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Communities Fight to Prevent 'Bomb Trains' from Passing by the L.A. River

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A train on the Union Pacific tracks a long the L.A. River | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons

Church bells rang 47 times last Monday in Lac-Mégantic as locals came together to remember each of the victims of a horrific rail disaster in the Quebec town two years ago. Aside from the cost to human life, all but three of the buildings in downtown had to be demolished due to petroleum contamination when an unmanned 72-car train rolled downhill and derailed, spilling and igniting six million liters of carrying volatile fracked shale oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

These trains have become known as "bomb trains" due to their destructive track record. At any given time about 9 million barrels of crude oil are moving over the rail lines of North America. In less than a decade, there has also been 43 times more oil moved through U.S. railways, increasing the likelihood of tragic explosions and spills.

SoCal environmentalists are trying to prevent the same type of tragedy from happening in Los Angeles and by the Los Angeles River, an area slated for a $1-billion facelift in the coming years.

"We don't need to put our water sources and communities at risk from bomb trains when we can invest further in public transit, more efficient cars that would run from solar power or advanced biofuels, heating and cooling using renewable energy sources," says Jack Eidt, urban planner and environmental designer. He is also the publisher of Wilder Utopia and directs Wild Heritage Planners.

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He, along with about thirty organizations such as Burbank Green Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, ForestEthics, Sierra Club, SoCal 350 Climate Action, and Tar Sands Action Southern California, are working hard to oppose the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery crude expansion, which would extend the existing rail track by 6,915-foot east on the Union Pacific rail mainline and install equipment needed to enable rail delivery of North American crude oil. It would up the volume of oil transported via rail through major cities on its way to Philips' Santa Maria Refinery, a 1,780-acre property adjacent to State Highway 1 on the Nipomo Mesa.

They are holding a Stop Oil Trains Day of Action at Union Station this July 11, as part of the National Week of Action to Stop Oil Trains. Environmentalists, community organizers, people from the indigenous community, as well as poets and musicians, will be present to educate the public about this looming issue.

They're hoping that the Los Angeles City Council will join in the chorus of over 30 city and county governments to stop this project expansion. "We would love to see Councilmember Huizar sponsor the measure, because his district encompasses many neighborhoods that could be affected by a rail accident," says Eidt. Resolutions have already been introduced and approved Mar Vista Community Council, as well as the Echo Park and Silver Lake Neighborhood Councils the City to take action.

With the extension, the company to plans to move 20,800 crude tankers to and from their Nipomo facility every year. These can be 80-car trains that stretch a mile-long.

Environmentalists worry this would jack up the risks for communities that exist along the Union Pacific Rail lines. "Maps in the EIR show these trains proposed to pass back and forth between Colton and the Central Coast, passing right through downtown, along the L.A. River and out toward Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley," says Eidt, "In the future, we are sure that the trains would also be running south toward the Port of Los Angeles."

Mainline Rail UPRR Routes to the Santa Maria Refinery | Image: SLO County
Mainline Rail UPRR Routes to the Santa Maria Refinery | Image: SLO County

The project's required environmental review offered no reassurance either. A document released last November garnered 20,000 comments from organizations and individuals across the state opposing the project. The review showed that more than 20 significant and unavoidable adverse impacts to the environment, including rail accident risks along the main line that could result in oil spills, and fires and explosions near populated areas.

There have already been six major accidents across North America in this year alone, including one last week in Tennessee when a train carrying hazardous material derailed and caught fire. Five thousand people living within a mile and a half of the site had to be evacuated.

Atwater Village residents will remember the oil spill last year, when above-ground pipeline burst in the 5100 block of West San Fernando Road. It sent a geyser 20 to 50 feet into the air. Quick action prevented the oil from spilling into the Los Angeles River, but we might not be so fortunate the next time.

"The project is part of a wider expansion to bring tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada, into West Coast ports for processing and export," says Eidt. "Because activists, like our coalition, have fought hard to stop projects like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline across the middle of the U.S., the oil industry has turned to shipping crude by barge and rail."

Though the project isn't in the city, "this is a health and safety issue for the City of Los Angeles," says Eidt. "The P66 Santa Maria EIR stated that emergency responders would not be equipped to deal with a derailment or explosion of a 100-car train carrying toxic crude. We need to focus on optimizing our rail transportation network with high-speed rail and Metrolink/Amtrak, which will use the same right-of-way/rails respectively. Metrolink has had a difficult history of accidents that have caused a significant toll on communities. Factor in volatile crude oil into the mix and we are looking at trouble."

Rather than invest in these projects, Eidt says we should find more sustainable methods of transportation, heating, cooling, and manufacturing. Eidt recommends looking at Mark Z. Jacobsen's Solutions Project and Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute, both of which say we can transition to an economy that doesn't degrade the environment, but uplifts it. For example, if cars were made out of fiber composites as opposed to 19th century steel, it would keep them moving faster and longer.

"Crude oil, natural gas, and coal need to be phased out today, and the workforce must be retrained, our consumer choices must be more informed and in most cases curtailed," says Eidt. "We should consider eating lower on the food chain, we must pass a carbon tax to get the fossil fuel companies to pay for their pollution, and that dividend should be given back to households to meet the cost of a just transition off fossil fuels."

Learn more about the event here.

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