SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — With rail shipments of crude oil into California expected to rise exponentially, the state has not tasked anyone with inspecting thousands of railroad bridges across the state that will carry the tankers, even as derailments and explosions are on the rise in other parts of the county.
Pittsburg resident Michael Boyter walks his dog E.T. every day under an old railroad bridge that rattles and shakes every time a train goes by. “When I see it moving a whole lot when I am walking underneath it it’s pretty scary,” he said.
It’s one of Burlington Northern’s busiest bay area routes, and it could soon get a whole lot busier.
KPIX 5 recently discovered that mile long trains carrying fracked crude from North Dakota are already traveling through the Bay Area. Rail shipments of the highly-volatile crude are expected to increase 25-fold in California over the next two years.
It’s the same crude that’s been exploding in derailments all over North America. “Every time you have increased traffic there’s an increased risk,” said Paul King with the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency charged with inspecting railroads.
He says with 38 inspectors, they’re getting the job done, with one exception. “None of our inspectors are tasked to inspect bridges,” he said. Turns out the PUC’s only inspecting the tracks, not the bridge structures.
The agency admits in a report to the legislature that’s a “potential significant risk” because there’s hardly any federal oversight either. “There’s one federal inspector for 11 western states,” said King.
The feds require the railroads to inspect each bridge once a year. But the state doesn’t have access to the information, for an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 bridges.
That’s an “estimate” because the railroads don’t give out any hard numbers, or any kind of data for that matter.We put in a Freedom of Information Act request for inspections on just one bridge, the Benicia Bridge, more than a month ago. Nothing so far.
“It’s a very serious situation,” said State Senator Jerry Hill. Hill sits on the energy committee. He says it should be the PUC’s job to inspect both tracks “and” bridges. “These bridges in some cases are over 100 years old, they’ve never been replaced, they have never been brought up to any newer standard. That is their responsibility,” he said.
We asked the PUC’s Paul King about that. His answer: “All the inspectors we have are dedicated by budget approvals to do the job they are doing. We don’t have any that are specifically trained.”
Senator Hill’s response: “We’ve heard those excuses frankly since the San Bruno explosion of a few years ago. They just have to go to Caltrans that inspects all of the bridges in California that our roads go on, and they can learn from the Caltrans inspectors,” he said.
Back in Pittsburg Michael says Burlington Northern has come in to do some repairs: “If you look right up here there’s a spot that was patched last week,” he said. But he wonders, what’s a little patch job going to do. “I think its time for an upgrade,” he said.
Governor Brown’s budget calls for $8.5 million in funding for railroad safety, that will include a new bridge oversight plan to be run by the PUC.
As for Burlington Northern, they tell us their own internal inspection program goes above and beyond federal requirements.