San Francisco Chronicle
California ranks No. 3 in nation in train derailments
On Saturday, another Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in Ohio. In a frightening echo of last month’s East Palestine disaster, local residents were told to shelter in place while hazmat crews arrived. Ultimately, the freight operator said, no hazardous materials were “involved” in the accident.
Two derailments in a single state in 30 days, including one full-on environmental disaster, is significant. Could the same thing happen in California?
Norfolk Southern doesn’t run trains in California. It operates in 22 states in the Midwest to the eastern seaboard, plus Washington, D.C.
But plenty of rail disasters have occurred in California.
Last year the state recorded 112 train accidents, third in the nation, trailing only Illinois and Texas, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis. It is unclear whether that tally includes local trains such as BART and Muni.
One of the last derailments that resulted in a headline-grabbing environmental disaster occurred in California in 1991, when a Southern Pacific train was involved in an accident that led to the spill of over 19,000 gallons of the herbicide metam sodium, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A tank car fell into the Sacramento River and the chemical impacts extended 20 miles from the spill site to Lake Shasta. The accident left more than a million fish and tens of thousands of crayfish and amphibians dead.
Could a major chemical spill occur in the Bay Area?
Adam Springer, an assistant director of Contra Costa County’s HazMat team, told the San Jose Mercury News that hazardous chemicals are “constantly” on trains going through the county, including flammable gases, sulfuric acid, alcohols and anhydrous ammonia.
One issue, he told the paper, is tanker cars that are overfilled: They release chemicals through pressure valves after the liquid inside the cars expands in heat.
The biggest freight companies in California, Union Pacific and BNSF, have had recent derailments, though the consequences have not been dire. In the early hours of the morning on February 20, four cars on a Union Pacific train derailed in Stanislaus County, according to CBS News 13 in Sacramento. No injuries were reported and no hazmat response was needed.
A BNSF train in Tehachapi derailed Jan. 21 but there were no spills or injuries, according to the Bakersfield Californian.