Could a railway catastrophe happen here in Merced?

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJuly 15, 2013 

— With two railroads and a world-class runway coursing through the Merced area, train derailments and plane crashes are always a possibility, but heightened training and cooperation among agencies helps reduce the risk, firefighters say.

Last Saturday, a runaway train of oil tank cars derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, exploding and killing at least 20 people. Much of the downtown of the community of 6,000 people was destroyed.

Spokespersons for the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad said both systems take hazardous material transportation very seriously, and that moving such substances by rail is safer than other means of transport.

"Anything in motion, there is always a risk associated with it," Merced Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin said. "You can't be ready for everything, but the rail industry is a safe means of transport, logging hundreds of thousands of miles daily."

Gabriel Santos, battalion chief for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has been watching the developments in Quebec as well as the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco.

"We are very vulnerable to either event, derailment or plane crash," Santos said. "We look at lessons learned and consider what we would do in a similar situation."

Santos said many airplanes were diverted from San Francisco International Airport after last Saturday's deadly crash on the runway, and jetliners could have been sent to the Castle Commerce Center.

McLaughlin said his department's personnel are well-trained and professional. The Fire Department has a strong mutual-aid system within the county. A major incident would require that plenty of resources be mobilized.

Lena Kent, director of public affairs for the BNSF Railway, said results of the investigation into the Quebec derailment will help determine what can be done to ensure something like that doesn't happen again.

"Railroads remain the safest way to transport hazardous materials," Kent said, "reducing accidents by 91 percent since 1980 due to industry investment and operating practices. BNSF is continuously assessing and improving its own operations to prevent incidents in the first place."

The Association of American Railroads reported 281,367 carloads of freight moved in the last week of June in the United States. The movement of petroleum and petroleum products is up 26 percent this year over comparable 2012 figures.

Aaron Hunt, Roseville-based director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific, said the Federal Railroad Administration oversees U.S. railroads. The federal government's common carrier obligation requires UP and other major railroads to transport hazardous materials whether they want to or not.

"At Union Pacific, we take this obligation very seriously and recognize that rail is the safest option for above-ground hazmat transport," Hunt said. "In fact, trucks are 16 times more likely than trains to have a hazmat accident."

McLaughlin said both the city and county fire departments have their own Emergency Operations Centers and mutual aid systems. That means police, sheriff's deputies, environmental health, the American Red Cross, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and other first-responders work together in an emergency.

Above all, McLaughlin said, first-responders must make sure that people are out of harm's way. He said he works with businesses to keep their operations and the public safe. State building and fire codes also have regulations that help prevent emergencies.

There have been train derailments in the past in Merced County, Santos said, but nothing as extensive as the incident in Quebec.

"No one agency properly meets a situation on its own," Santos said. "We do train regularly with those other agencies for a railroad emergency."

A training session involving railroad tank cars is scheduled later this year at Castle Commerce Center.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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