We're responsible for making sure Lincoln is safe from propane fires

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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Sometimes it’s easier to take no action. Such is the case facing Lincoln, propane businesses and the railroad tracks built in 1861. High schools and 4,800 downtown homes have since been built near the tracks. A year ago Aug. 23 to Aug. 25, Lincoln residents experienced what unexpected dangers exist in our neighborhood. A propane tank car at the Northern Energy (Heritage Propane) at Nicolaus Road and J Street caught on fire. That location is a block from Lincoln High School and a block from G Street in downtown Lincoln. According to CalOSHA’s Feb. 12 narrative summary of the tanker fire and five citations given to Northern Energy ( under “Citations, significant), the fire occurred while a “Northern Energy employee was “taking measurements and running checks on the extremely flammable liquid propane prior to unloading it.” During that process, “some liquid propane gas being released flashed causing a fire.” One of Northern Energy’s five citations said that the employee was wearing rubber-soled shoes while “releasing extremely flammable propane from the top of a railcar tank filled with liquid propane gas when it ignited” and the employee “was not effectively grounded or bonded by contact or connection.” Northern Energy is appealing every citation. As a result of the fire, Lincoln city staff evacuated about 10,000 downtown area residents and every downtown business from Aug. 23 to Aug. 25, 2011 because the fire could have turned into a catastrophic BLEVE or Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep told me during a press briefing the second night of the fire to Google Kingman, Ariz., which faced similar circumstances in 1973. In the Arizona case, the fire turned into a BLEVE. Eleven firefighters and a gas company worker were killed and more than 100 others were injured. The 1973 Arizona fire started as propane was transferred from a railroad car to a storage tanker. Last year, The News Messenger asked Kingman, Ariz. Fire Chief Chuck Osterman what his city did after the train car tanker exploded there. “(City leaders) changed the zoning ordinance and they also did that for gasoline and diesel,” Osterman said. “To store bulk propane, it has to be in an area not as highly populated.” Unfortunately, that has not been done here. After the Lincoln tanker fire, according to previous News Messenger reports, then councilman (now Mayor) Spencer Short said the city will look into “appropriate siting” of the propane tanker storage yard. Two weeks later, Councilman Stan Nader referred to Northern Energy’s downtown location: “We certainly want to talk about whether or not that’s the right location for a propane storage facility, in light of the fact that it’s so close to the high school. When it was first built, the school wasn’t so close but the school has expanded.” Granted, there is no easy solution to keeping the public safe with propane and gas storage in the downtown area and what is transported numerous times daily in the trains passing through Lincoln. But we can’t sit back and assume Lincoln’s tanker fire is an isolated case. A year has passed and propane is still being stored near downtown homes, schools and retail stores. The hazards have not been removed from the downtown area, according to city officials in last week’s News Messenger (Aug. 23, front page, “Tanker fire one year later. Officials say city focusing on being prepared”). “The only thing we can do is be prepared for when it (tanker fire) does (happen). You can’t remove (every hazard). What about the trucks going up and down the highway with hazardous materials, the railroad?,” Lincoln Interim Police Chief Paul Shelgren told The News Messenger last week. And Short, in last week’s News Messenger story, said the potential for danger still exists. The city “has been in contact with Northern Energy to discuss safety options and how we can prevent something like that from happening in the future,” Short said last week. Those talks are at the “staff-level discussion.” But prevention means more than making sure our police, fire and pubic service staff are ready for the next emergency. Prevention means absolutely making sure another potential disaster won’t happen in our city. In other words, change the zoning laws so that chemicals are not stored near our homes, schools and retail shopping centers. Lincoln’s Interim Fire Chief Mike Davis told The News Messenger last week that “it was my understanding” Northern Energy would not store multiple 30,000-gallon rail cars in the propane storage yard at one time. But Heritage Propane (Northern Energy) vice president and general manager Richard Martinelli told The News Messenger Tuesday that “The cause (of the fire) is not known yet. Operations are back to normal. The volume of propane is still the same there.” Moving propane and gas storage to an area where there aren’t residents would give the affected businesses and the city additional and unbudgeted costs. But we’re talking about preserving lives and that’s priceless. Not taking any action could possibly wipe out the city’s residents within minutes. We were lucky last year. Next time, though, might be deadly. Lincoln residents need to ask City Council to make sure another tanker fire doesn’t occur by changing downtown’s zoning. Carol Feineman can be reached at From the City Manager The News Messenger asked Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep if the city has talked about changing zoning. Here is Estep's response: The propane facility has been continuously operating since May of 1982 under a Conditional Use Permit issued to Gladding, McBean for the installation/operation of a propane transfer station. Gladding, McBean had used the propane as a fuel source in processing their clay products. The site is zoned Industrial and has a railroad spur. On July 16, 2008, Northern Energy Pro-pane renewed the Conditional Use Permit (PC Reso 2008-031) for a period of five years. Condition No. 19 stipulates that at the end of five years, the CUP will automatically rollover for one-year increments unless the City provides written notice of its intent to conduct a hearings(s) to consider termination or modification of the CUP. Conditional Use Permits typically run with the land and the applicant/owner is generally allowed to amortize their investment over a period of time. Northern Energy leases the site from Pabco Building Products which owns Gladding McBean. There are no other sites within the city limits that offer Industrial zoning with a railroad spur that is located away from population centers. In view of the lawful land use entitlements, the city cannot summarily or arbitrarily order them to cease operations without due process. So as stated above, the city would have a difficult time eliminating this facility as we cannot terminate the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) without due process because the CUP is a property right. This may or may not require that we compensate for the termination of the CUP. This will depend, in part, on whether the property owners received a reasonable return on their investment. That is not a question that we can necessarily answer today, but would depend on later evidence and proceedings.