Erika Flores, community organizer at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
Over a period touching three centuries, thousands of students have attended Ramona-Alessandro Elementary in San Bernardino. Hundreds of thousands have lived for generations in neighborhoods around the school. They have adapted to the sounds, sites and smells of the former Santa Fe Railway. Many made their livelihoods from it. Now, residents say adapting is getting harder. Whether the uncomfortable feeling of having 60,000 gallons of natural gas stored in tanks in the neighborhood is real or the result of a savvy media campaign, having the potentially explosive liquid stored at the Omnitrans bus fueling station continues to make the neighbors feel uneasy.
To compound the situation, Burlington Northern/Santa Fe operates a 24-hour transportation hub within distance to thousands of those same neighbors. Residents say their community is on the brink of becoming a possible combustible catastrophe. Advocates agree that expansion of industry is always zoned for low-income areas. Never near something like the Arrowhead Country Club.Taking on the railroad means going before congress. Going before Omnitrans means appearing before San Bernardino County. Residents say it is ultimately up to the San Bernardino City Unified School District since it is responsible for the health and safety of students.
The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice cites a report by Loma Linda University showing that residents living near the railway have a significant high rate of asthma and cancer. Community Action officials say having that much natural gas stored near an elementary school poses a threat, even if it’s small threat. Furthermore, no one seems to know if there is a danger from the mixture of diesel and natural gas emissions.Justice is asking Omnitrans to move its two natural gas tanks further from Ramona Alessandro Elementary. They also want BNSF to use greener technology to limit toxic levels of diesel emissions.
Community Action spokesperson Ericka Flores said her group has petitioned the San Bernardino school board for seven months for a resolution in support of having Omnitrans move its natural gas tanks further away from Ramona-Alessandro Elementary. “It’s pretty well known what kind of accidents have already occurred from natural gas explosions,” said Flores. “There is never time to evacuate.” The Center is scheduled to be heard again by the school board on Oct. 7th. They plan to appear again at the Oct. 1 board meeting of Omnitrans.
The results of the 2012 Loma Linda University study, entitled Project ENRRICH, basically calls San Bernardino a “hot zone” for economic development, due to cheap land, relatively inexpensive labor, and a bankrupted city ready to negotiate. The Loma Linda study indicated that industry’s growth will continue within San Bernardino’s city proper due to its population’s inability to fight it. Such growth will cause further negative environmental impacts, says the study.
Dr. Samuel Soret was the lead researcher on the Loma Linda University pilot study. Soret’s research concluded that San Bernardino could be exploited due to a large population of limited English speaking, which is strongly associated with “poverty, food insecurity and environmental inequality.” Soret pointed out that more industry could follow due to “swaths of undeveloped land.”
Flores explained that most of her Westside community feels environmental issues from BNSF and Omnitrans are considered the same threat. In an effort to continue their 10-year cause, Flores and others attend San Bernardino school board meetings as well as Omnitrans board meetings. Her research revealed a number of possible malfunctions that could ignite natural gas at the San Bernardino Omnitrans fueling station.
Omnitrans spokesperson Wendy Williams said there hasn’t been a safety incident in the 30 years her company has been located at 5th Street and Medical Center Drive. Williams said the Omnitrans site is a state-of-the-art facility, which is inspected by her staff daily and monthly by an outside vendor. “Natural gas is the cleanest, safest and cheapest of all the fuels,” said Williams in a phone interview.
Williams explained that members of Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice met with Omnitrans board members on Sept. 10. “As a response to their concerns we will conduct a feasibility study and a cost analysis. Then possibly change to a pipeline type of delivery system instead of using storage tanks,’ said Williams. She says those options will be discussed at the Oct. 1 meeting of the Omnitrans Board. Williams further said that Omnitrans went through all the proper permitting processes. She told that before Omnitrans was located on 5th Street, it was the location of a large car dealership that stored large volumes of traditional gasoline. “It’s always been mixed use here. It was once the major corridor of Route 66. There is a church, a park across the street and stores have been here. There is nothing to indicate that its unsafe.”
Flores says the neighborhood is uncertain about underground storage of natural gas or the routes that pipelines would take for its delivery. Either way, Omnitrans currently needs 12,000 gallons of fuel daily to operate. According to the Omnitrans website, it received a presentation in September from Proterra, a firm which produces electric buses. Omnitrans is looking to replace its current fleet, yet said it was too early to confirm the purchase of electric buses, which use no liquid fuels.