Why does it matter?
There are many reasons why the issues at the Schellville rail-tanker yard should be resolved as soon as possible
- The continuing likelihood of an accident.
Every day when nearly a hundred loaded tanker cars full of LPG are standing in the Schellville yard is a day when a tragic accident could occur there. Hundreds of lives, and many millions of dollars in property values, are in danger. Important highways and vital infrastructure are at risk. Livestock and local businesses are threatened. And the likelihood of a chemical spill into the marshlands of one of the West Coast’s most significant environmental treasures is significant.
The risk is real, and the proof of risk is readily available. Thirty-seven documented rail-freight accidents, each involving hazardous materials, have occurred in North America since just 2012. In every case, the rail operators assured the public that there was no danger from their operations – until the day when the “accident” occurred – at which time they worked diligently to divert the blame.
The stage is set in the Sonoma Valley for just such an explosion and fire. The danger has been identified. Now is the time to mitigate it significantly, or to remove the risk altogether.
- The danger factors that are already in place at the Schellville yard.
The most consistent causes of rail-car accidents have been derailments, outside damage, or vandalism. Sometimes all three have occurred together, or have been coupled with up to ten other major potential causes of accidents and spills. All of which are present at the Schellville yard.
Given the danger involved, it is vital that the Schellville yard either be made safe, or be discontinued as soon as possible.
- The volatility of the materials that can be stored at the yard.
The Operating Agreement between SMART and NCRA anticipates that LPG (liquid petroleum gas) will be stored in the up to 160 tanker cars that can be accommodated at the Schellville yard. That represents a gross storage capacity of 5.4 million gallons of highly volatile LPG concentrated at a single location. Under any other circumstances, such a facility would require a number of permits and a detailed environmental review before it is allowed – if it is allowed at all. Hiding behind federal law, the HM storage site in Schellville was given none of that review.
- The extended range of reach in an explosion.
Experience gained the hard way at tanker car accidents elsewhere in North America and in Europe demonstrates that the LPG represents a real and present danger to the people, the businesses, and the environment of the Sonoma Valley within a radius of more than a mile of the storage yard. An explosion and fire can develop from what might otherwise seem to be a simple accident. A derailment, itself caused by settlement, earthquake, collision or human error, can cause a rupture in the skin of one or more tankers. Toxic chemicals can leach through the rupture into the surrounding marshland and sloughs. The rupture can also supply the spark that ignites a huge ball of gas – a bleve – that can travel a mile, incinerating everything in its path and setting fires as it goes. At some locations, even the ruptured tanks have traveled like flying bombs for distances of more than a quarter of a mile.
And the risk is even greater where there is a concentration of loaded rail-cars (160 of them can be assembled at the Schellville yard). A malfunction or explosion in just one of the tanker cars could lead to a chain reaction that could involve several tankers. The results could be devastating.
This is not the kind of facility which should be located in any occupied location, nor should its design and operation be left to the self regulation of an operator who clearly has an interest in achieving the greatest return for the smallest investment, and apparently has very little regard for public safety.
- The sensitivity of the environment that surrounds the site.
The Schellville yard lies in the center of a section of reclaimed marshland and it is also adjacent to Schell Slough, Railroad Slough and several of the channels that connect to Sonoma Creek to the west and Steamboat Slough to the east. A spill at the yard could spread quickly to the several significant federal and local wildlife-preserves that lie downstream from the yard, and to the waters of San Francisco Bay beyond. Even leakage under normal operations at the yard could effect the environmental balance of the area for many years to come.
- The intractability of the operators of the rail-storage yard.
Past experience has shown the operators of the Schellville yard to be resistant to expressions of public concern, and slow to respond when called on for repairs or improvements at the site. They hide behind arcane Federal railroad laws, and they resist local controls or even discussions with local authorities. The company’s investment in safety and security controls at the Schellville yard has been minimal in recent years, and some believe that to be because the operator is seriously underfunded. In 2017, it was revealed that NCRA is $10M in debt and without the ability to service that debt. None of this is good news in the case of an operator of a site where 5.4M gallons of highly explosive LPG can be stored at any one time.
- Public support for the removal of the tanker cars.
Virtually everyone who has been contacted at the local Farmers Markets or at local stores has very willingly signed the petition we have been circulating. It now has 333 signatures and rising. Some of the early signers have been emergency-response and first-responder professionals in the Valley who speak freely about their concern about the presence of, and the dangers of, a hazardous materials storage yard of that capacity at that location. Support for the local regulation of the tanker cars is expected to grow among the people of the community in the Sonoma Valley as that happens.