City of Presidio passes hazardous materials ordinance 

PRESIDIO — At Monday night’s regular meeting, Presidio City Council passed its first ordinance aimed at restricting the commercial transport of hazardous materials through the city. The ordinance prohibits transloading of hazardous materials over 5,000 gallons within city limits and introduces a legal framework to eventually designate a hazardous materials route for cargo bound for the Presidio International Bridge. 

The ordinance was drafted by city council members and their legal advisors in response to a planned diesel transport operation that investors hope will mark the “rebirth of rail” in Presidio. The operation would entail the shipment of diesel to Presidio by rail, where the fuel will be transferred onto tanker trucks through a process called transloading. Seventy-five to 150 trucks a week would then make their way through the heart of Presidio on their journey to the bridge. 

Locals have raised numerous health and safety concerns in the months since the plan was revealed, and Presidio county officials have worked to update their emergency response plan to include hazmat-related incidents. The trucking route as proposed by Strobel Energy Group, the company responsible for potentially transloading the fuel, would truck thousands of gallons of hazardous material past the Presidio Elementary School every week, which has been a subject of concern for some officials. 

Presidio officials hope to expand business and economic opportunities in the remote border city. The Presidio Port of Entry is classified as a “small” port by Customs and Border Protection, but with quick access to Chihuahua City, there’s room to grow. “Big trucks are coming, and they’re wanting to go through Presidio,” City Administrator Brad Newton told a handful of representatives from state Sen. César Blanco’s office on Zoom in February. 

Still, locals hope that the inevitable growth can be balanced with care for the health and safety of Presidio residents. “It’s a lot of hazmat, and we’re not ready for it,” Councilmember and former Presidio first responder John Razo said back in January. 

Beyond potential threats to human safety, there’s the local ecosystem to consider. The transloading and trucking route is located uphill from a number of drainages into the Rio Grande, meaning that any major spill would inevitably end up in the river. Presidio Municipal Development Director Jeran Stephens hired Registered Environmental Manager Andrew Price to survey the groundwater in Presidio, revealing that many of Presidio’s wells are just 7 feet below the surface of the ground. 

“The hydrology data determines severe risk presented by large volumes of hazardous materials being transloaded and transported in a populated area with shallow groundwater and close proximity to the Rio Grande River,” Price’s report reads. “It is imperative that such risk not be pursued. This is the equivalent of creating a worst case scenario or the perfect storm.”

The ordinance as written originally included language relegating the transport of hazardous materials to a hazardous materials route, but such a route has not yet been designated. The last time the ordinance was discussed at city council, Presidio City Attorney Rod Ponton explained that, while it was common for cities to designate hazardous materials routes, they could not ban hazardous materials from state highways. 

Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas worried that if the language alluding to a hazardous materials route were left unchanged, the city could be vulnerable to legal challenges. “What if somebody comes along and says, ‘Well, this ordinance is not legal because there is no route?’”

Ponton agreed. “I would recommend taking out the references to a hazardous material route,” he said. “It’s illegal for us to do without going through the process [of designating the route]. Instead you could say, ‘Commercial motor vehicles transporting hazardous materials shall not depart state highways.’”

City council members adopted the changes and passed the ordinance. While Mayor John Ferguson and City Administrator Brad Newton were absent from the meeting, Mayor Pro Tempore John Razo still had a quorum with Arian Velázquez-Ornelas, Joe Andy Mendoza, Nancy Arevalo and Abel “Billy” Hernandez voting in favor. 

The new ordinance’s biggest challenge to the proposed diesel transport operation is its outright ban on transloading of hazardous materials over 5,000 gallons within city limits. Transloading, while common along the U.S.-Mexico border, is illegal in Mexico due to corruption and safety concerns. 

The quantity specified by the ordinance wouldn’t affect transloading of fuel to local gas stations, which are typically served by smaller trucks. Ponton also added language to the ordinance to specify that trucks with hazardous materials heading to a regularly scheduled delivery to a commercial business or on their way for mechanic services would be exempt from the law.  

Large tanker trucks, on the other hand, can transport more than 11,000 gallons of fuel at a time, meaning that the ordinance could severely impede investors’ ability to make a profit on the project in Presidio. The penalty for exceeding the transloading limit is a misdemeanor. 

City officials hope to eventually work together with TxDOT to designate a hazardous materials bypass around the city of Presidio to help accommodate larger volumes of truck traffic headed for the bridge. Because the Presidio International Bridge is the only international bridge in Texas owned by the state, it will likely be a drawn-out, trial-and-error process as the two entities work together to grow international trade. 

“Thank you for your patience in this process,” Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas told the crowd assembled at Monday’s meeting.