The Air Force quietly resumed shipments of explosive, toxic rocket fuel to Vandenberg Air Force Base on Wednesday, this time along a route through San Bernardino, Kern, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties that avoids busy Los Angeles-area freeways.
The arrival of the first fuel trucks, convoyed by California Highway Patrol vehicles, touched off a flurry of protests from local government officials.
"We had no notice at all," said Kern County Supervisor Mary Shell. She said that only after local officials learned of the shipments from news reporters did the CHP inform them that the route had been changed.
The shipments of nitrogen tetroxide fuel have been trucked for two decades across the San Gabriel Valley, through the San Fernando Valley and north on U.S. 101 to Vandenberg. But the shipments were suspended in the fall after Los Angeles officials complained of the dangers associated with moving the material along congested freeways and through densely populated urban areas.
The new route, described as a temporary, interim path, takes the fuel through Barstow, Bakersfield, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Buellton, according to the CHP. The shipments originate at Vertak Chemical Corp. in Vicksburg, Miss., where the fuel is manufactured.
"Somebody made the decision that Los Angeles lives are worth more than Bakersfield lives," said Bakersfield Assistant City Manager Ken Pulskamp. "It's evident that Mayor (Tom) Bradley had the clout to get the route moved because of the risk to Los Angeles residents, but we aren't real excited about taking the risks ourselves."
"We've been working with the Air Force on this and this is an approved hazardous material route," said Roy Short, commander of the CHP enforcement division. He said two more truckloads were to pass along the new route today and another five loads are scheduled later in the month. Two CHP patrol cars escort the loads from Barstow to their destination, he said.
'This Stuff Is Explosive'
Short said the loads of nitrogen tetroxide have been shipped through California on approved routes for 20 years without incident. "This stuff is explosive. . . . If there was an emergency, we may have to evacuate an area up to three-quarters of a mile," he said.
The Air Logistics Center at Kelly Air Force Base in Texas said the interim route for shipments of nitrogen tetroxide by truck were approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the CHP.
That did little to sooth officials in cities along the new route.
"This stuff is extremely volatile. . . . It explodes when it comes in contact with asphalt, water or gasoline," said Jeff Hamm, San Luis Obispo County emergency services director. "The explosion causes a gas cloud. . . . If you breathe it . . . the lungs won't work. It's fatal."
Hamm said the county knew that the Air Force was considering a new route and had planned public hearings, but the use of an "interim alternative route . . . came as a surprise. . . . We are dismayed; we didn't even know about it. . . . We feel there is a need for detailed risk assessments, a detailed study of alternative routes."
Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) was furious that the Air Force had rerouted the shipments through his congressional district without giving advance warning to local officials--or using what he asserted was a superior alternate route.
"I've got a lot of concerns, not only because it is a deadly toxic substance but also because it is being transported through heavily populated areas, including Bakersfield, Paso Robles, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria," Panetta said. "It passes through the heart of Paso Robles, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo."
He protested that "there was absolutely no notification of local authorities . . . no groundwork with local fire and police officials to determine responsibility in the event of an accident."
Also, Panetta maintained, the Air Force ignored "an obvious alternate route that would avoid these population centers--Highway 166, which is a straight shot from below Bakersfield across to Vandenberg. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than the route they plan to take."
Panetta said he was told by Air Force Maj. Stephen Carroll, who is coordinating the movement of the fuel, that Highway 166 was not used because a "route assessment" study had not been completed, even though the Air Force has known since May that it needed to do one.
Panetta said Carroll had "no real answer" on why the assessment had not been completed.
Carroll was unavailable for comment.
Ronald B. Taylor reported from Los Angeles and Paul Houston from Washington.