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County, senator seek stricter rules

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The fear of a terrorist attack or railroad derailment has local lawmakers and officials calling for new regulations to ensure that train tanker cars full of hazardous materials meet the latest safety standards.

That call has met with fierce resistance from railroad and chemical companies, who have spent millions of dollars lobbying against new laws. In recent months, a handful of measures has made its way through the California Legislature — some proposing to charge rail operators to help pay for emergency training for local first responders or require the development of a list of railroads’ vulnerabilities — only to be shot down or altered to the point of being ineffectual, according to officials.

One bill, SB 419, by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, illustrates just how stiff that resistance is.

"All it does is say, ‘let’s use the safest possible rail cars for the most dangerous cargos,’" Simitian said.

The bill, which county supervisors voted to endorse last week, would create a database of the nation’s 250,000 tanker cars, requiring railroad operators to upgrade the cars carrying hazardous materials to meet 2006 safety standards in the next five years. More than half of those cars don’t meet 1989 standards, which required construction with stronger steel, according to Simitian’s office.

In the past two years, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Chemical Industry Council of California and the American Chemistry Council have spent more than $1 million combined lobbying against Simitian’s bill and others like it.

"The California railroad industry is opposed to SB 419 because it imposes a California-only tanker car registration process," said James Barnes, spokesman for Union Pacific.

Because trains travel across state lines, it would be costly to comply with individual state or local regulations, which means a nationwide solution is needed, Barnes said.

But the reality is that five years after Sept. 11, 2001, rail tanker safety hasn’t improved, Simitian said.

"We’ve got materials that are flammable, explosive or poisons that are rolling through downtowns without really any protection whatsoever," he said.

While hazardous leaks are rare — less than 1 percent of the estimated 1.7 million hazardous tankers delivered annually — even one could wreak havoc on residents, emergency responders and the economy, officials said.

"If [a chlorine spill] happened around the city of San Francisco, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people could die within an hour, ifthe prevailing winds are right," said Tim Smith, state chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman and a former railroad engineer.

County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said she thinks the railroad and chemical industry’s opposition has gone too far.

"In essence, I think they’re putting their bottom line before public safety," Tissier said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com