A KCBS Cover Story Special: Part 1 of 3, Produced by Giancarlo Rulli
December 30, 2014 11:25 AM
KCBS reporter Jeffrey Shaub and producer Giancarlo Rulli investigate the Bay Area’s aging railway bridges that will carry increasing loads of highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in this three-part KCBS Cover Story Special.
MARTINEZ (KCBS) — Some local, state and federal officials are concerned that an old railroad bridge in Martinez, used to transport increasing car loads of highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota to East Bay refineries, may be unsafe.
Officials said they can’t obtain safety information about that bridge, and others like it, because the railroad that owns it is allowed to keep that information to themselves.
The Alhambra trestle was originally built in 1899 and later reinforced in 1929. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway replaced the rail deck in 2003, but the trestle’s support structures are 85 and to 115 years old.
Each week it bears the load of hundreds of rail cars including a growing number that carry Bakken crude oil.
Jim Nue is a member of the Martinez Environmental Group who said he worries about a derailment and how it might affect the several schools and scores of homes nearby.
“We figured the effects within a half-mile blast zone of those tracks affects 12,000 people,” he said.
State and federal authorities are also worried about Alhambra trestle.
“We are concerned about failure,” Paul King, the Deputy Director of Rail Safety for the California Public Utilities Commission, told KCBS.
He’s concerned about shipments of Bakken crude oil over the Alhambra Trestle.
“The consequences of derailment failure are very high,” King said.
But there is no way to know for sure because ever since the Civil War, the railroads have been allowed to keep that information to themselves. While the Federal Railroad Administration does oversee the BNSF, there is only one bridge inspector to cover all eleven Western states.
In the Fall of 2014, The CPUC authorized the hiring of two bridge inspectors to evaluate the more than 5,000 railroad bridges in the state, including the Alhambra trestle. It’s a job that could take 50 years to complete.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove) told KCBS that it’s a statewide problem.
“The main bridge across the Sacramento is more than 100 years old. It was built shortly after the Gold Rush,” he said.
BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said the trestle is safe.
“Our bridges are inspected three times a year and, in fact, if they did detect—in any way—that that structure needed to be replaced, they would immediately put plans in place to replace the structure,” she said.
The state says they want the final say on what is safe and what isn’t—and not just leave it up to the railroads.
Back in Martinez, Nue, remains worried about the geography of the Alhambra trestle and his town.
“So if something happens on either end, you’re stuck,” he said.
In Part III, we will reveal how state and emergency response coordinators are concerned about their ability to battle a major railway explosion and fire.