They roll through at night, passing highly populated areas of the county, like downtown San Diego: rail tanker cars sometimes carrying potentially hazardous materials.
“There is no question that places like Petco Park are directly in harm’s way,” Eric de Place, Policy Director with the Sightline Institute, an environmental policy organization based in Seattle, said.
NBC 7 Investigates asked the owners of the local rail lines, North County Transit and Metropolitan Transit System, what chemicals and other materials are moving through the region. North County Transit owns the rails from Orange County to the Del Mar area and Metropolitan Transit System, owns the rails from Del Mar to San Diego.
The agencies declined to provide the information, citing homeland security issues.
The largest carrier in the region, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway company, or BNSF, also declined to provide the information.
In an email, BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said, “as a matter of security we do not disclose this type of information. It is only provided to first responders.”
With no public information on exact routes detailing when freight trains are on local tracks and what they are carrying when passing through, railroads say the risk is minimal, but, critics say it's a dangerous situation for San Diegans.
”I think the community should have a right to know about what's going through their towns,” de Place said. “The community has a right to know about what's happening in their towns.”
San Diego Fire Marshall Doug Perry is involved in first responders planning through the region. According to Perry, his agency is prepared to handle any emergencies arising out of a derailment of hazardous materials. He said his department is told when large amounts or unusual products are moving on the rails, but admits, he isn't aware of everything.
“To be honest with you, I don't know that a chemist would know every single one because of the way that they mix 'em and match 'em,” he said. “You have had large quantities of ammonia nitrate, which is used for blasting, but that is something we don’t have come through here very often. We know on a regular basis, LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) comes up from Mexico.”
In 1996, a train carrying LPG and propane derailed and caught fire in Wisconsin. The fire burned for more than two weeks and caused thousands of residents to be evacuated. A National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) sketch of the accident scene shows how the tankers were scattered across the derailment area.
Perry said, "we do not have daily contact with the railroads” about what is coming and going. When asked why not, he responded, "Umm, as far as I know, it's never been required. There's no policy or procedure in place, most of the stuff that is transported through is pretty benign.”
NBC 7 Investigates found the Texas-based company also ships propane and LPG. Those materials are just part of a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported by rail in California.
Click here to see the list.
"If you look at the history we haven't had any problems,” Perry said. “Is there always a potential? Yes."
California Senate Bill 84, also known as the "Railroad Accident Preparedness and Immediate Response Program,” includes a provision that would charge freight carriers a fee when hauling any of the 25 hazardous commodities.
Kim Zagaris, Safety and Fire Chief for the California Office of Emergency Services said, "the bill is designed to actually provide funding to prepare, plan and respond to hazmat rail incidents."
NBC 7 Investigates found LPG being transported on track in downtown San Diego several months ago.
Materials inside a rail tanker can be identified by a placard on the outside of the container. Rail cars with placards containing the number “1075” were found passing PETCO stadium and at the border crossing area in San Ysidro. The number “1075” represents different forms of liquefied gas.
Click here to see a complete listing of what the numbers on placards stand for.
The placards are one way first responders can identify what the tanker is carrying. Different chemicals require different responses by hazmat personnel and the fire department.
In a 2014-2015 report to the California State Legislature, the California Public Utilities Commission or CPUC, said, "railroads have been inconsistent in their compliance with federal law, California law." According to that same report, there were 318 freight and passenger derailments in California during that time frame.
The CPUC is the state agency which oversees the rail industry in California.
"California is certainly trying to lead,” de Place said. “But there's not much any state, even California, can do because most of the rules around the haulage of dangerous materials on the rails are preempted by federal regulations, and the federal regulations are weak and chronically bad.''
Zagaris put it this way: "the railroad reminds us they built this country and they have a lot of protection under federal law." He said he believes transparent discussions between the industry and state agencies will go a long way to "protect life, property and the environment" in California.
In an email, Federal Railroad Administration or FRA, spokesman Matthew Lehner, said, his agency “carries out a comprehensive safety inspection and enforcement program that has led to the highest-ever collection rate of civil penalties and fewer railroad accidents. We constantly look for ways to improve our oversight and increase safety for everyone who lives along rail lines and works in the industry.”
Less than a year ago, Sarah Feinberg was named as FRA’s Administrator. Some say, under her leadership, the agency has improved the agency’s responsiveness to safety and other rail issues.
Besides the fee for hauling hazardous commodities, California Senate Bill 84 increased the amount of firefighting equipment and specialized training to respond to rail accidents involving hazardous materials. It also provides for a higher level of coordination among public agency first responders when dealing with hazardous material accidents.
"Some of it frustrates our citizens, frustrates us, frustrates our legislators,” Zagaris said. “We will continue to work here at the state level.”
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