Groups Join State of California in Holding Railroads Responsible for Oil Spills, Disaster Planning

Railroads claim they are not responsible for hazardous fuels they transport across the state


Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084


Deb Self, San Francisco Baykeeper, 510-882-1882

On Dec. 5, a coalition of concerned citizen groups, sportfishermen, and environmental organizations joined with the State of California in a lawsuit to defend the state’s oil spill response planning and financial responsibility requirements against a challenge by the railroads. Earthjustice filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of San Francisco Baykeeper, Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Association of Irritated Residents and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

Reacting to a dramatic surge in crude oil trains coming into the state and threatening state waters, California passed a law this year requiring that railroads and others that transport oil across the state prepare comprehensive oil spill response plans and demonstrate financial responsibility to clean up a worst case oil spill. Existing law in California already provides protections to coastal waters from oil spills, and California’s recent legislative enactment funds new protections to inland California waters from all sources of oil spills, including railroads. The railroad industry has sued the state, seeking to prohibit enforcement of the law, arguing that federal rail laws preempt any state regulation of the railroads. 

According to the California Energy Commission, oil shipments by railroad into California hit an all time record this year, with nearly 285 million gallons arriving by train in the past twelve months—up from just two million just four years ago. Most of the oil shipped is extremely toxic and heavy Canadian tar sands oil, while an increasing proportion of shipments are from the Bakken crude responsible for major explosions and fires in derailments across the continent.

Earthjustice filed a brief describing the current oil train crisis and showing that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, enacted after the Exxon Valdez oil spill as part of the Clean Water Act, expressly preserves state authority to add to federal requirements governing oil spill planning and response.

“Californians have the right to protect our bay, marshes, and wild river canyons from the threat of crude by rail,” said Deb Self, Executive Director of San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental nonprofit active in oil spill prevention. “We fought hard for these new protections and we’re going to see that they’re enforced.”

“The railroads have opened the floodgates of Bakken crude and Canadian tar sands oil to California, but are running from accountability should any mishap or disaster happen along the tracks,” said Earthjustice attorney Tamara Zakim. “The state is well within its authority to demand better from any company that decides to ship explosive oil across the countryside, waters and backyards of Californians.”  

Read the legal document.

A crude oil train near the Richmond, CA, railyard.
A crude oil train near the Richmond, CA, railyard. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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