Hazardous tanker-car fire threat not just in Lincoln?

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The blaring sound of a freight-train horn is a familiar one for Auburn residents. According to Union Pacific, an average of 25 trains a day travel on the two tracks that run through Placer County on the Sierra route over the Donner Summit. The trains pass through Colfax, Newcastle, Penryn, Loomis, Rocklin, Roseville and points in between. For Auburn City Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi, the presence of engines on the tracks pulling tanker cars laden with propane and other hazardous materials is a fact of life. “We are not immune from any type of catastrophic incident and not knowing what form it could be in, including a train derailment,” D’Ambrogi said Wednesday. But the scenario Lincoln experienced this week that precipitated a major emergency response and a mass evacuation of businesses and homes can’t occur in Auburn, D’Ambrogi said. The Lincoln fire occurred on a spur line off the Union Pacific tracks owned by the Gladding-McBean business in that city. The spur line provided propane business Northern Propane Energy with a means to offload the gas from a 29,000 gallon rail tanker car to holding tanks. D’Ambrogi said that, unlike Lincoln, Auburn has no spur lines for offloading fuel from rail cars. Instead, storage facilities are usually served by smaller-capacity trucks. D’Ambrogi added that the Lincoln offloading facility is regulated and normally safe. “It’s not an unsafe practice but offloading does allow more of an opportunity for something to happen than the trains moving through Auburn daily,” the chief said. D’Ambrogi said Auburn Fire trains for incidents involving hazardous fuels and “takes a step further” by working with Union Pacific, the Western Pacific Gas Association, Pacific Gas & Electric and local fuel distributors. The purpose is to make firefighters more familiar with their equipment and operations to better mitigate an accident or derailment that could spark a fire or explosion, he said. Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said rail lines – unlike truck companies – are required by federal law to ship hazardous materials. Those materials range anywhere from fertilizer used in farming to chemicals used to sanitize water supplies. In large amounts, many can be potentially explosive, he said. “It’s safer to ship hazardous materials by rail than any other way and we have an excellent safety record,” Hunt said. “We’re shipping things the American economy has come to count on.” Lesley Garland, Western Pacific Gas Association spokeswoman, said that speculating on whether a rail catastrophe could occur in Auburn or any other community would be like speculating “whether planes would drop out of the sky.” “The propane industry goes to great lengths to ensure employees and the public are safe in the transportation of propane throughout the U.S.,” Garland said. “An event like this (Lincoln) is extremely rare. “