SACRAMENTO -- As state lawmakers look to address the risks from a surge in oil train traffic, Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson joined others Thursday in testifying at a legislative oversight hearing in Sacramento about the need for more actions to prevent and respond to accidents that could threaten public safety.
In her remarks, Patterson asked whether state and local agencies are prepared to deal with deadly tanker rail accidents like last year's explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.
"If you are in an industrial area or a cultural center or a school, the actual first-responders are those people who are affected," Patterson said. "And that's (the) ultimate primary concern that I have that we don't put people at risk and that we don't have the children or the people going to a concert or workers or residents exposed to that kind of threat."
Driven by increased North American oil production, California and the nation are experiencing a surge in oil-by-rail traffic.
In California, imports grew from only 70 tanker carloads in 2009 to nearly 9,500 carloads last year, and could increase up to 230,000 carloads -- a quarter of all the crude oil refined in the state -- in 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.
About 3.8 million Californians who live along train routes face increased safety risks posed by new unloading facilities planned or under construction, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Thursday's hearing provided an opportunity for regulators, community members and first responders to look at what the risks and needs are in terms of safety and response.
Issues raised included uncertainty over the timing and comprehensiveness of new federal rail tank car standards and operational rules; a need to more fully assess the risks from increased oil train traffic in California; and a lack of timely and complete information about hazardous cargo before it passes through local communities.
The need for more training and resources for first responders was also identified.
"Your immediate concern is the incident that takes place today, tomorrow and next week," said Kurt Henke, chief of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.
Patterson, who joined Henke on a four-person panel addressing on-the-ground risks, did not address the merits of Valero's proposed crude-by-rail project in Benicia. If approved, the project would allow Valero to bring in up to 100 tanker carloads of crude per day to its Benicia refinery.
The project's draft environmental impact report was released Tuesday.
The proposed rail route would pass through rural and urban areas, including parts of Sacramento and Davis.