INDEX-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER | November 6, 2017
When 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 dot111.info 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.”
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