As part of the budget they approved Sunday, legislators added seven rail-safety inspectors. They also included a 6.5-cent fee proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown on each barrel of crude oil that comes to California by rail. The $11 million or so raised annually will be used to prevent and clean up oil spills, especially in inland waterways.
On Monday, the state Senate passed a resolution urging the federal government to pass laws and rules to protect communities from oil train accidents, including tougher standards on tank cars, and to put "safety over cost effectiveness."
That sends an important message because, so far, federal officials have not required enough of railroads and oil companies — either in safety measures or public disclosure — to keep pace with a rapid increase in rail shipments of oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing, especially in Canada and North Dakota.
But there's more that California officials can do.
Sens. Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Lois Wolk of Davis have a bill for a second as-yet unspecified shipping fee on oil companies to fund training and equipment for firefighters and other first responders. A recent state report found that 40% of local firefighters are volunteers who generally don't have the resources to handle major hazardous material spills.
First responders often don't have all the information they need, either. Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento is pushing a bill to require companies to tell emergency officials about crude oil shipments. The latest version does away with an exemption from the state public records law; instead, it says reports would be deemed "proprietary information" that could only be shared with "government personnel with emergency response, planning or security-related responsibilities on a need-to-know basis."
Time is of the essence since oil trains could be running through the Sacramento region later this year. The oil trains are not scheduled to go through Valley towns at this point, but that is little comfort since we all travel and do business statewide.
An environmental impact report released Tuesday offers some reassurances but no guarantees. The draft report concludes that while a crash or spill could be catastrophic, the likelihood of an incident is "very low." Yet, it has happened elsewhere – six major oil train crashes in North America just in the last year, including the horrific fireball in Quebec that killed 47 residents.