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Tough New Safety Rules Proposed for Trains : Legislature: Bills by Assemblyman Jack O'Connell and 2 other lawmakers would affect the transport of toxic materials.

August 28, 1991|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While chemists tested Seacliff's soil for spilled toxic substances Tuesday, Assemblyman Jack O'Connell stood nearby and proposed new legislation for stricter safety measures on trains carrying hazardous cargo.

O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) said three bills, which would require more state rail inspectors, better labeling of toxic cargo and the attachment of cabooses to trains carrying such cargo, are scheduled to be introduced in the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee on Thursday.

"We need that kind of legislation to ensure that our bedroom communities, which lie along that rail line, are safer," O'Connell told reporters a few hundred feet from the Southern Pacific line at Seacliff, where a July 28 derailment spilled toxic hydrazine.

"The Federal Railway Administration has been far too lenient in policing the railroad industry in this state," he said.

No one was seriously injured when 12 cars of a Southern Pacific train slammed into a freeway piling and spilled hundreds of gallons of hydrazine at Seacliff.

But the spill forced authorities to evacuate 49 houses nearby and close the Ventura Freeway for five days, clogging the back roads of Ojai with detour traffic. Several people were sickened by the chemical fumes. Hydrazine is a suspected carcinogen that irritates the eyes and respiratory tract and can be fatal.

Ongoing air tests by a Boise environmental firm have revealed no trace of the toxic substance in the wreck area, said Richard Varnechik, a spokesman for the California Environment Protection Agency.

However, the chemists continued digging up soil Tuesday. Samples were taken out of the rail bed from depths of 6, 12 and 20 to 30 inches. Results from the samples will not be available for two to four weeks, Varnechik said.

"If this had occurred a few miles earlier or a few miles later, the results could have been catastrophic," O'Connell said, pointing to the fenced area where the train cars had derailed. "I think this site is the best example of why you should have a caboose operating. . . . The concept is to provide additional eyes and ears."

The Senate committee has scheduled hearings Thursday on the following proposed legislation:

* O'Connell's AB 736, which would require railroads to attach a caboose to any train hauling hazardous materials through cities of 100,000 population or more. The caboose would have to be staffed by at least one trained observer and one employee trained to advise emergency officials how best to cope with a toxic spill.

Southern Pacific officials have said they will oppose the bill, arguing that cabooses are too expensive and could not have prevented the Seacliff wreck, or the July 14 wreck at Dunsmuir that dumped herbicide into the Sacramento River.

O'Connell's bill would also require such a train to carry a detailed list of hazardous materials and their locations on board. And it would authorize inspectors from Cal/OSHA and the Environment Protection Agency to examine the site of any train accident involving hazardous material.

* The Safe Rail Transportation Act of 1991 (AB 151), sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) and O'Connell, which would require the state Public Utilities Commission to inspect the 7,000 miles of railroad in California. The bill would also require the PUC to report to the Legislature by July 1 on track sections with unusually high derailment rates and would authorize the hiring of six more PUC rail inspectors.

* AB 103, introduced by Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), which would establish a team of technical advisers to travel to toxic spills whenever they occur. The team would provide advice on health hazards to emergency crews on the scene.

Tanner's bill would also require toxic chemical manufacturers to provide data sheets to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Office of Emergency Services on the effects that their products would have on people, animals and plants.

Although Southern Pacific opposes O'Connell's caboose bill, company officials are working with the authors of all three bills, and are supporting requirements for better labeling of toxic cargo, said Donna Lucas, the company's legislative spokeswoman.

Santa Fe Railway Co., the other major freight line that would be affected by the legislation, has not taken a position on any of the bills, company spokesman Michael Martin said.

But of O'Connell's bill, he said: "Putting a caboose on the rear of the train is like putting a steam engine on the front of the train. They're dinosaurs. They've outlived their usefulness."

Train crews sleep in hotels rather than in cabooses, and could not spot much from the rear of freight trains, some of which are up to a mile long, Martin said.

Southern Pacific announced Tuesday that it will pay more than $1 million to government agencies for the Dunsmuir cleanup, but it still is receiving bills from agencies that worked on the Seacliff cleanup.

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