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.