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Explosive rail cars remain by preschool

(The following article by Erik N. Nelson was posted on the Inside Bay Area website on February 12.)

RODEO, Calif. -- Ron Green didn’t know, exactly, what was inside the line of massive black rail tank cars a block from his house, but after decades of working at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, he knew it was probably something dangerous, like flammable ethanol.

What troubled Green wasn’t so much that the cars were near his house or the apartments next door in this small bayside community 12 miles north of Richmond.

Rather, he worried that the cars posed a threat to the preschool just across the street from the dozen or so tankers.

“It’s OK if they blow me up, but let’s not blow up the little kids,” Green said.

“I went over and told them about that a few years ago,” he remembered. “I said, ‘You’ve got all these alcohol cars right there,’ and they called the refinery, and in a day or so they were gone.”

That was that until several months ago, when the tank cars reappeared. Green fretted about it until late January, when he read a MediaNews story about hazardous tank cars’ potential as terror targets.

He called the author of the story and set in motion an inquiry by a county agency, the local Conoco Phillips refineryand interest among advocates of tightening safety and security for the nation’s hazardous rail shipments.

“We’ve got tank cars next to a day care center, and there’s got to be a law against it,” Green lamented. “I’ve complained to everybody, but nobody will listen to me.”

But what he discovered is that if there isn’t a law now, there very well may be one soon, if the politically shifted Congress and federal railroad and security agencies follow through with a recent push to rein in tank car security.

Green also discovered that the markings on warning placards on the cars indicated that they weren’t carrying ethanol, but highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas.

Federal regulations proposed in December by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Security Administration would limit the amount of time highly hazardous materials like LPG or deadly chlorine and ammonia can be stored on railroad siding tracks in populated urban areas.

At the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department, which operates the Bayo Vista Head Start preschool in question, staffers began working on the problem right after a MediaNews reporter and photographer showed up inquiring about Green’s complaint.

“We were aware that those tankers moved back,” said department spokeswoman Lynn Yaney. The department contacted the refinery and were told “the tanks located on the railroad do not belong to the refinery.”

Local Conoco Phillips spokesman Mark Hughes said he hasn’t been around long enough to remember past dealings with the community or Head Start, but such interaction would be “a great idea.”

“When it comes to off-site storage of tank cars,” however, “it’s really not something that we have control over. It’s the railroad that controls where they store their cars.”

In light of community concern about the tankers, Hughes added, “it strikes me as an issue that I need to bring to the attention of the railroad to see what, if anything, they can do to address our neighbors’ concern.”

Union Pacific, which operates the rail line and siding track that runs between San Francisco Bay and Rodeo, only stores the cars at that location when Conoco Phillips has no place to keep them, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.

“The tracks next to that school are support tracks for that facility,” Davis said. “If our customer, for whatever reason, is not able to accept rail cars, then that’s where those cars go.”

Davis said when the community raised concerns about the cars several years ago, “we brought in the Federal Railroad Administration and had them look over the operation. They took no exceptions to the way the rail cars were positioned.”

That kind of federal oversight is just what activists on the issue of hazardous rail transport have been trying to change, said Fred Millar, who works with environmental group Friends of the Earth on the hazardous tanker issue.

“This is outrageous behavior, but it’s not unusual,” said Millar, who has rallied cities across the nation — most notably a test case in Washington, D.C. — to draft their own regulations in defiance of near-absolute federal authority over railroads. “If you were to do a consequence scenario of what would happen in Rodeo, just one LPG tank car could explode, and it would put a giant fireball over your city, and it would radiate heat,” as when a 1977 Tennessee derailment that killed 16 people catapulted a section of tank car more than 300 feet and set fire to nearby buildings.

County officials are optimistic that the problem can be resolved.

Yaney said Head Start staff assured her “Conoco has been very responsive to us, and they don’t see any problem getting things moved.” Someone from the department should be contacting the oil firm’s representatives this week.

Monday, February 12, 2007

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