In Presidio, officials weigh the benefits and risks of diesel transport operation
From her office, Jeran Stephens has a direct view into Presidio’s past. Her desk sits in the old Bishop packing sheds, where farmworkers used to pile local produce onto rail cars waiting to bring it to customers around the country.
“These now dead tracks would be loaded with cars being loaded with onions and cantaloupe and other vegetables and things that were grown all here in Presidio,” Stephens says.
It’s been decades since that industry dried up, and the railroad tracks have been quiet for thirteen years, since a series of fires wiped out the rail bridge connecting Presidio to Ojinaga. Walking along the route, Stephens has to navigate around overgrown scrub. “Now, the tracks are quite literally full of tumbleweed and mesquite,” she says.
But out here, Stephens – the executive director of Presidio’s Municipal Development District – is also looking right at the city’s future. For years, the state and Texas Pacifico, the railroad company, have been working to revamp the rail line. Now, a new proposal could bring trains back to Presidio even sooner than expected. Working with Texas Pacifico, a Nebraska-based company called Strobel Energy Logistics has said it plans to send diesel from Fort Worth to reach customers in Chihuahua City.
Scott Vincent, director of operations for Strobel, says the company has been considering the route for years. “It’s much closer from Presidio to Chihuahua than from El Paso to Chihuahua,” he told Marfa Public Radio. “There's better rail service, you don't have the congestion of the El Paso issues, trucking, rail and all of the rest of the issues in the greater El Paso area.”
But trains can’t cross into Ojinaga on the tracks here until a new customs inspection station is built, which will likely take a few years. And there’s another hurdle: under President Andres Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican government has revoked the permits for fuel terminals on the Mexican side of the border.
So instead, Strobel has proposed a workaround. Trains loaded with diesel would stop here, just outside Stephens’ office. Then, in a process called “transloading,” Strobel employees would move the fuel onto tanker trucks likely owned and operated by a company in Chihuahua. The trucks would drive through the city, taking a route that skirts downtown O’Reilly Street, winding north past Porter’s and then down Highway 67 to cross the vehicle bridge into Ojinaga. Between 75 and 150 trucks would travel the route each week, carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel.
It’s this part of the plan that has turned the potential reopening of the rail line from a cause for celebration to a point of controversy in Presidio. At a Jan. 17 city council meeting, the proposal faced nearly universal opposition from attendees –– including council members.
“All I want them to do is just keep that diesel on the train till it crosses the railroad bridge and reaches its final destination,” said city council member Billy Hernandez. “They're going to put everybody at risk. Our children, our streets, everything.”
Among the concerns raised at the meeting were what the new traffic would mean for Presidio’s roads, its small tourist industry, and the lines at the international bridge.
“We will be living with these trucks through our town, past the elementary school, eating up what few asphalt paved roads we have now and blocking entry and exit across the river,” said Stephens.
Port director Jesus Luis Chavez confirmed that the trucks would likely increase wait times to cross the border, which can already last several hours –– though he couldn’t say by how much. The port is still waiting on the state to finish the bridge expansion, which would create two more lanes.
But much of the conversation in Presidio has centered on what’s inside the trucks –– and what would happen if it got out. In December and early January, customs officials at the port of entry called a series of meetings with city officials, law enforcement, and emergency responders to discuss the potential implications of hazardous material moving through the city. The public and members of the city council weren’t invited to those meetings, and when they learned about the proposal, many said they were concerned.
Joaquin Rodriguez, who has several generations of family members in Presidio, dialed into the meeting from Austin to express his opposition. “There’s no doubt that Presidio needs an economic boost. Who doesn’t? But what tangible economic benefit would be gained that would supersede any environmental and health risk to its citizens?” he asked. “Burning the village to save it? I cannot think of a more appropriate analogy.”
Following the hazmat meetings, Stephens hired an environmental manager to survey Presidio. Their report found that much of the city’s groundwater is very close to the surface, and that all runoff in town flows into the Rio Grande. “God forbid we had an actual large problem,” Stephens says. “The truck has a leak, something bad happens, we lose 5000 gallons on the ground. What happens next?”
Scott Vincent of Strobel says his company has the training and technology to clean up spills or leaks, and that they would provide hazmat training in Presidio. But, he says, Strobel would only be legally responsible for issues that arose at their facility. Any crashes or spills on the way through town or across the bridge would likely involve the insurance of the trucking company –– which has not yet been identified.
City council member John Razo spent years as a firefighter and an EMT, and has experience working with hazmat. He says he worries about the city’s capacity to respond to an emergency involving one of the trucks. Presidio’s volunteer fire department has just six regularly available members –– and little of the expensive equipment required to fight a fire caused by hazardous materials.
“Training is good,” he says. “But without any equipment, the training is worthless. I mean, without any equipment, you don't have any means of attack or containment.”
Razo says the stakes are especially high in such a remote community. The nearest hospital is nearly 90 miles away in Alpine, and serious injuries could require transporting patients even further –– to bigger hospitals in El Paso or the Permian Basin.
“In my view in all honesty, I really don’t see any value,” Razo says. “I can't see anything that we're gonna get out of it except for risk.”
Scott Vincent of Strobel says that assessment underestimates the good the transloading operation would do in town. He says his company could eventually offer up to six jobs at the transloading facility, each paying $20 to $24 an hour. And, he says, bringing rail traffic back to Presidio could mean big things.
“Opening a town that hasn't had rail for 20 years to rail commerce, I believe is a benefit. Hiring people at good paying jobs, that's a benefit,” he says. “Having somebody come in and do construction to improve your infrastructure? Those are benefits.”
Once that door is open, Vincent says, Presidio could become a key component of a major trade route, with goods coming through all the way from ships on the Mexican coast at Topolobampo.
But Stephens and city council members say many of those benefits are already on the way, when the inspection station is built and trains can travel across the border. They don’t see the rush to get ahead of the process.
“We want rail traffic. We want the commerce that comes with the railroad when it's ready,” Stephens says. “This is something completely different.”
Still, it remains unclear exactly what about this proposal the city has control over, since the railroad, highway, and bridge over the river are owned by the state. On Jan. 17, council members proposed passing an ordinance to keep the trucks off city streets, but Mayor John Ferguson advised them to proceed with caution.
“My stance on this is that we need to educate ourselves,” he said. “We need to be careful that we don't put ourselves in a position where we've passed a law that we can’t enforce.”
At the Jan. 17 meeting, Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez told the city council that Strobel could not begin operations until the Presidio port of entry was certified for hazardous materials. He also suggested that the port could not request that designation without the city’s approval.
“We’re here to support you guys, you know, the city of Presidio,” he said. “But again, it’s not our call to do this. It just depends on the commodity that you guys want coming in.”
But in an email to Marfa Public Radio, the port director later said that Strobel’s plan does not require the port to get a hazmat certification because the hazardous material will be leaving the country, not coming in. He said the port of entry is not pursuing a hazmat certification –– but that if it did, it would not need the city’s permission.
Now, city officials say they’re looking into the possibility of getting the state to build a bypass road that would take the trucks between the railroad and the port while avoiding the city.
Scott Vincent says that would be okay with Strobel. “We're gonna drive 120 miles. If we divert a mile, two miles, that's not an equation changer on our truck route,” he says. “So whatever the city, city council, city manager wants to use for a truck route, I don't have a problem with it.”
But that plan would still mean hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel moving through the area each week. So city officials are also asking Presidio County to update its emergency management plan, which hasn’t been revised in years.
“If it turns out that no matter how we feel about it, that diesel trucking comes to Presidio, then we need to find ways to protect ourselves the best we can,” Mayor Ferguson says.
In the coming weeks, city officials are planning a meeting with the companies and agencies involved. They say a public meeting about the project will follow soon after.