MARTINEZ -- City leaders concerned about the possibility of more rail cars carrying explosive gas through downtown Martinez may challenge a Rodeo oil refinery's propane project.
Last week, the Contra Costa County Planning Commission approved a land use permit and adopted the environmental impact report for a propane recovery project at the Phillips 66 oil refinery in Rodeo. The project includes installing propane and butane recovery equipment, building two new rail spurs and adding six propane storage vessels.
The project would increase rail traffic through downtown Martinez by 30 percent and the number of rail cars carrying butane or propane would climb from 16 to 24 on one train per day, according to the city and the refinery.
City leaders expect the Sierra Club or Citizens for a Better Environment, which oppose the project, to appeal the commission's ruling. The deadline to file an appeal is Dec. 10.
Mayor Rob Schroder and Councilman Mike Menesini, acting as an ad hoc subcommittee, will review the environmental report and decide whether the city also will appeal the decision.
During last week's council meeting, Menesini raised several questions about the project, including whether the propane tankers would be stored in the switching yard and how long the train carrying the propane would sit in downtown.
"Clearly, we need on behalf of the citizenry, to ask these questions," he said.
"We know in just recent past history where there's a Canadian town that suffered an enormous loss as a result of materials exploding in their downtown."
Menesini was referring to a July accident when an unattended train carrying tankers filled with crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded, killing at least 24 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.
Councilman Mark Ross suggested that the city may need to have a broader discussion about safety with the railroad.
"It brings up the bigger question of not just propane, but all the other materials that go through the downtown.
"And to be honest, even empty cars can be as volatile as full cars; in fact sometimes even worse," Ross said.
Noting that freight train and Amtrak traffic through Martinez has increased, Ross added, "Maybe that's a larger conversation we need to be having with the railroad as to the efficacy and safety of the rail line, no matter what it's carrying."
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.