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Choo-Choo, Boom-Boom

The rail trestle between the John Muir House and Mount Wanda (named after his daughter) glows at sunset. Not as quaint as a covered bridge, the elevated line shines gold and rust and reminds me of the old West. Its likeness appears in murals around tiny Martinez. An icon, a landmark, and one that may blast us to high heaven.

The rail line running through Martinez, Richmond, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland and all points down to San Luis Obispo has become a blast zone. A local landlord says I’m alarmist. But after hearing Andres Soto of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) run through the dangers of crude-by-rail, I feel justified in my fear. Presenting to a citizens’ gathering in Concord, Soto explained the risks of transporting highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota and Alberta in ill-equipped rail cars, over shifting rail lines.



Soto, a native of Richmond, a saxophonist and grandfather of four, began his talk in front of an image from hell. The audience recognized the explosion as the 2013 destruction of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A 74-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed and then exploded. After the two-day blaze, the town was wiped out, and the land too poisoned to rebuild.

It can happen here, says Soto. With an increase in fracking, the volume of Bakken crude has increased by 4,000 percent. This “unconventional” highly combustible crude moves from central North America to refineries along the coasts in ill-equipped rail cars. The National Transportation Safety Board calls crude-by-rail an “imminent threat.” Meanwhile, refineries dotting the Bay Area are clamoring to expand operations to handle the increased load.


CBE has been in Richmond for 25 years and hired Andres a few days before the 2012 Richmond Refinery explosion. He had to learn the chemistry of oil, though, as a native of the area, he knew well the politics of oil. For example, in order to transport Canadian tar sand oil, it must be combined with benzene, making the mixture more corrosive and volatile. Refining tar sand crude also creates more toxic emissions and requires more water.  To offload a 100-car train of its crude takes 300 tanker truck trips going over land to the refineries near residential areas around the Bay.


Andres Soto, Communities for a Better Environment

At the end of his presentation, the audience peppered Soto with questions, and one woman asked him why we don’t hear more about something, well, so explosive. He agreed that news coverage has been meager, and attributed an investigation by KPIX as the first to grab media and citizen attention. He also referred the audience to ongoing coverage in the Benicia Independent.  He urged audience members to send letters to local district representatives and the federal government supporting lawsuits aimed at stopping refinery expansion to accommodate crude-by-rail.

According to Soto and CBE ally Earthjustice, we couldn’t build the (Keystone) pipeline fast enough to decrease the current danger to rail communities. The Department of Transportation (DOT) can’t develop a suitable rail car fast enough – it would take up to five years. In a damning series of slides, Soto revealed DOT rail cars, lined up in 100-110 car trains, have all proven to fail in derailments.

So who’s in charge and what can be done? Only the county planning commissions and supervisors, not cities, have jurisdiction over the lands that the refineries want to expand for increased loading and unloading activity. CBE and Earthjustice and allies aim their legal suits at these decision making bodies. They are suing the Rodeo supervisors for their “propane recovery project” agreement aimed at expanding operations on refinery grounds.  Soto indicated that Sacramento, Yolo and Davis counties are all sending comments to Benicia to stop expansion of crude-by-rail at the Valero plant, as it would mean increased danger to their communities.

The golden trestle over the John Muir House National Park looks less charming by the hour.

For more see Earthjustice and SFGATE/KPIX reports.  More also on the lawsuits here.

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