Jack and Jill Sardegna have lived in San Jose their entire lives. Both were born here—the same doctor delivered them—and they built their careers here. Jack went into sales and marketing; teaching and writing for Jill. Now retired, the couple lives in a downtown condominium, remaining active in their neighborhood association and keeping tabs on civic projects such as the ongoing effort to revitalize St. James Park. Leaving has never crossed their minds. Until now, they say.
Concerns were raised in November, when the Sardegnas read an article warning that trains carrying unconventional oil could be traversing their neighborhood. “Before that, we didn’t know anything about oil trains, the expansion of oil refineries or anything like that,” says Jack. What they discovered is that oil trains have been popping up all over the country, and derailments pose hazards.
According to federal records, oil trains spilled more than a million gallons of fuel in 2013. In a derailment, train cars can explode, causing fires and property damage. This year alone, several derailments and fires took place across the United States and Canada—most notably in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario. Photographs of the crashes show fiery mushroom clouds exploding into the sky, thick black smoke covering entire neighborhoods, flattened buildings and infernos smoldering days after the initial blast.
“Downtown San Jose is in the midst of a real resurgence,” says Jack, “and I got very concerned that this would curtail that by having long trains coming through town, having the danger of explosions, having carcinogenic fumes, blocking train crossings, things like that. It didn’t feel like it was the best thing for our city.”
The Sardegnas’ apprehension was also personal, as they live two blocks from train tracks. “I’ve had cancer, and if these 100-car trains, once a day, are going to be spewing carcinogens, we have to move,” Jill says. “I can’t allow myself to be engulfed in that.”
The couple began talking to friends, neighbors and local politicians, writing letters to editors and attending community forums on the issue. One of those meetings was in San Luis Obispo, home to a refinery and the oil trains’ final destination. Phillips 66, the multinational energy company that owns the refinery, hopes to bring in oil from distant parts of the country. But to do this, it needs to use California’s railroads that run along the coast and through major cities such as San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland.
Transporting oil by rail is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Jared Margolis, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. It became popular after the discovery of oil in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and in the Bakken formation in North Dakota—unconventional oils that are some of the dirtiest, most dangerous types of fuel. While these findings promised to increase domestic oil production, there was one major problem—not enough pipeline infrastructure to transport all of it. Oil companies turned to the rails.
Unlike the passenger trains American railroads were built for, oil trains are much heavier and bigger, often stretching a mile long, making them more unsteady. According to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity, there were 117 crude-by-rail spills in the United States in 2013—nearly 10 times the number of accidents in 2008.
Laurance Shinderman, a member of the Nipomo-based group Mesa Refinery Watch, which is trying to stop oil trains from coming to California, paints a picture of the worst-case scenario of a derailment and ensuing explosion. “You could have a fireball of apocalyptic proportions,” he says. “It’ll burn from anywhere between one day to maybe two weeks.”
The Environmental Impact Report for the Santa Maria project warns of just this scenario, classifying potential “oil spills, fires and explosions” as Class I, which means there’s no way to mitigate the risk. The EIR also cautions against toxic air emissions, which it says would be “significant and unavoidable” along train routes and drive the 30-year cancer risk above the San Luis Obispo County’s Air Pollution Control standards of acceptability.
“We get all the risk, and they get all the reward,” Shinderman says of Phillips, which downplays potential risks laid out in the EIR.
“The proposed rail project is designed with safety as the top priority and with safety measures embedded in the project,” Dennis Nuss, the company’s director of media and external relations, said in an emailed statement. “Phillips 66 has one of the most modern crude rail fleets in service in the industry, and every railcar used to transport crude oil in our fleet exceeds current regulatory safety standards.”
Residents and business owners from Fayette County, West Virginia, where an oil train derailed and exploded in February, are now suing CSX, the company that operated the 109-car train carrying Bakken oil, citing negligence. The blast left about 200 families displaced.
While this year’s accidents have occurred in rural areas, minimizing the death toll and property damage, the situation would be completely different in a heavily populated area such as San Jose.
“Just look at the rail lines,” says Ash Kalra, a San Jose councilman, noting the homes built right up against rail lines near Diridon and Tamien stations. “There’s no doubt that almost anywhere an explosion would occur in downtown or along neighborhoods in South San Jose would endanger hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.”
The San Francisco-based environmental group ForestEthics calculated that 195,000 residents in San Jose—or about one in five—would live in the “blast zone,” the Department of Transportation’s mandatory evacuation area when a train derails and causes a fire.
Also in the blast zone are major attractions such San Jose’s airport, Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara University. In California, 5.6 million people live in areas designated as “blast zones”; nationally, it’s 25 million.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s staff attorney, Margolis, says a lack of government oversight is a key issue in the fight. Under common carrier law, railroads can’t prevent what runs on its tracks—so long as it isn’t breaking the law. Without a permitting process, the usual environmental evaluation processes aren’t triggered.
“We went from 9,500 tank cars in 2008 to 500,000 last year,” Margolis says. “There’s no oversight of that, it was just a market move—an economics decision from the industry that clearly caught regulators off guard.”
The only recourse for residents is trying to pressure San Luis Obispo County’s Board of Supervisors to oppose the plan. Shinderman travels up and down the California coast—anywhere the oil trains would go—trying to educate residents about the dangers. Earlier this year, Kalra led the San Jose City Council in unanimously opposing oil trains and sending a letter urging the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to reject Phillips’ proposal. When San Luis Obispo holds a public hearing on the issue—expected to occur in April or May—Kalra says he’ll organize buses to take Bay Area residents to the meeting.
Eddie Scher, communications director of ForestEthics, is optimistic citizens can win this fight. “There’s nothing inevitable about these trains,” he says. "We don’t need this oil. Stopping these trains won’t stop oil from moving; it won’t stop us from driving our cars. We won’t even notice it.”