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October 4, 2016 10:00 AM, EDT

California Rail Transit Authority Blocks Tanker Deliveries

Randen Pederson/Flickr

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority, or SMART, prevented a North Coast freight operator from delivering a dozen more railcars filled with an estimated 396,000 gallons of flammable gas to a storage site south of Sonoma, escalating tensions between the rail agencies.

The squabble is increasing uncertainty for freight customers along the California Highway 101 corridor, where Northwestern Pacific Railroad delivers the bulk of malt barley to Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Co., along with grain feed and lumber to several other local companies.

The dispute centers on Northwestern Pacific’s storage of millions of gallons of liquefied petroleum gas in a dairy pasture in Schellville, California.

On Oct. 2, SMART denied Northwestern Pacific’s request to transport 12 tankers from American Canyon to Schellville, where the freight operator already is storing 80 railcars filled with 2.6 million gallons of liquefied petroleum gas.

In response, Northwestern Pacific was planning to file a petition Oct. 4 with the federal Surface Transportation Board seeking an emergency order allowing transport and storage of the hazardous material.

“SMART basically is not the freight police,” said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that oversees freight service on the line.

SMART officials contend the gas tankers represent a major public safety threat, and that the rail agency has the authority to restrict shipments and storage of such materials along its right-of-way.

Northwestern Pacific argues that it has the right, as the exclusive freight operator on the rail line, to transport hazardous materials and store them at the Schellville location, about 13 miles east of where SMART plans to start passenger service along the Highway 101 corridor later this year.

On Oct. 2, Northwestern Pacific notified SMART dispatch of the contents of the 12 railcars, something the freight operator did not do prior to the earlier shipment of gas-filled tankers, according to Stogner. He characterized the notification as an act of good faith given the company’s contention it does not have to disclose such information to SMART.

SMART officials nevertheless denied Northwestern Pacific’s request to move the gas tankers to Schellville, leaving their status at an American Canyon facility in limbo.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, met Oct. 3 with Doug Bosco, a co-founder and owner of Northwestern Pacific, in a failed bid to resolve the issue.

“We’ll continue to have dialogue and see where we go,” Mansourian said.

Increasingly, that appears in the direction of a protracted legal fight.

Mansourian said he is proceeding “under the clear direction” of SMART’s 12-member board of directors. But he declined to describe those communications, saying they occurred during closed session briefings at the rail agency’s board meetings.

Judy Arnold, a Marin County supervisor and chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors, has not returned several messages left for her over the past week seeking comment.

SMART director Deb Fudge, who helped negotiate a 2011 agreement between SMART and Northwestern Pacific governing shared use of the rail line, said Oct. 3 that she could not comment on whether the freight operator is acting within the bounds of those terms.

“I can’t go there because that’s a legal question, and there’s information I don’t have as a board member,” said Fudge.

A former hazardous materials manager for PG&E, Fudge said “it gives me pause to have all that material stored on the track.”

SMART director David Rabbitt, who has been overseas during the dust-up, stated Oct. 3 via a text message that “any impairment of freight rail service was not discussed with me.”

Rabbitt stated that passenger and freight rail “can and should serve the county and can certainly co-exist” without offering an opinion specifically on the current hazmat controversy.

Bosco, however, on Oct. 3 called it a “great disservice to make anyone think that stationary railcars are going to suddenly explode or cause any harm to human beings.”

Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. A former congressman, Bosco made the case that it’s much safer to transport petroleum by rail than by other means.

“If you go on the highway, you will see dozens of shiny aluminum trucks that carry petroleum products. That’s what we carry, and it’s safer to carry them by train,” he said.

Bosco said the company is not planning to ship petroleum products along the shared passenger line skirting Highway 101. Stogner, however, said the freight operator might entertain bringing propane to a customer in Ukiah if the track from there to Windsor is ever refurbished.