Diesel transport operation coming to Presidio, reopening rail commerce

A map of the proposed diesel trucking route through Presidio.

PRESIDIO — City officials are moving forward with a plan to transport large shipments of diesel fuel through Presidio and into Chihuahua City — an operation that would require the introduction of hazmat protocols to the border town, prompting safety concerns about the transportation of the hazardous material in such a remote area.

Representatives from the Presidio Port of Entry, the City of Presidio and Presidio emergency services met on January 5 for the second in a series of meetings to discuss the hazmat protocols necessary to host the operation, which would see hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel move through the city each week. If the plan comes to fruition, diesel refined in Houston will be sent by pipeline to the Fort Worth area, where contractor Strobel Energy Group will load it onto rail cars bound for San Angelo. Once the fuel arrives in the Permian Basin, railroad company Texas Pacifico Transportation will oversee its 400-mile journey to Presidio, where the diesel will be offloaded into tanker trucks. A still-unnamed trucking company would then drive the diesel across the bridge into Ojinaga, then follow the Highway 67 cargo route to Chihuahua City. 

The plan is being touted as a way to reopen Presidio to rail commerce, which has been dormant since a series of fires ravaged the Presidio-Ojinaga International Rail Bridge in 2008 and 2009. The ongoing reconstruction of the bridge cleared its latest hurdle in November, when the Texas Department of Transportation allocated $33 million toward the construction of a permanent customs facility. Despite the financial boost, there’s no clear timeline yet for how long it will take for the rail bridge to be fully operational. Until the diesel can be transported into Mexico by rail, it will need to be offloaded onto trucks in Presidio.

“This is the beginning of the rebirth of rail in Presidio,” said Stan Meador, vice president of sales and marketing for Texas Pacifico. “What we didn’t anticipate is that the first thing we’d be doing is stopping in Presidio. We had been thinking more in terms of going across the bridge.”

The Presidio Port of Entry is not currently certified as a hazmat facility and very few of Presidio’s first responders have hazmat certifications. As a part of TxDOT’s 2021 Texas-Mexico Border Transportation Master Plan, “enhanc[ing] the safe and secure transport of hazardous materials” is a priority for the agency. In a place as remote as Presidio, that’s a much more complicated process than at ports like El Paso and Laredo, which see high volumes of fuel transport but are also closer to emergency services and have the budget for proper hazmat facilities. In Laredo, the construction of a hazmat lane on the World Trade Bridge and a hazmat containment facility cost $2.7 million dollars. Laredo is one of the busiest ports of entry in the U.S., so it’s not yet clear if the upgrades in Presidio, classified by Customs and Border Protection as a “small” crossing, will be similarly invasive. Smaller ports of entry on the northern border with Canada have used a hazmat escort service to create a buffer between hazmat vehicles and non-commercial traffic.

“We don’t have any of that equipment, and right now I don’t have any estimates of what that would cost,” said Presidio Fire Chief Saul Pardo Jr. 

As part of expanding their business in Presidio, Strobel Energy Group will offer the requisite hazmat training to local first responders and potential new Strobel employees. “I have 90 officers and trust me, you’re going to have your classes full because I want to make sure that my folks know what’s going on,” Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez said. The next step will be developing a county-wide emergency response plan with the help of Marfa Fire Chief Gary Mitschke, who also serves as the county’s emergency coordinator. Assistant Port Director Michelle Power, who presided over the meeting and invited local officials, pledged to extend an invitation to Mitschke for the next installment.

Chavez stressed the need for coordination between all of the state, local, and federal agencies involved. “We all need to be on the same sheet of music so that if something happens, we all know how to respond,” he said. “We opened that bridge back up on November 8 [after 20 months of closures due to COVID-19] and traffic has not stopped. People are coming in and people are going. But we want to show that the safety of the city is what matters.” 

Presidio Municipal Development District Executive Director Jeran Stephens raised numerous health and safety concerns, mainly aimed at protecting Presidio’s fragile groundwater ecosystems and the Rio Grande. She tasked registered Environmental Manager Andrew Price with conducting a hydrology study that revealed many of Presidio’s dozens of privately-owned wells are just 7 feet below the surface of the ground. Several of the wells are located “down gradient” between the transloading facility and the river, meaning that in the event of a spill, the diesel will pass by on its way to the Rio Grande. “It wouldn’t take much to poison multiple private wells,” she said. 

Diesel fuel is categorized by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration as a hazardous material, or hazmat. Diesel is highly flammable and can cause skin irritation and corrosion, in addition to being “toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects” if introduced into local waterways. 

Scott Vincent of Strobel Energy Group explained that the company’s transloaders are equipped with aluminum spill pans and containment bladders in the event of an emergency at the facility, where the fuel transfer will happen over a track mat. “It’s made out of polyester-based material that has an affinity for hydrocarbons and lets water run through it,” he explained.

Stephens then asked what would happen in the event of a spill from one of the dozens of trucks that would be leaving Strobel’s facility each week. Vincent explained that his company’s responsibility for spills ends when the diesel leaves the facility. 

“We can offer our expertise to the local emergency responders,” he said, but ultimately the liability will rest with the environmental insurance held by the shipper. “It’s the same at your local Valero station today — if they have a spill, they carry the insurance to make sure that’s cleaned up. They may hire response contractors, but it’s paid for by the insurance premiums on those trucks.”

Currently, diesel shipments to the Chihuahua state capitol are routed through El Paso, but investors are hoping to slash truckers’ drive time in half by offloading the diesel in Presidio. With the exception of Texas Pacifico’s own supply cars for railroad repair and construction, a train hasn’t stopped in Presidio in 13 years. In order to reopen service, a minimum of 25 cars a week will need to be sent to Presidio, and investors hope that the 25-car shipment will grow to twice a week. Each rail car full of diesel fuel holds 28,500 gallons, putting the minimum weekly traffic through Presidio around 712,500 gallons, with the potential to grow to 1.5 million gallons. “The more weight that you can move in each [shipment], the more fuel efficient it is, the smaller your carbon footprint is,” Meador explained. “Bigger is better in rail.”

At the January 5 meeting, Vincent gave a presentation on the technology Strobel will be using to move fuel between modes of transportation. Strobel will be responsible for transferring the diesel from the pipeline onto rail cars in the Fort Worth area and then transferring that diesel again from rail to truck in Presidio using a transloader. The transloader is a mobile device that can be towed to the railroad site and offloads each rail car from the bottom. Vincent likened the process to how fuel is offloaded from tanker trucks at gas stations. “We do the same operation here with our transloader in 17 minutes,” he explained. “It’s very quick.”

Representatives for the City of Presidio, Texas Pacifico and Strobel were unable to name the trucking company that will service the Presidio-to-Chihuahua route. Individual tanker trucks vary in capacity, but Presidio residents can expect around 75 to 150 trucks a week to make their way from the transloading site in the Presidio stockyards to the bridge. The truck route through town will follow O’Reilly Street past Presidio Elementary School to the Y intersection, where they will head north and hang a left onto Highway 67 to leave the United States. The route was developed with input from city officials to divert truck traffic from Presidio’s downtown. 

On a global scale, this plan provides an opportunity for investors to ride out upheaval in the Mexican oil industry, which has been more or less nationalized since 1938. PEMEX — Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company — was originally founded with exclusive rights over exploration, extraction, refining and commercialization of all oil in Mexico. In 2014, former President Enrique Peña Nieto opened up the Mexican oil industry to outside investment, breaking the monopoly. Foreign investors suffered whiplash in 2021 when current President Andres Manuel López Obrador cracked down on private oil companies, aiming instead to make Mexico’s oil and gas industry self-sufficient by 2023. 

Obrador’s reforms also cut down on rail traffic in order to target tax evasion and corruption in railway ports of entry on the Mexican side. To satisfy the new laws, cross-border oil and gas shipments have adopted the train-to-truck method being pitched in Presidio, suggesting that the operation may last beyond the reopening of the international rail bridge. Complicating the supply chain even further, PEMEX has been struggling to close a deal on a new refinery in Deer Park, Texas, just outside of Houston. Mexican state-owned fuel may eventually make its way through Presidio, but until that refinery officially changes hands, privately-owned, American-branded fuel will be the main cargo passing over the Presidio-Ojinaga bridge, allowing investors to cut down on their transportation costs while the market is still volatile. 

The timeline for beginning the cross-border diesel shipping project in Presidio is still unclear, but it’s been in the works for awhile. City Administrator Brad Newton teased the project to city council at a meeting held at city hall on November 17, but Strobel and Texas Pacifico had been eyeing Presidio as a potential market well before that meeting. The delay now is mostly due to lack of adequate facilities and permitting on the Mexican side. Because the diesel trucks will be returning to the United States empty, much of the burden will fall on Mexico to inspect and approve the trucks for transport. “I need to stress that the port is really playing no major role in any of this,” said Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection public affairs specialist. 

City council members have requested that the plan be discussed at their upcoming meeting on Monday, January 17, held at 6 p.m. at the Presidio Activities Center. The official agenda will be released by the city on Thursday evening.