SMART to consider returning gas tankers to Schellville rail lines
The Sonoma Valley Community Advisory Commission cautioned SMART from returning liquefied petroleum gas tankers to Schellville for storage at the commission’s meeting Wednesday, Jan. 24.
SMART general manager Eddy Cumins gave a presentation on the potential return of freight storage to Schellville rail lines — a 180-degree reversal from the decision to remove the tankers three years after significant public outcry concerning public and environmental safety.
“SMART has some serious financial challenges in regards to its freight division. The bottom line is we're spending more money than we have coming in and it's not sustainable,” Cumins said during his presentation. “Storing LPG tankers is not SMART's primary solution, but we absolutely have to find a way to fill this funding gap.”
But SVCAC commissioners and member of the public balked at the idea of returning LPG tankers to the site, saying it exposed Schellville residents and the baylands nearby to potentially deadly harm.
Cumins said the board of director is considering the return of LPG tankers to help bridge a budget gap for its freight rail division. Liquefied petroleum gas stored inside the tankers would be used in Martinez refinery plants, Cumins said.
As many as 80 LPG tankers were stored on tracks in Schellville between 2016 and 2021. SMART’s board of directors signed a 30-year agreement in 2017 with rail operators to allow the rail company to continue storing the tankers Schellville.
Sonoma residents pilloried SMART’s decision and pushed the agency to remove the tanker cars in November 2021. SMART’s decision to remove to tanker cars cost $466,000 and the agency’s storage revenue has cratered since to $7,500 in 2023.
SMART’s board of directors unanimously voted to create an in-house freight rail division in January 2022 and expand freight rail services in the North Bay. But the market for freight services has not made up the storage revenue from the LPG tankers.
As a result, SMART is considering to double-back and return the storage tankers to Schellville to address immediate concerns surrounding its budget.
“Our operations revenue is about $1.6 million, and our operating expenses are about $2.2 million giving us almost $600,000 gap,” Cumins said.
Cumins attempted to assuage the public’s concerns by noting the record of rail incidents between 2009 and 2019 where fewer than 1% of all train accidents resulted in hazmat materials being released. He also described the safety features of the rail cars themselves, pointing to their 11/16ths inch steel exteriors, jacketed thermal protection layer and a pressure release valve.
Despite Cumins efforts, SVCAC commissioners did not oblige his appeals for the safe storage of tankers in Schellville.
“Regardless of the statistics that you provided,” commissioner Donna Dambach said, “accidents will happen, things will fall over, valves won’t work and there is potential impact on the environment.”
Sonoma Valley residents who sided with Dambach considered potential LPG tanker storage a threat to public safety, environmental conservation and home values for nearby neighbors. Many asked Cumins to provide more information about the potential for harm that would be found in an environmental impact report.
Cumins noted the public’s concerns but stated that SMART had been more focused on its operating deficit and has yet to perform studies on environmental risks or the cost of security.
Once the SMART board makes a decision on how to make up the operating deficit — functionally authorizing whether to bring back LPG tankers — then Cumins will authorize studies and gain permits to review the potential environmental hazards.
“We’re going to have to dot i’s and cross t’s,” Cumins said. “We’re a government agency, we’re accountable to everybody — we know that... We wouldn’t just be cowboys and try and do our own thing.”
Sonoma Valley resident Mary Szykowny hopes SMART’s board will look to the future of rail in Schellville and not its past.
“Please hear our concerns about the health and well being of the residents and future residents of Sonoma Valley,” Szykowny said. “Look to the future for Sonoma Valley residents and voters. We would love to see a smart terminal in the location rather than oil tankers.”
SMART’s next board meeting is Feb. 21. No agenda has been posted as of Jan. 29.