It’s time to relocate the rail switching yard to a safer location.
The chemical accident at the switching yard last Friday evening was nothing serious, thank goodness. Two railroad workers were slightly exposed to a corrosive chemical that caused them some respiratory distress – they were treated and released at County Hospital, and it was found that one of the cars leaked slightly during loading.
For those of you unfamiliar with the switching yard, it is located about 200 yards west of the Amtrak Station, a ‘parking lot’ for rail cars loaded with various chemicals and agents, most of it from the refineries and ancillary companies. These cars contain any number of materials that are explosive, corrosive, flammable, toxic… the list is long and scary.
And by no means am I saying that there is not a need for a place like this; our society, like it or not, runs on a host of chemicals and substances that are extremely risky. Train transport has an excellent safety record. And we all need to accept a certain amount of risk for the rewards we all enjoy.
But from my perspective, the present switching yard is a relic of days gone by, a holdover from a time when the local industries were pretty much the landlords of these towns, employed a majority of people in them, and expected folks to look the other way when corners were cut here and there.
Thanks to some minor carelessness Friday, a little bit of a chemical spilled out of a tank car and caused two guys to head to the hospital.
The question is, what if some major carelessness caused a whole lot of that chemical to spill?
The switching yard is close enough to downtown Martinez, and the prevailing winds are such that, should something like that happen, many thousands of people would be seeking a hospital. And that is in the event of a liquid spill. What if the accident involved a toxic gas cloud? Or a major explosion?
These questions have been asked for years, but there are no answers forthcoming. The railroads were built in the mid and late 19th century, by men and companies who were, at the time, untouchable in terms of wealth and power. No one told the robber barons what to do. And they, in turn, were instrumental in growing the wealth and reach of our nation.
Of course, today that power and invulnerability has been transferred to Wall Street and the robber barons at investment banks like Goldman Sachs. But the railroads have maintained their steely insistence that they answer to no one. And they get away with it.
For many years now, Martinez has begged, pleaded, cajoled, threatened and screamed for Union Pacific to paint the trestle that crosses Alhambra Avenue. It is a beautiful structure, and has served its owners well for many, many years. But it’s old, and rusty, and it would look so much better with a new coat of paint.
But I can personally attest to the fact that the railroad is simply intractable when it comes to this or any other matter. They flat out refuse to negotiate. The trestle is safe, they insist, there is no structural problem with it, therefore it is not in need of maintenance. Thank you for calling, have a nice day. During my time working for the city, I wrote many letters, made numerous phone calls, tried to set up meetings, all in the name of getting that trestle painted, and all for naught.
Ok, it looks funky, makes a major entrance to our city look funky, it’s rude and not at all neighborly to let your property fall into that level of disrepair and do nothing about it. But ok. No one gets hurt with an offended aesthetic.
But the switching yard is another matter. This is a company playing with thousands of lives, our lives, on the rather shaky premise that probably nothing will go wrong. But there is no security at Ozol – hikers and joggers walk next to those cars daily with absolute impunity. And judging from the placards describing what is in those tankers, there are very few substances not permitted to ‘park’ there.
Again, the railroad says it’s safe, and that’s that. No amount of local, state or federal intervention can apparently move them off this position. The switching yard will remain where it is, if the railroad has its way. And it almost always does.
But why should that be? Why should the citizens of our city have to wait for a Bhopal-like disaster to have the railroads find a safer spot to park their hazardous and explosive material? How have they managed to remain so immune and removed from the imperatives of public safety?
There are surely much safer places for these tankers and trains to be stored while awaiting transport, places further away from a population center, from courts and restaurants and day care centers, from homes and churches and schools. Our homes and churches and schools.
Martinez has a long and storied history with the railroad. There are many of us here, myself among them, with romantic notions of the railroad and its mystery – those of us who hear the distant whistle and feel something of our history, our destiny, in the sound.
But everyone has a stake in public safety. Move the switching yard to a more remote location. We’ll all breathe easier, now and certainly in the future.
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