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When the Schellville Wildlife Preserve Goes BOOM!

From the Sonoma County Gazette

Written by Tom Martin
January 2, 2019


Rail tanker cars filled with LPG stretch across the Schellville wildlife refuge from Highway 121 in foreground towards San Pablo Bay. Photo credit: Harley Milne of Drone Panora Aerial Photography

While recent wildfires have occupied the attention of Sonoma County residents this year, another potential disaster sits just down the road in Schellville. There 160 rail tanker cars filled with millions of gallons of highly volatile liquid petroleum gas (LPG) sit in two lines, each a mile long, amid the marshlands. As they sit awaiting shipment to East Bay refineries, each tanker car holds over 30,000 gallons and weights more than 286,000 lb. fully loaded.

Many have worried about the potential horror of an explosion at the site. A simple search on the internet under “LPG accidents” provides lists of tragedies caused by a BLEVE – short for a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. But there is an additional threat to our marshlands north of Highway 37 that is less discussed. The environmental damage and pollution there from an accident at the tanker storage yard could be immeasurable.


At the Schellville yard, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, the freight hauler, stores as many as 160 tank cars, weighing a combined 23,000 tons, on two miles of tracks that it leases from SMART (Sonoma-Marin Transit). That track is built on a thick underlay of unconsolidated marshland soils that flood every year. Flooding weakens the underlying soils, and increases the potential for subsidence. That danger is greatest at the very time when a large number of loaded tankers are stored there. Their purpose is to serve the winter gas needs of the refineries. Alone that is a recipe for disaster.


But that’s not all. This map published by USGS (2010) tells us that the tanker yard lies closely between two parallel earthquake faults, the Rodgers Creek Fault and the Eastside Fault. Unconsolidated marshland soils are marked in light green. San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Preserve is in the bottom right. The blue line is the boundary of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Basin. For a map of the whole wetlands area and its channels, go to
USGS-MAP Sonoma marshlandsThe Rodgers Creek Fault is an extension of the active Hayward Fault that runs through the East Bay, the UC Berkeley campus and San Pablo Bay and north towards Santa Rosa. Geologists indicate it is one of the most likely faults to soon cause a major quake in the Bay Area. The Eastside Fault runs the length of the Sonoma Valley, and parallels the Mayacamas ridge that lies between Sonoma and Napa.

Combined Danger For Schell Slough, Sonoma Creek, San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Preserve, San Francisco Bay

Earthquakes are known to cause liquefaction in marshland soils – particularly in saturated soils that are already weakened by surrounding flooding. Liquefaction causes settlement, and settlement can cause track collapse. Track collapse can overturn one or more tankers leading to rupture and spills. A single spark may cause a fire or, at worst, a violent explosion. LPG being heavier than air, it moves along the ground, and if ignited, causes a huge explosion, damaging all around for a great distance.
The threat goes further. Using the existing nearby channels, the toxic spill from the tank rupture would surely find its way to the nearby marshlands and channels. From there it is only a short float to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Preserve, and to the Sonoma Land Trust’s Baylands Wildlife Area, both places where tens of millions of public dollars have been spent for land acquisition and habitat enhancement in recent years.

To make things worse, the local fire departments would use foams and chemicals to fight the blaze in places where water cannot extinguish an LPG fire. The chemical compounds from the foams will damage the nearby dairy’s pasture land and adjacent wildlife habitat, and spread in runoff to contaminate local groundwater and marshlands all the way to the Bay.

A combination that is truly a disaster waiting to happen!

Write to the media, Let Your Views Be Known!

Ask the Supervisor(s) to protect our wildlife sanctuary by removing the Northwestern Pacific Rail Tankers from Schellville.

Visit to join Mobilize Sonoma.


Signature drive targets liquid-gas tankers in Schellville


sonoma rail yardA petition seeking to halt the storage of more than 2 million gallons of liquefied petroleum gas in a rail yard in the Sonoma Valley near Schellville has gathered 350 signatures, organizers say.

For at least two years, about 80 railroad cars have parked on the tracks three miles south of Sonoma Plaza, storing highly flammable gas. The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority owns the tracks and Northwestern Pacific Railroad uses them through an agreement between the two entities.

In 2016, some Sonoma Valley residents protested when they learned that railroad cars holding 2.6 million gallons of flammable gas were parked south of Fremont Drive at the end of Eighth Street.

Despite objections from Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the district, the agreement between SMART and the rail authority went through at that time, at least partially because the railroad is governed by a federal transportation board.

Now, some Valley residents are protesting anew.

“There are many people living nearby, many businesses, an airport, the Jacuzzi winery and (Cline Cellars). All these are in danger of an explosion that might destroy or damage their buildings and the same thing is true for the facilities along Highway 121 or Fremont Drive,” said Tom Martin, who has been shepherding the petition along.

“Also there is a question of environmental damage to the wetlands in the area” should there be a spill, the Springs resident said.

Martin visited Sonoma Plaza for a few hours every Tuesday during the Farmers Market between August and October and solicited signatures on his petition. The weekly visits have garnered 350 signatures since August. There is no online petition as of yet, he said.

Martin’s group, Mobilize Sonoma, is pressing Supervisor Susan Gorin to get the tanks moved.

Ray Mulas, chief of the Schell-Vista Volunteer Fire Department, said the cars are “durable.” He added, “There are two layers to these tanks. The outer layer is about 1-inch thick, three-quarters to 1-inch thick, and the inner vessel is three-quarters of an inch to an inch thick, and there is an eight-inch gap in between” the two layers.

“My only concern is (Northwestern Pacific) needs to have security on them,” Mulas said. Overall, he added, “I’d be happy if they were gone.”

Doug Bosco, a co-founder and owner of Northwestern Pacific, said, “We abide by all the federal and state laws, we inspect these cars frequently. Most of them at almost any time are empty in any case, they are not carrying any product.”

Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribune.

Supervisor Susan Gorin noted in an email, “We did research this issue previously and talked with Doug Bosco, representative for the (Northwestern Pacific Railroad).”

Added Gorin: “With our county counsel, I am currently reviewing additional information provided to explore if there are other actions we can pursue in the future.”

Bosco said he understands that people are concerned about health and safety, but “accidents for the type of use we put this to don’t happen. We are not going to have derailments.”

Bosco said the LPG cars travel at 5 to 10 mph, sometimes a bit more, and “there is no chance they will be involved in a derailment or a high-speed collision.”

The North Bay doesn’t have an extensive pipeline system, so liquid petroleum and other fuels are transported by truck and by train, Bosco said.

“The tanker cars are safe,” he added. “They are the least dangerous way to transport and store the type of fuel they contain.”

Trouble in Schellville

tanker carTrouble in Shellville

“How disgusting they are, those dirty tanker cars,” says a local resident at the end of a meeting. “They mess up the natural scenery of the southern entrance to our Sonoma Valley wine country.  They must be dangerous, and I hate the way they look.  But I guess there is nothing we can do to make them go away”.

“No danger there,” says the spokesman for the railroad, himself a shareholder in the company that operates the tanker yard. “Those tanker cars are completely safe. Believe me.”

Then, one windy morning after a rainy period in December that has seen some flooding, a loud explosion wakens many of the locals still nervous from the October fires. A section of the saturated marshland that underlies the rail-storage yard has collapsed under the weight of more than a hundred fully-loaded tanker-cars stored there. One of the tankers has ruptured, and toxic chemicals are pouring into Railroad Slough. Soon to be on their way to Sonoma Creek and the Baylands and the San Pablo Wildlife Preserve.  Then to the waters of San Francisco Bay beyond.

A spark from the rupturing steel tanker ignites an escaping cloud of pressurized petroleum gas, and a huge ball of fire rushes across the landscape. Four feet above the ground, the flaring mass of expanding gas called a “bleve” incinerates everything within a mile radius as it travels. Power lines fall shutting off power to the entire area. Several new fires flare up along the blast’s perimeter. The wind from the blast carries the fire deep into the developed areas along both sides of Highways 121 and 116.  Just like the winds that fed the October fires last year.

The local fire station, home-base to the first responders in a disaster like this, is hit by the blast wave, and it is the first to burn.  Transmission lines and a tower goes down in the blast, and the new PG&E natural gas switching station across from the firehouse also explodes. All gas and electric services to the entire south end of the Sonoma Valley are shut down. Calls go out to up-valley fire fighters, pleading for them to join in to fight the fires and to help evacuate the people who are in danger.  As always, they are on the way.

Cornerstone, Larson Winery, Jacuzzi and many of the wineries and businesses along Arnold Drive are damaged by the blast. Buildings there are on fire. The Schellville airport, the landing place for air rescue planes, is gone. All three cross-valley highways are closed to through-traffic.

The fire spreads among the nearly 160 tanker cars that are stored in the yard. Several overturn or rupture in the blasts that follow. One by one, they explode. Eight hundred milk-cows at the historic Mulas Dairy are killed, the buildings devastated. Ceja Winery and the nearby homes and farms are gone. The new concrete warehouse buildings at Victory Station are scorched and badly damaged. Access for fire fighting is cut off, and the wood in the roofs and outside canopies is afire.  The pallet manufacturing plant down the street is already on fire. The flames feed on its stored lumber and its pallets ready for market. Another local business gone!

A fire-ball generated by the tanker car nearest to the 8th Street end of the track sets the nearby trees alight. The fire driven windstorm it causes reaches the local waste-water treatment plant.  The fires it starts there, plus the region-wide loss of power caused by the explosion and fire, shuts down all pumps and sensing equipment. Sewage treatment services for the entire City of Sonoma are interrupted, and thirty thousand people are in danger of evacuation for lack of sewer services!

Months later, the area is still devastated.  Insurance claims do not meet costs, rebuilding is slowed, sensitive environments will never recover, and the entrance to our beautiful valley is a scorched moonscape!

Rail Tankers Threaten Environmental Pollution and Damage!

Schell Slough, Sonoma Creek, San Pablo Bay
While fires have occupied the attention of Sonoma County residents this year, an additional potential disaster sits down the road in Schellville. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NPR) parks up to 160 tank cars filled with millions of gallons of liquid petroleum gas (LPG). It is highly dangerous and volatile. NPRR stores the tank cars laden with LPG through the winter months. Periodically tank cars are shipped to east bay refineries. Each tank car holds over 30,000 gallons.

Many have described the potential horror of an explosion at the site. A simple search on the internet under “LPG accidents” will provide lists of tragedies caused by a BLEVE. BLEVE stands for Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. While people focus on the drama and destruction of an explosion, there is an additional threat to our sloughs, waterways, and fields north of Highway 37. The environmental damage and pollution from such an accident is immeasurable.

schellville railyardEarthquake Threat To Sonoma
The railroad stores the 160 tank cars on tracks leased from SMART (Sonoma-Marin Transit). The tracks lie closely between two earthquake faults, the Rodgers Creek fault and the Eastside fault. The Rodgers Creek fault is an extension of the Hayward fault that runs through the east bay under the UC Berkeley campus, San Pablo Bay, and north towards Santa Rosa. Geologists indicate it is one of the most likely faults to soon cause a major quake in the Bay Area. The Eastside fault runs the length of Sonoma Valley and parallels the hills between Sonoma and Napa.

In the event of an earthquake….
If the quake’s magnitude was sufficient to cause a leak or upset a rail car(s) filled with LPG a BLEVE might occur. LPG is heavier than air. It moves along the ground. If ignited it causes a huge explosion damaging all around for a great distance.

Responding local fire departments would use chemicals to fight the blaze since water does not extinguish an LPG fire. Wherever the chemical compounds would flow there would be damage to earth, water, and nearby wildlife.

Get rid of the Schellville tanker yard

Posted on June 20, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun

How many warnings do we need before we get rid of the hundred or more LPG tanker cars that sit parked only a few hundred yards from the pallet factory on Highway 121 that burned again recently after two similar fires in 2007 and 2013?

The tanker yard escaped in the October fires, and again now when the wind was from the south and the sparks didn’t cross the highway to where the tanker cars still wait. But next time we could have a very different outcome. Just a single ember carried by the wrong wind, and the explosion there would make that exploding propane tank projectile we saw on TV this time look small.

Tanker accidents elsewhere in the USA reported balls of flame from a single tanker explosion that traveled five feet above the ground and took out the local first-responder fire station while consuming everything within a mile in a matter of seconds, setting fires all along the way. And here we have nearly a hundred tanker cars parked end-to-end in dry grasslands with no protection or blast walls – nothing!

Shame on the out-of-town Board members of SMART who needlessly put us at risk by allowing the NWPR railroad to put its storage yard there. Shame on the railway officials who put their profit before the safety of the people and businesses of the South Sonoma Valley who they are placing in peril.

And shame on us if we ignore this latest warning and don’t speak out. It’s time to get rid of the tanker yard before the season of fully-loaded, highly-explosive, LPG tankers is upon us again at the end of another dry year in the Sonoma Valley.

– Norman Gilroy, Schellville

Evacuation order lifted after 3-alarm blaze near Sonoma

By GEORGE KELLY | | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: June 5, 2018 at 2:46 pm | UPDATED: June 6, 2018 at 3:34 am

SCHELLVILLE — Firefighters are battling a three-alarm fire that erupted at a pallet factory south of Sonoma, leading to power outages and road closures around the North Bay, authorities said.

The fire was reported just after 12:30 p.m. at Sonoma Pacific, 1180 Fremont Road. By 1:30 p.m., evacuation orders went out for anyone living or working with a half-mile of that address, according to the California Highway Patrol.

As of 2:50 p.m., Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said those orders were lifted near the site, but said closures were still in effect for Eighth Street East at Schellville Road and at Fremont, and for Watmaugh Road at Broadway and at Napa/Burndale Road.


Fire at Schellville pallet factory closes roads, forces evacuations


pallet factory fireFirefighters Tuesday afternoon fought a large fire at a Schellville wooden pallet factory that forced neighborhood evacuations, blew up a propane tank and drew almost 100 firefighters from Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.

The three‑alarm fire on Fremont Drive was at the Sonoma Pacific Co., the same pallet business that burned in a massive fire in 2013 and suffered a smaller fire in 2007.

The blaze became the first for which emergency personnel used a new alert procedure, developed after the October wildfires, to send a message to smartphones in a select geographic area. Early reports are that the message, similar to Amber Alerts for child abductions, worked as intended in alerting residents of a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius of the fire.

“It was able to be isolated to the impact area,” said James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas said when he learned of the fire, his first thought was, “Again? Oh, geez, here we go.”

He said he arrived to see a plume of black smoke and “a ball of fire” about 100 feet tall.

The 12:30 p.m. fire burned about 10 percent of the operation, Mulas said. The cause remains under investigation and damage to the business was estimated at about $200,000.

The fire was full contained by 5 p.m., said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, who helped supervise the fire response.

pallet factory propane tankJust after 1 p.m. the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office ordered an evacuation for a half‑mile around the property at 1180 Fremont Drive due to the threat of explosions and fire. About 500 residents were evacuated, Mulas said.

Cynthia Owings, an architect who has lived in a rented home on the nearby RV storage lot for about four years, said she was working at the small farmhouse when the blaze broke out. Her roommate, Maurice Horn, first spotted the fire and told her to evacuate.

She grabbed her computer and a few belongings and headed to the nearby fire station.

“We moved in right after the fire in 2013,” Owings said. “I never dreamed another fire would happen. I feel blessed to be alive.”

The evacuation order was lifted just before 3 p.m. but several nearby roads remained closed, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Robert Mortensen, facilities manager for Sonoma Pacific Co., said about 40 employees evacuated the site.

Soon after getting word of the fire, Mortensen heard “little pops” and then the propane tank blew, he said. The large tank went airborne and landed on Fremont Street.

No injuries were reported from the explosion or fire, Cal Fire Capt. Will Powers said.

About 90 firefighters responded from three counties along with 28 engines, two air tankers ,and at least one helicopter and bulldozer.

The fire damaged about seven recreation vehicles on a nearby property, Mulas said, with two that may have been hit by remnants of the exploded propane tank. Firefighters were able to keep the flames from reaching another 58 RVs, he said.

The fire appeared to have started toward the back of the property. Huge mounds of ash were left of what apparently had been stacks of pallets, mulch and debris, and some commercial structures. Some vehicles also burned, including what appeared to be a cargo container and trailer.

“It’s a lot of destruction and we feel like we’ve got a handle on it. It could have been worse,” said Akre, the Sonoma Valley fire chief. He estimated the fire was contained to about a half acre of the business property.

John Brewer, who has worked on and off as a truck driver for the nearby E K Excavating for about 30 years, said he saw flames reaching the top of a nearby metal tower and burn power lines. He described the scene as a “giant barbecue.”

“The flames were just incredibly high – you could feel the heat all the way out to the road,” he said.

He said Tuesday’s fire was smaller in size and scope than the 2013 blaze, but was it was still cause for concern.

His company used its water truck to assist firefighter efforts for a couple hours, he said. The same truck was used to aid first responders during October’s fires in Glen Ellen, he said.

The fire was near the Schell‑Vista fire station, which was being used as an Election Day polling place. The election workers evacuated, moving to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 20505 Broadway. The church already was a voting location.

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The new alert procedures used for the first time Tuesday were developed after the county received harsh criticism for the way it alerted residents after the October wildfires, the most destructive in state history.

Under the procedures, for mandatory evacuations the county will use a “wireless emergency alert” system to send messages to smartphone users found inside a designated area determined by the county. If a smartphone in that area is turned on, the device will vibrate and an alert will pop up on the screen, said Briana Khan, a spokeswoman for the county.

Sheriff’s dispatchers, in coordination with county emergency management officials, sent out two alerts Tuesday, one in English at 1:28 p.m. and a second in Spanish at 1:39, Khan said.

Akre said the 2013 fire on the same property was worse than Tuesday’s blaze. The 2013 fire started when sparks from a tow truck pulling a car dolly ignited dry grass along the road near the business. The flames spread and ignited 40‑foot stacks of wooden pallets and burned 40 acres. Damage then was estimated at $1 million.

The 2007 fire was linked to a “heat-treatment box” designed to kill any pests in the pallets.

The first firefighters to the scene immediately ordered more help as the fire burned wooden pallets and generated a dark plume of smoke.

Schellville is a rural Sonoma Valley crossroads community that connects Sonoma and Napa counties. The business is on a major route and the CHP closed several surrounding roads including Fremont Drive at Broadway, Highway 12 at Watmaugh Road and Fremont at 8th Street East.

Rail officials: Petroleum tankers not a fire risk


Tankers in SchellvilleWhen the skies of Sonoma were an ugly sepia the second week of October, dozens of tankers that may have been carrying a highly flammable mix of butane and propane were stored on rail tracks south of the Carneros Highway.

The on-track holding of the LPG –or liquid petroleum gas –tankers was part of an arrangement finalized last year between SMART and the rail carrier, Northwestern Pacific. It was an arrangement that generated community concern at the time due to perceived danger of the LPG tankers so close to Sonoma’s population, and within its agricultural boundaries. That concern was raised anew last month, when numerous social media postings and inquiries received by the Index-Tribune again raised alarm over the possibility of a gas-fueled catastrophe adding to an ongoing disaster.

Liquefied petroleum gas is added to commercial automobile fuel during the cooler months, to create a so-called “winter blend” that evaporates, and combusts, at lower temperatures. But according to representatives from SMART and NWP, the actual risk of explosion was slight, and steps were taken by the railroad to prevent any possibility of calamity. “I was in town the whole time, keeping an eye on it,” said Jake Studer, general manager of Schellville depot. “I was in contact with one of the emergency operations center folks the entire time, at least twice a day, to reassure them –or to have them reassure me –that the fire wasn’t going to get any closer. ”He also pointed out that there were no trees close to the tracks, and that the landscape is regularly cleared of brush to within half a mile of the tracks.

Maps of the burned area show that a finger of what came to be called the Partrick fire reached down across the Carneros Highway toward the Schellville rails, approaching to within a few
hundred yards of the tracks near Ramal Road near the Napa/Sonoma county line. But Studer would not confirm that the LPG tankers were on those tracks at that time, nor for that matter what might have been in the tankers, citing federal safety precautions.

The controversy became heated late in 2016 and early 2017 when the negotiation between SMART and NWP became public; the resolution was for NWP to have use of the tracks for their freight business even though the lines are part of the purchase or lease that SMART owns, at least in theory. Though their business is primarily commuter transport along the Highway 101 corridor between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, SMART agreed to allow NWP to use the tracks for freight transport in off-commute hours and allow storage of in-transit freight near Schellville, outside the SMART commuter rail service area.

Former U.S. congressman Doug Bosco, part-owner and legal representative of NWP, pointed out that the railroad is technically owned by the public, and NWP doesn’t have discretion in what freight is shipped. “We have an underlying obligation as a common carrier, we are obligated to carry any legal freight that there is,” said Bosco. “LPG is legal freight.”

LPG is a highly flammable material and previous explosions of LPG tankers in transit have been cited in several rail disasters –the website chronicles dozens of these just from 2013. Tankers carrying petroleum or oil instead of LPG have been involved in additional accidents, including a 2009 derailment and fire in Viareggio, Italy, that killed 14, and one in July, 2013, in Quebec that killed 47. However, derailment is usually the precipitating incident in such accidents.

NWP officials point out that the Schellville tankers are stored, not in transit; and even when delivered to their destination, rarely reach high speeds. “The times when LPG cars cause serious problems is when they derail, when they’re subjected to high-speed derailment,” said Bosco. “On our line they only go about 10 miles an hour.”

Additionally, the tankers implicated in many rail car incidents –so-called DOT 111 tankers –are not presently in use by NWP customers, at least according to Studer. “They were pulled out of service because they weren’t suitable,” he said, saying the tankers being used now are DOT114 and other models. The Federal Railroad administration issued a directive to owners in October 2016 that certain DOT-111 tank cars built between 2009 and 2015 they may have “substantial weld defects” that could result in the release of hazardous materials. Though the rail industry objected to tougher Obama-era regulations to retrofit or replace older rail cars by 2018, the aging out of the DOT-111 is inevitable .“The LPG cars that are used are constructed in such a way that they are impervious to the type of heat that that fire could produce,” said Bosco. “Also, the cars are parked in a place where they couldn’t come in contact with the fires –the fields on both side have been plowed. We weren’t concerned in that respect.

”First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose district the Schellville tracks are located, has in the past asked for greater oversight of the Schellville yard and its use for storage, though because of the risk of LPG fires. Flooding from rising sea water and the proximity to valuable vineyards are also of concern to Valley economy and livelihood, she has maintained. Gorin was unavailable for comment on the issue this week, her office citing the post-emergency workload of the Board of Supervisors.

SMART, meanwhile, said Northwestern Pacific Railroad must adhere to strict safety protocols in storing the liquid petroleum gas on its line. “SMART’s agreement with (North Coast Railroad
Authority) and the freight carrier requires that (NWP) implement public health and safety measures, including having an emergency response plan, safety and security procedures and safety protocols,” said SMART spokesperson Jeanne Belding.

Still, for NWP’s man in Schellville, safety procedures and protocols were only part of the story. “It’s something I take real serious, especially since I live here, my family and friends live here,” said Studer. “You don’t want dangerous things in your community –but it doesn’t excuse you from doing your job.”

Contact Christian at

Hazardous tankers here to stay


It looks like those railroad tankers parked on the tracks near Schellville may be there for a while, under terms of a 30-year agreement reached between Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART), which owns the rail lines, and the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), which claims freight rights. The agreement was approved by the SMART board of directors on Wednesday, Feb. 15, one week after the NCRA signed off on it.

sonoma tanker carsSMART officials and Valley residents first went public with their concerns in September, saying that the 80 tankers filled with 2.6 million gallons of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stored in Schellville at that time posed a potentially catastrophic risk to public safety. The site is about 13 miles east from where SMART plans to begin passenger service later this year, but only about three miles from the Sonoma Plaza, and less than half a mile from the Sonoma Valley Sanitation District’s reclamation plant.

SMART objected to NCRA and the local rail operator, Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP), about their right to store the tankers on lines that SMART owns. Although the light rail transportation company has no plans to open a route from Novato or San Rafael into the Sonoma Valley, they own the rails to the Lombard Station in Napa County.

The NCRA appealed to the federal oversight agency, the Surface Transportation Board, on the grounds that interstate commerce trumps all when it comes to what is carried on rail lines. The STB is a five-member board, all appointed to five-year terms by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Possibly thinking chances of winning such an appeal were slim, SMART executive director Farhad Mansourian began negotiations with NWP’s lawyer and part-owner Doug Bosco, to come up with a solution. (Bosco, a former area U.S. Congressman, is a partner in Sonoma Media Investments which owns the Index-Tribune.)

Adding incentive to the negotiation was the fear that if the STP sided with Northwestern Pacific, SMART would lose all rights to limit storage of tankers anywhere along its lines – including in the prime and populated 101 corridor, from Larkspur to Healdsburg.

Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), typically a blend of propane and butane, is added to winter blends of gasoline to increase its volatility – it burns better in cooler weather, and it can be cheaper. It’s generally the same stuff used in a propane tank for barbecues, but ratios of propane and butane differ. The LPG that was stored in Schellville in September was eventually shipped to East Bay refineries including Valero and Tesoro for use in winter fuel blends and, according to shipping manifests, the tanker cars that are in Schellville now are empty – though they will be swapped out for full tanks later this year.

Under the terms of the settlement, the freight operator is agreeing to disclose manifests that include hazardous materials and to provide that information to first responders and SMART dispatch. They also found agreement on a co-schedule that will allow freight rail on the SMART lines through the 101 corridor, on hours when passenger rail is minimal or absent, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But the agreement also drops the appeal to the federal Surface Transportation Board, and gives the railroads the right to store up to 160 oil tankers at what they are calling “the Schellville yard” – 80 tank cars each on two 6,000-foot long spurs running south from the area of the obsolete Schellville Station, at the intersection of Highway 121 and Eighth Street East.

That agreement pitted supervisor against supervisor, district against district in Sonoma County politics. And it’s the 1st District – where the gas tankers are located – that’s getting the raw end of the deal, according to Supervisor Susan Gorin.

Following the agreement announced on Monday, Gorin fired off an early-morning email to the SMART board – which includes her fellow supervisors David Rabbit and Shirlee Zane.

“Needless to say, I am not pleased with the agreement that allows tankers to be permanently stored in Schellville, one of the most fragile, and vulnerable areas in the County and an area highly susceptible to flooding and bay level rise,” wrote Gorin.

She goes on to observe that the tankers are visible at “the gateway to one of the most scenic tourist destinations in Sonoma County” and to neighboring Napa County as well. In addition, reaching out to a specialized constituency, she wrote, “The fragile wetlands is home to one of the most vibrant bird populations in the Bay Area, the destination of bird watchers all over the world.”

“You represent Sonoma County on the SMART board, but apparently not Sonoma Valley,” she concluded.

In response, Supervisor Rabbitt, who represents the Sonoma-Marin border district from Petaluma, reminded Gorin that he had told her about the agreement a week earlier, adding that, “There was no surety about SMART’s authority over that industrial siding in Schellville as federal pre-emption, commerce, and rail statutes most likely prevail.”

“And that is true regardless of the wishes of SMART and even the community,” wrote Rabbitt. “If you have a different legal opinion, please bring it forward.”

Which may explain why Supervisor Gorin was present at the SMART board meeting in Petaluma the next day, Feb. 15, that approve the negotiated agreement.

Repeating many of the objections she made in her email, she also brought up concerns about projected sea-level rise that affects southern Sonoma County. “In a matter of decades, a lot of this Valley real estate will be under water or threatened because of inundation. This is exactly the wrong place to store LPGs or tankers in any part of this area.

“The very fact that they have to move the tankers just reaffirms how serious this area is for flooding,” she added, referring to some confusion over why the tankers have been seen in various parts of the Carneros region, not only in the Schellville yard but three or more miles away in the flats east of Ram’s Gate and Viansa Winery, within sight of the Sonoma Raceway.

Jon Kerriush, SMART’S superintendent of transportation, confirmed the tankers had been moved to “high ground” when flooding in the Schellville area is a problem, as it frequently is when it rains. He added that moving the tankers to another location for as long as 48 hours is not considered storage, but “transport.”

Following the SMART board’s unanimous vote to approve the agreement, Gorin announced that she will be calling a public meeting in the next few weeks, inviting SMART’s chair Deborah Fudge, Director Mansourian, and Rep. Mike Thompson, among others.

“We may be living with these tankers for a very long time, with limited ability to control storage, materials or operations,” she said. “The Valley needs to get an education on where the tracks are, what’s in the agreement between SMART and the NCRA, and what it means to the Valley.”

SMART railroad set to allow gas tankers at site

PUBLISHED: February 14, 2017 at 12:09 am | UPDATED: July 19, 2018 at 12:08 pm

A North Coast freight operator can continue storing rail tanker cars filled with liquefied petroleum gas south of Sonoma under a tentative agreement that seeks resolution of the monthslong dispute.

Officials at the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority had sought to prevent storage of gas tankers in Schellville on the grounds the highly flammable contents are a major public health threat.

But SMART officials have now tentatively agreed not to stand in Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s way of using the site for hazardous materials storage, as long as certain terms and conditions are met.

SMART’s board of directors is scheduled to vote on the proposed agreement at a meeting Wednesday in Petaluma.

SMART officials first went public Sept. 23 with concerns that 80 tankers filled with 2.6 million gallons of gas stored in Schellville posed a potentially catastrophic risk to public safety. The site is about 13 miles east from where SMART plans to operate passenger service, currently set for late spring.

SMART later used its dispatch authority to prevent a dozen more rail cars filled with an estimated 396,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas from being transported to the site, resulting in those cars being turned around in American Canyon.

Northwestern Pacific had argued the storage in Schellville met applicable federal laws for the storage of hazardous materials and that SMART was interfering with federal interstate commerce.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, however, the freight operator is agreeing to disclose manifests that include hazardous materials, and to provide that information to first responders and SMART dispatch.

The railroad also would agree not to store hazardous materials anywhere along the Highway 101 corridor where passenger service will run, according to Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency overseeing freight service on the line.

The tentative resolution on the gas tankers is among a number of proposed amendments to a 2011 coordinating agreement between SMART and Northwestern Pacific governing shared use of the track.

Stogner called the status of current negotiations a “very positive development,” saying “the rules are very well-defined, assuming SMART approves this agreement.”

Deb Fudge, chairwoman of SMART’s board, praised the tentative agreement Monday, saying it brings more transparency to the transport and storage of hazardous materials along the rail agency’s right-of-way.

“The main thing SMART was interested in was in not having these gas tankers move (further) into Sonoma and Marin counties,” Fudge said.

As for hazardous materials still being stored in Schellville, Fudge made the case that conditions will be safer under the new requirements, including information provided to first responders.

SMART, however, will be giving up its stated goal of preventing Northwestern Pacific from storing hazmat at the site entirely. The freight operator is planning to bring in more gas tankers to Schellville this spring and store them there until refineries need them for summer fuel blends, according to Stogner.

The two sides have been dueling before the federal Surface Transportation Board, which was focused on the dispute over the gas tankers. The agency had been poised to render a potentially precedent-setting ruling over common carrier obligations. Now, with the tentative agreement with SMART, Northwestern Pacific, which had sought an emergency injunction against rail agency, will drop its petition.

Doug Bosco, co-owner of Northwestern Pacific, is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.