Chief to put focus on toxic trains

Fearing a potential chemical spill from rail cars stored near the Caltrain station, Fire Chief Phillip White will head to Sacramento this week in an effort to get railroad operators to shoulder the costs of emergency evacuation training.

City officials learned late last year that Union Pacific is storing anywhere from three to 20 cars containing hazardous materials on sidetracks in the area at any given time. Each can hold as much as 28,000 gallons of toxic and potentially combustible chemicals such as ethyl alcohol, toluene and methyl bromide, according to officials. “That’s four to five times the amount of a semitanker truck,” White said.

He will testify Wednesday at the state Capitol in support of a bill, SB 351, authored by state Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, that would require railroad operators to reimburse local governments for the cost of developing and implementing evacuation plans should a spill occur.

Union Pacific opposes the bill. “We do not support it, because [evacuation training] is already something we provide free of charge,” spokesman Mark Davis said.

While Union Pacific does offer free training for firefighters, it does not pay the $6,000 in overtime and expenses per firefighter to train them, White said. Nevertheless, he plans to send up to two firefighters next fiscal year.

South San Francisco stands to gain as much as $60,000 a year if Soto’s bill becomes law, White estimates. He plans to use the cash to develop a plan similar to the one Contra Costa County has for refinery spills, with established drills, equipment and warning systems.

Just as worrisome as the 60,000 people who could be affected by a spill is the impact on biotech and their support firms, which could hurt both the economy and patients needing medication, White said.

“This legislation is trying to get ahead of the next accident,” said Jackie Rutheiser, legislative aide to Soto. U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, has also attempted to pressure Union Pacific to increase security near the cars and help pay for firefighter training for toxic spills, so far to no avail.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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