Directors of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority approved an agreement Wednesday allowing tankers loaded with hazardous materials to be stored for indefinite periods of time south of Sonoma, over the strongly worded objections of Sonoma County’s supervisor representing the area.
“This is exactly the wrong place to store LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) or tankers in any part of this area,” Supervisor Susan Gorin told board members. She later accused the group of throwing Sonoma Valley residents “under the train.”
The SMART board voted 11-0, with board member Judy Arnold leaving the meeting prior to the vote, to approve amendments to a 2011 coordinating agreement with Northwestern Pacific Railroad, including with regard to the storage of hazardous materials in Schellville.
SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian presented the agreement as the best possible outcome given uncertainty over how a federal transportation board might rule on an injunction filed by Northwestern Pacific. Under the agreement approved Wednesday, the two parties will seek to have the case dismissed.
Mansourian said had SMART lost, there would be nothing to prevent Northwestern Pacific from storing gas tankers anywhere along the shared track, including where passenger service is scheduled to run along the Highway 101 corridor. The Schellville site is about 13 miles east of where passenger service currently is set to start in late spring.
“This agreement limits the hazardous materials storage only to LPG, and only to one area,” Mansourian said.
That didn’t mollify Gorin and a few Sonoma Valley residents, who clearly felt SMART tossed aside their concerns. Mansourian and other SMART officials were the first to raise the specter of a potential catastrophe-in-waiting after alerting the public Sept. 23 to the presence of 80 tankers filled with 2.6 million gallons of gas stored in Schellville.
SMART demanded removal of the tankers and later used its dispatch authority to prevent a dozen more rail cars filled with an estimated 396,000 gallons of liquefied petroleum gas from being transported to the site, resulting in those cars being turned around in American Canyon.
Dozens of tankers are currently being stored in other nearby and visible locations temporarily because of recent flooding in the Sonoma Valley, but they are empty.
Schellville resident Norman Gilroy told the board that gas tankers pose a massive threat from explosion due to accident or terrorist attack.
“We are dealing with a very volatile situation with these rail cars,” Gilroy told the board. “It doesn’t take a lot of research on the internet to find examples of accidents or derailments, some caused by unfirm ground caused by flooding, like the kind we have in that area.”
Gorin vowed to convene a public meeting in coming weeks to address residents’ concerns.
Doug Bosco, a co-founder and owner of Northwestern Pacific, told the board that the dangers posed by the gas tankers have been “greatly exaggerated,” saying “thousands and thousands of these cars are in transit all the time.”
He said trains bringing in the tankers cover a distance of 8 miles from an interchange in American Canyon and do not exceed speeds of 20 mph. Under the terms of the amendments approved Wednesday, the freight operator will disclose future manifests that include hazardous materials, and provide that information to first responders and SMART dispatch. Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.