Crude oil is not normally considered explosive. But lighter crude from the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota, suddenly being shipped through the East Bay, is entirely different.
It contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis. Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County's hazardous materials chief, considers it as explosive as gasoline.
In Quebec last summer, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, exploded and killed 47 people. Subsequently, derailed trains in Alabama and North Dakota exploded.
"Given the recent derailments and subsequent reaction of the Bakken crude in those incidents, not enough is known about this crude," Sarah Feinberg, chief of staff at the U.S. Transportation Department, told the Journal.
Yet, long trains carrying the volatile cargo started traveling through the East Bay last year. This calls for aggressive oversight from Martinez to Sacramento to Washington -- before we have a disaster on our hands.
According to the governor's office, rail shipments of oil into the state, including Bakken crude, are expected to increase from 3 million barrels to approximately 150 million barrels per year by 2016.
Kinder Morgan is unloading some of that cargo in Richmond, just blocks from an elementary school and the Point Richmond and Atchison Village neighborhoods, and transferring it to tanker trucks.
At least some of it is going to Tesoro Refinery near Martinez, according to Sawyer and a report by KPIX Channel 5. Tesoro -- which recently demonstrated its lack of candor after two acid spills that sent four workers to hospitals -- refuses to say whether it's processing Bakken crude.
The implications are profound. The notion of transporting massive quantities of highly combustible crude through local neighborhoods should alarm the federal Department of Transportation, which regulates rail shipping.
The long trains are going right through the districts of Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa. They must demand answers from the administration about why it allows this to proceed when so little is known.
At the local level, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors must examine the adequacy of the county's Industrial Safety Ordinance to make sure it can ensure that Tesoro and any other refinery that uses Bakken crude has taken adequate precautions.
Sawyer, the county's environmental hazards chief, didn't even know Bakken fuel was coming into the county until he saw recent press reports. Clearly the system is broken.