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Railroad tanker trouble doubles upon return

(The following article by Erik N. Nelson was posted on the Inside Bay Area website on March 6.)

RODEO, Calif. -- Just as both houses of Congress are discussing ways to better protect hazardous chemical shipments against terror attacks, that very tanker threat is back in Rodeo with a vengeance.

This time, there are not just a dozen cars marked to carry highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas parked across from a Head Start preschool, as there were in January. On Monday, there were 24.

And rather than promise that they will be removed, the railroad is faulting local governments for allowing the preschool there in the first place.

“We are in the business of dealing with children and their well-being,” said Lynn Yaney, a spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department, which runs the Head Start facility. “It’s very frustrating to have to continually contend with having these tankers across the street.”

Yaney said she has pestered both the Union Pacific Railroad and Conoco Phillips refinery, which produces the gas, to move the cars. Union Pacific continues to point the finger at Conoco Phillips -- whose representative could not be reached for comment -- saying that the refinery next to the town continues to ask for cars to load with the gas, one of several products that comes from oil refining.

“There just isn’t anywhere else in the system to do it,” said Wayne Horiuchi, the railroad’s special representative for governmental affairs in California and Nevada.

As a result of community and county concern, Union Pacific sent out a directive that “asks the train crews never to stage loaded cars down there,” Horiuchi said, so any cars parked there Monday would have been empty.

County safety authorities have said the cars pose a danger even if they are empty. Horiuchi acknowledged that “there may be some residue in there, but the risk is minimal.”

A greater risk faced by the school is from gasoline truck tankers that passed by the school three times recently as a Union Pacific worker stopped in Rodeo to take stock of the preschool-tanker issue, Horiuchi said.

“That risk, compared to the risk of empty tank cars 1,400 feet from the school, you’ve got to put this into perspective,” Horiuchi said.

He added that the trouble started when local authorities decided to put the school next to the railroad tracks in what had been an industrial area. Had he known the county was going to put the preschool there, he would have warned against it.

But Contra County Supervisor Gayle Uilkema said the school and residential development are not new.

“Where the tankers have been stored is an area that has been developed for decades,” she said. “The Housing Authority at Bayo Vista (which adjoins the preschool) has been there for at least 40 years.

“It was inappropriate to store stuff there before and it’s inappropriate to store it there now.”

The Rodeo dispute has resurfaced just as the House Homeland Security Committee was preparing to hear testimony today on the need to make hazardous rail shipments more secure against terror attacks.

In the Senate, presidential hopeful Joe Biden, D-Delaware, planned to introduce an amendment to a railroad security bill that would open the door for rerouting highly hazardous shipments such as liquefied petroleum gas and poisonous chlorine and ammonia around densely populated areas.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

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