They didn’t want a lot of big tanker trucks traveling up and down the only road that leads to their sleepy little community southeast of Santa Fe. They feared an environmental disaster if a spill should occur at the offloading site, just 109 feet from the community well, or the possibility of a train derailment. However unlikely, there have been an increasing number of such accidents involving trains carrying petroleum products elsewhere.
But there was little the residents, the county, or the state could do about it. Railways are under federal jurisdiction and there are laws against interfering with interstate commerce.
While that remains true, a lot has changed in the past year. While the No Crude Oil in Lamy citizens group still exists, the possibility of an oil operation in Lamy seems to have diminished. The trucking firm, Pacer Energy Marketing, appears to have lost interest in Lamy.
Calls from the Journal to company officials were not returned, but the word on the streets of the tiny town is that Pacer is looking elsewhere for a backup to the existing offloading terminal owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in Thoreau. Some say the drop in oil prices may be a factor, as demand has fallen sharply. And the Santa Fe Southern Railroad, which owns the Lamy depot, and the 22-mile spur between Santa Fe and Lamy, suspended use of the track last fall.
In any case, opponents of oil offloading in Lamy may soon have a new weapon. The Santa Fe County Commission is considering an ordinance that puts weight restrictions on trucks traveling four county roads, including County Road 33, or the Old Lamy Trail, as it’s known.
A public hearing on the proposed ordinance is on the agenda for Tuesday’s commission meeting. A second public hearing is scheduled for April 28, at which time the Commission could take action.
Four roads covered
“We’re not saying they can’t use it,” Commissioner Kathy Holian, whose district encompasses Lamy, said of whether potential future oil offloading operations could use the Lamy road to transport product. “What this ordinance says is that (the road) has a weight limit.”
That weight limit would be 5 tons per axle, just as it would be for Bonanza Creek Road (also known as County Road 45) between Interstate 25 and NM 14 south of town, and a section of the Caja del Oro Grant Road (County Road 62) from Agua Fria Road to the NM 599 frontage road.
According to a county staff analysis, Old Lamy Trail and Bonanza Creek Road meet existing traffic conditions, “but heavy truck traffic that exceeds the current conditions will cause said road to fail prematurely.”
Caja del Oro Grant Road already doesn’t meet the paving standard for its existing traffic.
The fourth road covered under the proposal, Caja del Rio from the landfill access road north of NM 599 up to Las Campanas Drive, will have a stricter straight 5-ton weight limit under a 1997 agreement made with various property owners. Although the agreement has been in place for 18 years, there’s been no ordinance to enforce it.
Many take the road en route to the county landfill and it gets a lot of truck traffic. The ordinance calls for a 10,000-pound weight limit sign to be posted north of the landfill access road, Wildlife Way.
While some see the ordinance as a deterrent to oil offloading in Lamy, county Public Works Director Adam Leigland says that’s not the purpose, and the weight limits also aren’t intended to reduce noise and truck traffic that people who live along the county roads sometimes complain about.
“The purpose of the weight limit is not to control nuisance or noise, the purpose is to protect pavement,” he said. “We invest in our roads and the truth is what damages the road is the number of passes by heavy trucks.”
The ordinance is a protection of that investment, Leigland said. The county has 574 miles of road to maintain with a budget of $4 million.
While the stated purpose of the ordinance isn’t to sidetrack oil haulers, its genesis did come during last year’s controversy over the potential for oil tankers to start traveling through Lamy.
“We had just chip sealed that road about two months before when I learned that there was an anticipated land use that would bring truck traffic along that road,” Leigland said. “The core samples came back and showed that road couldn’t handle it. So, then we asked what other roads are there like that? The county didn’t have a standard objective process to determine that, so we decided we needed one.”
In any case, Lamy resident Monica Welsh sees the weight limits as an obstacle to oil transfers at the local depot.
“It’s one kind of protection the county can offer – the only kind of protection,” she said. “I think it’s very significant for a small area like ours to know that the county can back them up with a weight limit. It’s helping to keep a lid on things.”
The County Commission passed a resolution in October to adopt policies and procedures for proposing weight limits on asphalt roads maintained by the county.
Staff then conducted an analysis that involved taking road core samples and a traffic analysis. Numbers were crunched and run through an industry-standard algorithm that determines what the weight limit should be to allow the road surface to reach its expected lifespan.
The result is the ordinance under consideration addressing the four roads. It imposes a $300 fine for violations. Exceptions are made for emergency vehicles, construction trucks, utility vehicles, farm tractors and some other vehicles providing services.
“We wanted to make sure that a propane truck can still deliver and that a solid waste truck could still pick up,” Leigland said. “What we’re most worried about is lots of truck traffic, because one here and there isn’t going to do damage.”
District 2 County Commissioner Miguel Chavez, a former city councilor, says he thinks the ordinance is needed to help keep trucks off roads they really shouldn’t be on.
“The Agua Fria corridor was being used as a truck route before there were any signals. Truckers on Airport Road were using Agua Fria, rather than using St. Francis,” he said. “It still happens in my neighborhood where some of these 18-wheelers get stuck.”
Both Caja del Oro Grant Road, which connects Agua Fria with the frontage road on the other side of 599, and Caja del Rio Road, the route to the landfill, run through his district.
“There are houses in the vicinity of Caja del Oro and Caja del Rio. There was a group of homeowners who were there before the landfill was sited. One has to be sensitive to the residential components,” he said.
Chavez noted that Bonanza Creek Road, which runs from a frontage road near the La Cienega exit off I-25 south of Santa Fe and connects with NM 14 at Lone Butte, also is often used as a shortcut by truckers.
“If there are other routes that do not have the impact on the roads that others do, it seems like you ought to be able to direct truck traffic if there are alternate routes. I don’t think that’s too much to ask,” he said.
There is no alternate route to Old Lamy Trail. It’s the lone road in and out of Lamy. Resident Welsh said one of her main concerns is safety.
“Driving that road is a little more dicey than it appears to be because there are no shoulders,” she said. “When you come upon a truck traveling in the other direction, you instinctively want to move over.”
Welsh opposed oil offloading in Lamy.
“We’re a residential community. We’re a town of 140, 150 people. It’s a railroad town and no one is against that. But we were looking at quite a few trucks coming by in a day,” she said.
Pacer representatives said last year that six to eight trucks per day would have stopped to offload product in Lamy. But residents say double that for trips in and out.
And they would be big trucks. The Federal Highway Administration says the weight of a typical tanker truck is between 47,000 and 72,000 pounds.
A Pacer representative noted last year that the gross weight limit for 18-wheelers on state highways is about 86,000 pounds. Another Pacer official said a railroad tanker car can carry enough crude oil to fill about 3½ tanker trucks.
‘You can regulate it’
The use of trains to haul crude oil has increased dramatically in recent years, as have accidents. A recent report on hazardous material from the Association of American Railroads indicated that shipments of crude oil had increased by 400 percent since 2005.
“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman was quoted as saying in a Washington Post article published in January of last year.
That month – the same month that close to 300 area residents attended a public meeting in Lamy to hear about Pacers’ plans – the NTSB released a set of recommendations for stricter safety measures for transporting crude oil.
The report came just a few months after a 74-car train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.
The increase in using trains for hauling oil has become part of the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Proponents maintain the pipeline would be safer than trains.
Since February of this year, there have been four accidents involving trains carrying crude oil in Illinois and West Virginia, and two in Canada.
The NTSB’s recommendations included more careful route planning, upgrading safety and security plans, and establishing a program to ensure railroads are prepared for “worst-case” scenarios.
Commissioner Holian said the county, and the community of Lamy, would not be prepared for such an incident.
“Can you imagine what it would be like if there were an accident in Lamy at the railroad station that had to do with an oil spill or fire? There’s only one way in and one way out. It would put our fire departments and people who live there in great danger,” she said.
Holian says she wouldn’t want to see an oil transfer depot in Lamy and is concerned about the county’s lack of say in the matter.
“I think it’s worrisome that, even though it could affect the county in many ways, we have no way to regulate it,” she said. “I certainly hope the federal government puts in stricter regulations.”
“You can’t stop them, but you can regulate it and cause them to use smaller trucks,” said Roger Taylor of nearby Galisteo, who is also opposed to oil offloading in Lamy.
He likes what the county is trying to do, too, and not just because it would make it harder for companies to use the Lamy depot as a transfer station.
“It’s about putting in a policy for roads and bridges to make sure that there are safety precautions. The county had no structured policy and it just makes sense that they put one in place,” he said.
Taylor said Old Lamy Trail, formerly a state road that was turned over to the county decades ago, and other county roads weren’t built to handle heavy truck traffic. He applauds the county for taking steps to regulate weights.
“I think this one is a very logical ordinance,” he said. “It’s one that looks at the safety of citizens of the county, it looks at quality of life, and protecting county resources and investments, like roads citizens pay for.”