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By Lois Henry
I’ve been in the news biz a long time, but I'm still fuzzy on why some stories that I think are amazing, outrageous even, seem to fizzle with the public.
For example, the great piece by John Cox in the May 18 paper on the anticipated explosion (pun intended) in the number of oil trains that our community can expect in the next year or two.
Websites for more information about oil trains
Federal Railroad administration
Main page: http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0001
Accident and fatalities data: http://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/Find#p1_z5_lAC
The public can also email the FRA at: email@example.com
California State Emergency Response Commission
Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.
Nearly 300,000 barrels a day (about 12 million gallons) of highly flammable oil will be rolling through Bakersfield pending construction of two new oil terminal hubs.
We'll go from one oil train every month or so to an average of one every six hours.
Repeat, one train every six hours.
This is North Dakota Bakken shale oil. It’s highly volatile, considered a hazardous material by the Federal
Railroad Administration, and killed 47 Canadians last year.
These trains will rumble right by Bakersfield and South high schools, Fruitvale Junior High School, Mercy Hospital downtown, our main city and county buildings, including the police station, pass within a mile of the busy Northwest Promenade and slice by countless homes and businesses. And these trains will have no local safety oversight. None.
That’s up to the feds. Local safety agencies are essentially on mop-up duty.
I read that story and my jaw dropped.
But the public ... eh.
Perhaps it’s the name — oil train. It sounds grimy and sort of fuddy duddy. Not nearly as flashy and sinister as “fracking.”
But while fracking (using water and chemicals to fracture rock deep underground) has gone on locally for more than 40 years and has never been shown to contaminate groundwater, cause earthquakes or send entire neighborhoods up in a ball of flame, that’s what gets all the hype these days.
Up to and including the City of Arvin briefly considering a temporary fracking ban earlier this month based on some dubious report by a private environmental group claiming it had discovered “fracking chemicals” in Arvin’s air.
All of which was in response, sort of, to a gas leak on a line owned by Petro Capital Resources LLC that prompted the evacuation of three dozen people from one neighborhood March 18. Petro Capital Resources does not and has not ever fracked an oil well but once the “F” word was uttered, hysteria ensued.
Meanwhile, news of these two new oil hubs and the oil train stampede they will bring barely caused a ripple.
I can sort of understand the “huh?” attitude on one project. That’s the oil hub by Plains All American Pipeline LP, which is already under construction southwest of Bakersfield and just east of Taft.
It flew way under the radar because it’s in an area that allows heavy industry so it didn’t need special zoning and was approved without any public hearings.
When completed, that hub will take 140,000 barrels (5.9 million gallons) of oil a day and send it by pipeline to refineries in the Los Angeles area.
That amount of oil works out to about 196 oil tank cars coming down the Sunset Railroad line, a stone’s throw from South High, every day. And that’s just for one of two planned terminals.
The Plains project recently did come under fire because Plains also wanted to build a 6-mile-long pipeline that crossed county right of way. County planners initially floated a negative declaration, a lesser step than a full blown environmental impact report.
That drew the comment letter from the Natural Resources Defense Council and local Sierra Club, along with two half-foot-thick binders of exhibits.
Plains withdrew its application for the pipeline and is looking for a new way to route the oil.
The other hub is planned for the refinery on Rosedale Highway owned by Alon USA Energy Inc. That project did require an environmental impact report, which was just released online by the Planning Department.
Alon’s hub would take 150,000 barrels (6.3 million gallons) of oil every day, refine half locally and send the rest to northern California refineries. That will mean 210 rail cars filled with Bakken oil on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line passing by Bakersfield High, Mercy, etc. every day. And that’s counting only one of two proposed terminals.
Again, there is zero local input on safety measures surrounding this volatile substance careening through the heart of town. Our safety is in federal hands.
OK, so who in the federal government can we, the peons who have to live with this stuff, contact for more information?
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that’s not an easy question to answer.
But here goes. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issues safety regulations for railroads, so you can start there (see side box for websites).
In recognition of the potential dangers of Bakken oil and the massive ramp-up of oil trains heading west, the FRA is working on more stringent safety regulations, which haven’t come out yet.
The FRA did issue an emergency order earlier this month that requires railroads with trains carrying 1 million or more gallons of Bakken oil to file detailed notifications with the State Emergency Response Commission.
The notifications must include, among other things, the estimated number of trains per week, a description of the crude that’s being transported and the routes the trains will travel. I think trains carrying any amount of Bakken oil should have to file the notices, but I wasn’t asked.
The notices have to filed by early June. And they should be public.
That’s great for those of us who want to find out more about oil trains in our community. There weren’t any notices on California’s Emergency Response Commission website that I could find. And phone calls I made to people listed on the “oil by rail” section also yielded nothing.
Maybe I’m overly anxious.
It’s probably from all the fracking.