Jason Walsh: SMART shifts tracks on LPG tankers in Schellville

“I’m going off the rails on a crazy train!” – Ozzy Osbourne

Riddle: What, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is “extremely flammable,” can burn with an “invisible flame,” is stored in containers that “may explode when heated”— and 2.6 million gallons of it spent much of the last few months on a train track in Schellville?

If you answered “liquid petroleum gas” – ding! ding! – you win the prize: your own personalized hazmat suit, not that you’ll need it of course.

On Wednesday, the board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit approved an agreement to allow the Northwestern Pacific Railroad to store as many as 160 tankers loaded with LPG for months at a time on its rail lines in the eastern hinterlands of the Sonoma Valley.

SMART officials, who had adamantly opposed the stealth rail repository as recently as October, voted 11-0 to carve out a temporary home – a long-term vacation rental, if you will – for the hazardous material at the end of Eighth Street, an area which, until recently, would have claimed as its most incendiary material the grease at the bottom of the barbecue pit at the Schellville Grill.

As SMART general manager Farhad Mansourian, said in the Press Democrat, “This agreement limits the hazardous materials storage only to LPG, and only to one area.” In other words: as long as it’s only one kind of highly combustible hazardous material – and as long as it’s in Sonoma Valley, a tidy distance from SMART’s main bases of operation.

Mansourian’s come a long way since September, when reports first surfaced about what SMART would have had us believe was the Chatta-kablooey Choo Choo. In his words, it was a matter of, “Public safety first, not last.”

The SMART board’s rationale for backing away from its previously strident opposition is that if it were to lose the debate in the courts, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad might wind up with license to store all sorts of hazardous materials on any SMART tracks it desired. You’d think the railroad would be track-housing Iran’s uranium enrichment program along the 101 corridor if it had the chance.

At one point we were supposed to be quite alarmed by the tankers. Here’s what some rail authorities said when the Propane Blossom Special was first reported last autumn:

“(It) strikes me as a recipe for a serious accident.” – Ann Begeman, Surface Transportation Board, the agency which has regulatory oversight over interstate commerce.

“We believe this is a serious health and safety issue.” – SMART spokesperson Jeanne Mariani-Belding to the San Francisco Chronicle

“If anything would happen with that much hazardous material, you can have many miles of significant disaster, and that is what our board is worried about,” Farhad Mansourian, again, to ABC-7 news.

Well, the board isn’t quite as worried these days. And, as Northwestern Pacific Railroad officials argue, it isn’t something to worry about. After all, tankers carrying propane are entirely common. And, left sitting undisturbed, they aren’t much of a hazard. In fact, one of the North Coast Rail Authority’s – the public agency which oversees freight service – main gripes about the tanker brouhaha wasn’t so much that NPR was storing the LPG, but that SMART publicized the location of the tankers and their contents in the first place.

In the end, SMART had little chance of winning this debate over interstate commerce law and Schellville storage was probably the best deal it could cut, given there’s no Sonoma Valley representative on its board.

As this issue shows, like much in the Sonoma-Marin rail area, it’s all about location, location, location.

Which is probably what Sonoma’s 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin was getting at when she pointed out that the hazardous materials were being stored in, “One of the most fragile, and vulnerable areas in the County and an area highly susceptible to flooding and bay level rise.”

In a scolding Feb. 15 email to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ SMART representative David Rabbitt, Gorin wrote:

“You negotiated to keep the cars out of the urban areas, where the tanker cars would hardly be noticed, and allow them to be stored in the gateway to one of the most scenic tourist destinations in Sonoma County… This area is highly visible from Sonoma Raceway, surrounding wineries, event centers and the sweeping vistas of Sonoma Mountain.”

Gorin’s pleas to the SMART board on Wednesday fell on deaf hears – and the sweeping vistas of Sonoma Valley wine country are going to have a semi-permanent new focal point. According to the railroad, tankers storing the LPG will be present every few months, alternating between “winter” and “summer” fuel blends.

Like Sonoma Valley’s other liquid export, its varietals and abundance will shift depending on the season. Here’s hoping they both also share a smooth finish.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.