A prominent critic of the state’s readiness to respond to potential crude-by-rail accidents wants Gov. Jerry Brown to impose a moratorium on oil trains traveling through Northern California’s Feather River Canyon and more than a dozen other sections of railroad throughout the state.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) made the request after a Union Pacific freight train derailed on the Feather River route northeast of Oroville last week. A dozen cars of the train, which was carrying grain, left the tracks; one car spilled corn into the river.

Hill’s letter (embedded below) reminded the governor the incident was a close call:

Your Office of Emergency Services (OES) was quoted as saying that “we dodged a bullet” because the train was carrying corn rather than oil. OES stated that each week a train carrying 1 million gallons of highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota travels down the canyon and there are plans to add a second train shortly.

The incident serves as a warning alarm to the State of California. Had Tuesday’s derailment resulted in a spill of oil, the spill could have caused serious contamination in the Feather River, flowing into Lake Oroville, and contaminating California’s second largest reservoir that supplies water to the California Water Project and millions of people.

Hill’s letter goes on to call for a halt to shipments of crude oil and other hazardous substances on sections of railroad that the California Public Utilities Commission has identified as particularly hazardous. Those track segments include about 87 miles of the Feather River route between Oroville and Quincy and roughly 16 other sites throughout the state.

The CPUC identified rail segments with steep grades and sharp curves, many of which are situated adjacent to bodies of water. Because those sites are usually in remote areas, emergency responders are generally unequipped to respond quickly to accidents.

Hill asked Brown to impose a moratorium on hazardous materials shipments until state and local agencies “have developed and fully implemented emergency prevention and response plans are fully protective of our environment.”

Here’s Hill’s complete letter:

  • Ron Schalow

    The safety of millions of Americans who live, work, or play, within a mile of tracks where Bakken oil trains run, and the emotional state of family and friends who know these millions, are in the hands of three mortal men. Unfortunately, these men make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

    Myron Goforth, president of Dew Point Control LLC, in Sugarland, Texas, says, “It’s a little like the Wild West up in the Bakken, where everybody gets to do what they want to do. In the Eagle Ford (Texas shale play), you’ve got to play by the rules, which forces the oil companies to treat it (crude) differently.” — Reuters

    Six years after the first massive Bakken oil train explosion, outside of Luther, Oklahoma, and seven months since the last, in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, where a quirk of physics turned the exploding tanker cars towards the river, which served to spare many people and buildings; North Dakota oil Regulators are feeling pressure to require the Bakken oil producers to render the trains non-explosive. Yes; it’s been possible all along. It seems that politicians in some States don’t want their citizens, or towns, incinerated, or wish to watch property values drop in the meantime.

    Will they? Spoiler alert!


    The Bakken crude needs to be “stabilized,” to remove all of the explosive “natural gas liquids” (NGL’s), such as ethane, propane, and butane, which will require billions of dollars in additional equipment and infrastructure, and the oil companies don’t want to pay for it. So, there you have it. Stabilizing would remove a totally unnecessary risk, and the preparation would provide a nice further boost to the North Dakota economy, but hey.

    The Commission is going to sell a different process called “conditioning,” which the oil companies have been doing all along, and doesn’t do the job; unless towering fireballs, mushroom clouds, charred buildings, and graves, are the objective.

    Railway Age explains the difference well:

    “This conditioning lowers the ignition temperature of crude oil—but not by much. It leaves in solution most of the culprit gases, including butane and propane.

    Even the industry itself says conditioning would not make Bakken crude meaningfully safer for transportation, though it would make the state’s crude more consistent from one well to another.

    The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquefies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners. Stabilization is voluntarily and uniformly practiced in the Eagle Ford formation in Texas…”–Railway Age

    And, right on cue; on Thursday November 13th, Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms presented the North Dakota Industrial Commission with proposed new standards (there never were any old standards), to “condition” the Bakken crude, supposedly for the purpose of making the Bakken oil trains non-explosive, somewhat less explosive, kinda not explosive, get the height of the fireballs down into double digits…I don’t know.

    But, if the goal is to render the Bakken oil trains NON-explosive, the proposal to “condition” the crude isn’t going to cut it.

    I repeat; the producers have ALWAYS “conditioned” the crude, but, evidently, NOW they’re going to be “forced” by the North Dakota Industrial Commission to turn the knob a few notches to the right, and everything will be peachy.

    If it was that simple; perhaps they should have done that before dozens of people got killed…maybe sometime shortly after the first Bakken oil train derailed and blew sky high in 2008.

    Commission Chair, and North Dakota Governor, Jack Dalrymple has so much faith in “conditioning,” that his own emergency exercise of a Bakken oil train derailment and explosion estimated 60 casualties in Bismarck or Fargo, both medium sized cities in North Dakota. One can only guess the number of deaths, if a Bakken train were to jump the rails in Minneapolis, or Chicago.

    Furthermore; taxpayers are footing the bill for billions to outfit, equip, and train firefighters and emergency personnel to deal with a Bakken oil derailment and explosion. Quebec is on the hook for the $2.7 billion Lac-Megantic disaster…a village of 6,000.

    How much will it cost your community, if tragedy strikes? Will North Dakota pay?

    But, there is a bright side. When the next, or the next, or the next Bakken oil train disaster kills more people, and decimates a section of Albany, or Sacramento, or Missoula, or Perham, North Dakota can quit worrying about how to spend all of the money piling up in the Bank of North Dakota. It will be gone to the survivors. and a long list of stakeholders, due to willful negligence, disinterest, or incompetence, on the part of three men.

    “It took “more than 1,000 firefighters from 80 different municipalities in Quebec, and from six counties in the state of Maine” to help with evacuations and fire-fighting efforts in the small town (Lac-Megantic) of only a few thousand people.” –Transportation Safety Board of Canada

    Ron Schalow
    Fargo, North Dakota
    The Coalition for Bakken Crude Oil Stabilization

  • Liam

    This article & Ron Shalow’s response show that this is a volatile example of the lack of corporate health & safety oversight in the face of making money. However, this article leaves some questions unanswered:
    Where is this train going?
    What communities does the oil it brings support?
    What will be the job loss consequences if it were to stop running?
    Could the crude be brought via a safer path?

  • Steven Andersen

    I’m all for fewer trains carrying oil coming into California. But to be successful we need to reduce oil demand as well. It’s time to get serious about reducing car-dependent suburban/rural sprawl and not using “environmental quality” laws to throttle transit-oriented development in our coastal cities. In addition, the trucking lobby has been very creative in stopping improvements that would reduce congestion on California railways (e.g., fighting for the creation of Cesar Chavez National Monument in order to block the addition of a second track over much of highly-congested Tehachapi Pass). It seems as neither political party is willing to tackle these issues.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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