INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER | February 16, 2017
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.
SMART 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.”