KCBS reporter Jeffrey Shaub and producer Giancarlo Rulli investigate the Bay Area’s aging railway bridges that will carry increasing loads of highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in this three-part KCBS Cover Story Special.
MARTINEZ (KCBS) – In May, U.S. transportation officials ordered the nation’s rail companies to disclose information to emergency responders on the routes and number of trains carrying a highly volatile crude oil through the Bay Area and elsewhere.
But some Bay Area and California officials claim the railroads are dragging their feet, stalling efforts to come with an emergency plan in case of a major disaster on the tracks.
According to the BNSF Railway, every 7-10 days, a 100-car long train carrying Bakken crude oil make sits way through Contra Costa County over the Alhambra trestle in Martinez.
Residents Bill Nichols and Jim Neu are among the many who have serious concerns. “The scary thing about the crude, it already has a proven track record of catastrophic accidents,” said Nichols. “These are ticking time bombs waiting to go off. If there was ever a derailment, it would affect the town with major casualties,” Neu said.
Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Marshal Robert Marshall worries about a train derailing from that height. “If you drop something from that height, it’s going to create a lot of damage.”
Marshall said he’s been working to create an emergency response plan, but needs to know how many trains are coming and when. But he said the state Office of Emergency Services can’t tell him. State OES Deputy Director Kelly Huston said that’s because the railroads haven’t provided him with that information.
“We’d love to be able to look it up online like an Amtrak schedule and be able to tell specifically when a terrain is coming through, where it’s going and give that direct access to local first responders,” Huston said.
KCBS has learned that BNSF sent a confidential letter to the Office of Emergency Services in September, informing them that Contra Costa County will see at least a 25 percent increase in Bakken fuel trains. But BNSF refused to say exactly how many and when, citing federal regulations and that they consider the information to be a confidential trade secret.
Bay Area Congressman John Garamendi disagrees. “It must be made available to the local emergency response agencies,” Garamendi said.
BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said the company’s track record of moving hazardous materials speaks for itself.
“We handle all of our commodities with safety at the forefront. It’s far safer to move hazardous materials over our nation’s railroads then on our nation’s highways,” she said.
But longtime Martinez City Councilman Mark Ross said the railroad needs to be a better partner by being transparent and ensuring public safety. “Why don’t you get ahead of it, let’s work with government, work with the cities and communities that you’re running through, and solve the problem now.”
Hear the entire three-part cover story series.
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