made by residents and businesses in the area for losses they suffered due to the spill.”

Bart did not respond at the hearing to the lawmaker’s testimony. But during the lunch break, he said O’Connell’s remarks about the railroad’s lack of cooperation were not true.

On the issue of claims, a Southern Pacific spokesman said recently that the railroad has paid the claims of most homeowners whose property was near the Seacliff accident and who were forced to evacuate. Other claims are still under review, he said.


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