Railroads Can’t Shirk Responsibility for California Oil Spills from Trains

Jul 13, 2015

A federal judge recently dismissed a railroad industry lawsuit against new requirements that railroads be prepared to clean up oil spills from train accidents in California. The railroads were seeking to stop a California law passed last year, known as the Statewide Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program.

San Francisco Baykeeper helped orchestrate the passage of the law, and we had also urged the judge to rule against the railroad industry and in favor of oil spill protections. The law expands oil spill cleanup and response protections from coastal waterways to all state waterways­—including requiring railroads carrying oil trains to be prepared to take responsibility for oil spill cleanup.

“Californians have the right to protect our bay, marshes, and wild river canyons from the threat of oil spilled from tank cars,” said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Baykeeper Executive Director. “We fought hard for these new protections, and we’re very pleased that the judge dismissed the railroad’s attempt to stop them.”

The law was passed last year in the face of a dramatic surge in crude oil trains coming into the state and threatening state waters, along with an increase in disastrous oil spills and explosions from oil trains around the country.

According to the California Energy Commission, oil shipments by railroad into California hit an all-time record last year, with nearly 285 million gallons arriving by train over twelve months – up from just two million gallons four years before. The oil industry is pushing to make the West Coast a major outlet for Canadian tar sands oil, which is one of the most toxic, heavy, and environmentally destructive types of oil being mined. Meanwhile, volatile Bakken crude oil is being shipped from North Dakota, mostly in outdated, explosion-prone tank cars.

The law requires that railroads and other entities transporting oil across the state prepare comprehensive oil spill response plans and demonstrate financial responsibility to clean up a worst-case oil spill. It also ensures continued funding for the California agency that rescues wildlife injured by an oil spill, which had been threatened with having to close.

Shortly after the law was passed, the railroad industry sued the state, arguing that federal law preempts any state regulation of the railroads. The State of California defended the law, and Baykeeper filed a friend of the court brief in support, along with Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Association of Irritated Residents, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Earthjustice represented the coalition.

On June 18, 2015, Judge Troy Nunley in Sacramento dismissed the case, ruling that state regulations to implement the law had not yet taken effect, and the railroad industry was unable to show any harm from the passage of the bill. 

Regulations to implement the Statewide Oil Spill Prevention and Response Program are expected to be finalized soon. Baykeeper will continue working to defend the law and to protect San Francisco Bay and all California waters from the threat of oil spills. 

Photo by Robb Most

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