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California officials seek to ensure safety of trains hauling crude oil

By Jennifer Chaussee

SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - State and local officials in California, worried that trains carrying crude oil from Canada and North Dakota could cause explosions or environmental damage in their state, asked lawmakers on Thursday to regulate the shipments, which are becoming more frequent.

Firefighters and others urged action on bills in the California legislature to impose safety regulations on trains carrying crude oil to refineries in the state, a year after a disastrous oil train derailment in Canada that killed 47 people and spilled 1.6 million gallons of crude.

“We have a spotlight on this issue because of the seriousness of the risk to public safety that it presents,” said Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, whose district encompasses parts of Sacramento along the trains’ route.

The volume of oil shipped by train through the most populous U.S. state has increased dramatically in recent years, public safety experts told a legislative committee at a hearing on Thursday.

Kim Zagaris, fire and rescue chief with the state's office of emergency services, said first responders need training to deal with the particularly volatile oil that is being shipped into the state to refineries in Northern and Southern California.

“This is a new crude we don’t have experience with,” Zagaris said. “We need ongoing and new training.”

Safety concerns were brought into stark relief last summer, when an engineer parked his train for the night on a main line uphill from the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The train of oil tankers started rolling and eventually derailed, exploding into balls of fire.

The accident brought new scrutiny for North America's thriving crude-by-rail business. Shipping crude oil by rails has soared in recent years, propelled by increased production in Western Canada and North Dakota without an accompanying boost in pipeline capacity.

Environmental advocates say a spill could irreparably damage the California's waterways, while public safety experts worry about gaps in the state’s ability to respond to a potential disasters.

Oil and rail industry representatives told lawmakers that they had already done much to improve safety. BNSF Railway lobbyist Juan Acosta testified that the company had agreed to slow its oil trains to 40 mph and increase inspections of its tracks.

At the state level, lawmakers have introduced measures to regulate the trains and approved fees to fund oil spill cleanups and hazardous materials training programs. They also have asked the federal government to create new regulations to help prevent accidents.

(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Bill Trott)

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