BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — Some are calling them ticking time bombs: Rail tankers carrying volatile fracked crude oil are rolling across the U.S. in ever growing numbers, and exploding with increasing frequency.
Residents of Bay Area refinery towns have been fighting to keep the trains out. Now KPIX 5 has learned that many more local communities may also be at risk.
On bustling 4th Street in Berkeley, people shopping barely notice the occasional blast of a passing Amtrak train. But soon that Amtrak could be joined by another very different type of train.
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“They are proposing to use exactly the same track for these hazardous cars. Totally unacceptable,” said Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio.
The hazardous cars Maio is talking about could carry a highly explosive crude oil fracked from the Bakken region of North Dakota. It is as flammable as gasoline: as we saw when a 100-car train carrying the fuel derailed in Quebec last summer.
The resulting explosion killed 47 people and the town of Lac Megantic was reduced to rubble. “I can’t even imagine what would happen if there was a major derailment or explosion…It would be devastating,” said Maio.
Maio just recently was made aware of the possible route. It’s buried in a 700 page Environmental Impact Report for a crude-by-rail terminal at a Phillips 66 refinery near San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast.
80-car “unit” trains of Bakken crude would run on Union Pacific tracks, the same tracks used by Amtrak’s congested Capitol Corridor commuter line. It goes from Sacramento through Richmond, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland all the way down to San Jose.
Phillips 66 at first denied the trains would be coming through Berkeley or through Jack London Square in Oakland. But in a statement later told KPIX 5 it’s not up to them, it’s up to Union Pacific. Railroads have special rights under federal commerce laws.
Scientist and engineer Phyllis Fox was commissioned by the Sierra Club to submit comments on the EIR and said the train route through the East Bay is almost inevitable.
“There is no way you can get crude oil to San Luis Obispo County without sending it through one of the major metropolitan areas. There is simply no way to get it there otherwise,” she said.
Fox said the only alternative to the Berkeley-Oakland route would be to run the trains on Union Pacific’s Ace line from Stockton over the steep Altamont Pass and through Livermore and Pleasanton. “It would be an unlikely route,” she said.
As for what kind of crude the trains will be carrying, the report spells it out. It clearly said “the most likely source would be the Bakken field of North Dakota”. And it points out that accidental oil spills along the tracks would be “significant and unavoidable.”
Berkeley’s vice mayor is taking no chances. She is contacting lawmakers in Washington for help and just introduced a local resolution opposing any plans to bring unit trains of crude through her community. But she admits, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
“These railroads are regulated at the federal level. We have no jurisdiction. And the state has very little jurisdiction,” Maio said.
Despite what the EIR said, a spokesperson for Phillips 66 told us that the refinery in San Luis Obispo County is not set up to run Bakken crude.
KPIX 5 also contacted Union Pacific for comment. A spokesperson confirmed that railroads are considered common carriers, and are required by law to move cargo to approved facilities.