Feb 26, 2019
By Tom Martin
(This article is the second in a series. The first article is available here.)
When taken together, two separate events at the beginning of this year illustrate how much danger lurks in Schellville due to the presence of the more than 130 LPG rail tankers that are stored there now.
January-February brought over Two (2) feet of rain to the Sonoma Valley. During that time, and to the surprise of many residents, the North West Pacific Railroad moved its rail tankers filled with Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) twice from Schellville to higher ground on the through track near Tolay Creek and Ram’s Gate Winery. This move brought the gas-laden tankers to within a couple of hundred feet of Highway 121, putting passing commuters in danger whenever passing (see photo). When the rains subside, the tankers are returned to the Schellville yard. At the same time the tracks eastward off Ramal Road are blocked.
In mid-January, 2,000,000 Gallons Of Sewage Filled Schellville Slough! As explained by the Sonoma County Sanitation District, the cause of the spill was a faulty valve that leaked effluent into the wildlife preserve. There have been no published reports of damage resulting from the spill. Water District officials told local news services, however, that we were lucky to have a period of heavy rain that diluted the sewage. The sanitation plant serves 11,000 customers, almost all of whom live in the City of Sonoma.
The Relationship between the Tankers and the Sewage Plant... In the event of a tanker fire and explosion at the northern end of the Schellville tanker yard, the city sewage plant may be in jeopardy and under threat of closure. The plant and the rail tankers are a mere half mile apart. Recall last year’s fire nearby at the pallet factory. A gas tank there, small in comparison with just one tanker car, exploded and rocked the area. The tank itself was thrown in the air across Highway 121. Citizens fear the damage and chaos if one or more of the nearly 160 tankers stored at the Schellville yard caught fire or exploded. Each tanker holds over 30,000 gallons of pressurized liquefied petroleum gas.
A fire in one or more tankers parked near 8th Street East could cause an explosion that would be large enough for the blast and flames to reach the sanitation plant, and beyond. Are those sewage valves likely to just leak again in such a horrendous event? Or, more likely, they will disappear altogether, releasing untreated sewage into the wetlands in amounts far in excess of what was experienced in January. How long would sewer service to residents of the City of Sonoma be interrupted while the plant is repaired or rebuilt?
To make things worse, LPG fires cannot be extinguished with water; they require foams and chemical retardants. Thus, Schellville Slough, Sonoma Creek, and the wetlands they serve, all the way to San Francisco Bay, would be environmentally devastated, this time not just by leaked sewage but by fire-fighting chemicals. - Truly a disaster waiting to happen!
Subsidence, or soil failure under stress of weight, could tilt or topple a tanker, and subsidence is especially likely in times of flooding, or in an earthquake. Fear of an accident due to subsidence and potential track failure is likely why the tankers were moved to “higher ground” this year when the tanker yard was flooded, as it is at that time every year! A 2007 geologist’s report done for the North Coast Railroad Authority concluded that subsidence was a serious problem:
“The rail line is built on intertidal deposits between Lombard (Napa County) and Petaluma (often referred to as Bay Mud). The intertidal deposits consist of soft compressible silts, clays and occasionally peat. These materials are very weak and susceptible to settlement when loaded with fill. A geotechnical investigation by Kleinfelder (2007) south of Petaluma indicates that these sediments have been compressed as much as 6.5 feet from the loading of the railroad embankment. Progressive compression and resulting subsidence is a common occurrence when heavy loads, such as an embankment is placed above.”
The tanker farm is located within 2 kilometers of the Rodgers Creek-Healdsburg fault. This fault is considered the most likely to move among several in northern California. The geologist’s report to the North Coast Railroad Authority indicated a high degree of problems in case of an earthquake.
“The rail line and bridges are susceptible to significant ground shaking and liquefaction from earthquakes that could damage the line. In addition, the rail line could be damaged by displacement where active faults cross the line along the Lombard (Napa County) to Novato segment and in Bakers Creek. Potential impacts vary based on a number of factors including distance to the epicenter, magnitude of the earthquake, duration of ground shaking, nature of the underlying soils, and the construction of the structures.”
Who knows what madness rests in some people’s heads? A domestic terrorism attack is always a possibility, as is vandalism or just human stupidity. Tankers in storage are supposed to be enclosed by protective fencing and guarded day and night. Yet at the Schellville yard there are no fences, and very few people are ever seen on the premises except when new trains pass through. Whether guarded or not, the tankers sit for most of the time in the open near two heavily travelled major thoroughfares, and protection appears minimal.
Errant Stupidity! When the volunteers at Mobilize Sonoma were collecting petition signatures at the Farmers Market to call for the removal of the tankers, one signator exclaimed, “Yeah. I go out there hunting!” A misaimed shot that ruptures a tanker could cause death and destruction for miles around in Schellville whether it comes from a hunter’s firearm or just the gun of a nearby crazy person with destruction on his mind.
Why does the railroad store the tankers in Schellville? It’s because they, and everybody involved, makes money. The North Coast Railroad Authority, and its contractor, NWPCo., make money from the oil companies who pay to have the LPG stored off site rather than at their refineries . The track owners, SMART – Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit – collect fees from North Coast Railroad. All of them profit at the expense of the safety of Sonomans, their sewage plant, their wineries, their businesses, and their households.
This potential environmental disaster lurks just beyond the city limits of the City of Sonoma. The City Council should be concerned enough to raise its voice in protest. When the City Council of Benecia revoked the railroad’s permit in 2016, it stopped the movement of rail tankers through their city. A Sacramento Bee editorial applauded Benecia for acting on behalf of the cities of Sacramento, Davis, and Vacaville.
Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor was quoted in the Bee, “The community of Benecia, in the cross hairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.”
Sonoma County Supervisors also need to take a stand. Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane serve on the SMART Board, and they are there to speak for the people of all the County, not just their District. When the City of Novato disputed practices of SMART, the suit it filed resulted in an agreement and a consent decree that satisfied its residents. Will the City and/or County of Sonoma take similar steps, this time to get the tankers out of Schellville and to remove the danger that is present every day there?
As a reader, you can do something to help. Join over 360 citizens who have signed petitions asking for the removal of tankers in Schellville. Go to www.mobilizesonoma.org to sign a petition.
Accidents do happen! There have been 37 major LPG accidents in North America since 2012. Let’s make certain Sonoma-Schellville isn’t No. 38!
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