NY Governor Cuomo sends letter to President Obama an hour before Lynchburg explosion

Repost from The Auburn Citizen, Auburn, NY
[Editor: See below for copy of Governor Cuomo’s letter and the New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report.  – RS]

Cuomo to President Obama: Better federal safety standards needed for rail transport of crude oil

April 30, 2014 • Robert Harding
Train Derailment
Firefighters and rescue workers work along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown in Lynchburg, Va.., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Police said that 13 or 14 tanker cars were involved in the derailment. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Shortly before a train carrying tankers filled with crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va., Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to establish better safety regulations for the rail transport of crude oil to help prevent major accidents from occurring that could pose a threat to New York communities located along rail lines.

Cuomo sent a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama calling for tougher federal regulations. In the letter, Cuomo included recommendations for the federal government, including new tank car regulations and updated environmental and contingency response plans. He also called for the removal of DOT-111 tank cars, a type of car that has been labeled “dangerous” because of the high risk of explosion if it derails carrying crude oil.

“As a result of the recent boom in domestic petroleum production, New York state is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of crude oil trains passing through the state from production areas in the upper Midwest to refineries in the mid-Atlantic and Canada,” Cuomo wrote to President Obama. “This type of crude oil, known as Bakken crude, is highly volatile and is being transported in significant volume across the country by inadequate rail tank cars.

“New York and all the states subject to this crude oil boom are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of a derailment, spill, fire or explosion, as demonstrated by three catastrophic incidents in the last nine months involving such trains. I urge your immediate attention to this issue.”

The recommendations for the federal government were included in a report released Wednesday. The report, Transporting Crude Oil in New York State: A Review of Incident Prevention and Response Capacity, was prepared by a handful of state agencies after Cuomo issued an executive order in January.

While the report makes recommendations to the federal government for improving rail transportation safety, emergency preparedness and strengthening environmental protections, the agencies also recommended the state take action in these three areas.

The report also recommends industry changes, including implementation of a web-based information access system by rail companies to provide real-time information on hazardous materials. The agencies also called for an expedited risk analysis for crude oil to determine the safest and most secure rail routes for trains with at least 20 cars of crude oil.

While Cuomo said the state can take steps to be better prepared, he said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to regulate the industry.

“New York will continue to aggressively pursue measures that ensure its safety,” Cuomo wrote. “However, the fundamental responsibility for the safe transportation of crude oil across the country resides with federal agencies.”

Cuomo’s office distributed the governor’s letter to President Obama and the state report about an hour before reports of the train accident in Lynchburg, Va. The News & Advance in Lynchburg reports that an estimated 50,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in the incident.

After learning of the train derailment, Cuomo issued a statement repeating his call for the federal government to take action.

“Earlier today, I wrote a letter to President Obama urging the federal government take immediate steps to bring much needed and overdue safety regulations to the crude oil transportation system. Just hours later, news comes of yet another serious oil train derailment, this time in Lynchburg, Virginia. Our thoughts and prayers are with any possible victims of this accident,” Cuomo said.

“This is the latest in a series of accidents involving trains transporting crude oil, a startling pattern that underscores the need for action. In addition to steps that states like New York are taking, the federal government must overhaul the safety regulations, starting with taking DOT-111 trains off the rails now. These trains travel through populated communities in upstate New York and we cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act.”

Here is the letter from Cuomo to President Obama:

Gov. Cuomo’s letter to President Obama

Here is the state report on transporting crude oil:

New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report

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Lynchburg derailment and explosion – TV news coverage

Repost from WDBJ 7 CBS Lynchburg, VA
[Editor: This 2 ½ minute video has local commentary and images after the explosion.  Apologies for the ad.  – RS]

UPDATE: Train carrying crude oil derails in Lynchburg

There are no reports of injuries at this time
WDBJ7 Bedford-Lynchburg Newsroom Bureau Chief Tim Saunders
WDBJ7 Anchor/Reporter Nadia Singh Nadia Singh

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LYNCHBURG, Va. – Approximately 50,000 gallons of crude oil are gone from three tankers as a result of the train derailment in Lynchburg Wednesday, which sent flames and thick black smoke into the air.

The CSX train was carrying between 12 and 14 CSX tanker cars when it derailed around 1:45 p.m. at the intersection of Ninth and Jefferson Streets, near Amazement Square. Three tanker cars are in the James River.

Lynchburg officials told WDBJ7 that one tanker is empty, one is full and one is a third of the way full.

Crews are working to determine what caused the derailment and working to start the clean up process.

It’s too soon to tell if there will be any negative environmental impacts.

For now, crews are working and environmental experts are urging the public to be vigilant and cautious.

CSX representatives, local officials and the National Transportation Safety Board are working to clear out the wreckage.

It’s not clear how much oil burned off or how much of it spilled into the river.

People in the area between Washington and Fifth Streets were evacuated. There are no reports of injuries. It’s not clear yet what caused the derailment.

The derailment happened when part of the CSX train ran off the tracks and caused a pile-up. The train was carrying crude oil that was housed in large tanks. When the train wrecked, the tanks broke open and the oil caught on fire. The train originated in Chicago.

People who were near the scene when the crash happened said they heard a loud explosion. The derailment happened a few feet away from the Depot Grille restaurant. Workers saw the train as it came off the tracks.

“We just saw it going sideways on two wheels,” witness Travis Uhle said. “One went down, and then the train just kept coming with a dog-pile on top of that.”

Some people are being allowed back into the area to get their cars, but most of the area below Main Street remains blocked off. At one point a 20-block area was blocked off.

According to a Lynchburg city official who was at the command post, crude oil leaked into the James River. Intake stations downstream were notified. Booms in the river are trying to catch the crude oil. The city official says that three or four train cars are in the James River.

Jeff Hurst of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says it is not clear how much crude oil leaked into the James River. Before the DEQ can begin cleanup at the site of the derailment, they need to wait for fire crews to fully extinguish small fires around the riverbank that could re-ignite oil on top of the river.

In the meantime, a contractor is placing booms downstream to try and contain as much oil as they can. Hurst says the DEQ hopes to begin cleanup work at the site of the derailment Wednesday night. The City of Lynchburg said there is no impact to the city’s drinking water supply.

People who work at the Griffin Pipe Products on Seventh Street were unable to evacuate because the train derailment blocked the only way in and out of the property. CSX officials are working to remove the wreckage so those workers can get out.

City of Lynchburg leaders say CSX is confident it will have the tankers moved and the site cleaned up by the end of the day Thursday.

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NRDC Senior Scientist: Another explosion, and slow progress on tank car regulations

Repost from NRDC Switchboard, Diane Bailey’s Blog

This Washington, that Washington on Crude Oil by Rail

 Diane Bailey | Posted April 30, 2014

Diane Bailey

This afternoon brought news of another fiery crude oil train derailment.  Luckily no one was hurt in the Lynchburg, Virginia accident, but flames were shooting up as high as the 19th floor of one bystander’s office building, oil was spilling into the James River and hundreds have been evacuated.  The billowing black plumes of smoke serve as a warning not just to the 77,000 people living in Lynchburg but to everyone living near rail lines or terminals that the growing transport of long crude oil trains is incredibly dangerous.

It’s not clear that mile long crude oil trains can ever be made safe, but they are upon us, so while we are fighting to keep them out of communities, we better make every effort to improve the situation.  This blog includes notes on the National Transportation Safety Board Rail Safety Forum on the Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol  in Washington D.C. last week from Fred Millar, a well-known rail safety expert; and a summary of fieldwork from a leading activist, Matt Landon, who is oil trainspotting in Washington State. (What is oil trainspotting?)

The NTSB Forum in DC last week was packed with industry shippers and carriers, NTSB oil forum.jpgtechnical, policy, emergency response and regulatory experts, all talking about hazardous materials transportation issues and crude oil train derailments disasters. From that discussion, the top two strategies to address these safety risks involve federal regulations: (1) Ordering a fast retrofit of existing tank cars with a strong safety standard, and a similarly strong standard for new tank cars; and (2) re-routing the unit trains around major cities.

As far as the tank cars go, NTSB Chairman Hersman noted that federal agencies could use emergency powers to quickly issue safety-forcing Emergency Orders and even Interim Final Regulations.  She recounted an expeditious federal action in the 1970’s, when the DOT ordered speedy retrofits of pressurized “jumbo” tank cars DOT-112A and DOT-114A that experienced dangerous failures.

In February 1978, a rail tanker explosion killed 16, in Waverly, TN.  Less than a year later, in January 1979 the DOT Secretary reported that nearly all of the defective tanker cars had been retrofitted, and soon thereafter it was obvious that the package of three railcar retrofit devices had reduced serious pressurized railcar releases significantly. During that rulemaking process, it’s important to note that although the industry warned that only four shops could do railcar retrofits and they would take 3 days each, the NTSB ultimately found that 100 shops could retrofit tank cars, and each would take 93 minutes.

So, technically and politically, rail tanker cars can be retrofitted or replaced quickly. And in the case of the puncture-prone DOT-111 tanker cars now used to carry significant amounts of crude oil, speed is called for in their replacement as well.  According to researcher, Dr. David Jeong of DOT, using sophisticated models, the “legacy” DOT-111 tank cars are estimated to spill their contents in an accident over 25 percent of the time, whereas other models are less likely to breach in an accident. For example, COC-1232 tanker cars with full height head shields are estimated to breach in only 6 percent of accidents; and the proposed new design for more robust tanker cars with a thicker shell would only breach in 4 percent of accidents. While imperfect, these newer designs are clearly much safer and should be phased in immediately.

It remains to be seen what this week’s expected federal proposal on rail car safety will bring.  In the meantime, the Canadian government announced last week that industry must – at its own cost – replace 5,000 DOT-111 tanker cars within 30 days, and another 65,000 DOT-111 cars must be removed or retrofitted within three years.

This is a significant step, although three years is a long time to wait, and the regulations do not address re-routing of trains around cities.  In Canada, however, the railroads will have to provide hazmat rail flow information to local emergency responders (note: the public still will not have access to this). The US has no such requirement on the railroads.  Also, to make matters worse, the current “routing selection tools” used by railroads in the U.S. are not disclosed to anyone and receive minimal government oversight.  Railroads and governments have blocked any effort to keep dangerous trains away from the most populated areas by keeping the routing secret and unaccountable, unmeasured as to effectiveness.

firefighter tanker train.jpgHow can emergency responders deal with crude oil rail accidents?  A panel concluded that the best tactic is to let a derailment burn, pull back, and take a “defensive posture”.  Emergency responders were clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle.  “Even with an infinite amount of costly foam”, letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in Lynchburg this afternoon).  They note that major derailments would require enormous amounts of foam, there is not enough water to apply it especially in rural areas, and anyway, they cannot get close enough to the fires to apply it.  Derailments in urban areas would pose significant operating risks that go well beyond current operational capabilities for emergency responders.

In the meantime, Matt Landon with the Vancouver Action Network, set out to find whether crude oil trains are leaking fumes in the other Washington – State, that is. This past month, Matt initiated the Washington State Train Watch 2014 covering Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, Washougal, Camas, Vancouver, Fruit Valley, and Everett, recording the number of oil and coal trains coming through these communities.  Using a FLIR Gasfindir GF320 hydrocarbon viewing video camera, this footage of air emissions from a train carrying crude oil thought to be from the North Dakota Bakken was posted.  Watching this video makes you wonder who is monitoring the air emissions from leaky crude oil trains, how much is leaking, who is exposed and how dangerous is it?

leaking oil train.jpg

Back in Washington D.C., waiting for an announcement on new rail safety measures from U.S. DOT, Fred Millar provided more information from the rail safety forum.  Participants in the NTSB Forum recognize the scope and seriousness of the Crude by Rail issues, given that 80 percent of the 1 million barrels per day of Bakken crude oil produced is shipped by rail, and production is growing, yet there is no single silver bullet to address the rail safety risks.

In addition to the need for improved tanker cars and routing discussed above, there are additional improvements that can be made to rail operations and to emergency response.

One key factor in train derailments that influences the extent of damage is speed.  The models that predict failure rates of tank cars during derailments use an “average accident” speed of 27 mph. Yet, even the NTSB Chair Hersman pointed out that it is not realistic, given the higher speeds seen in some of the serious derailments in recent years and the fact that the new standard adopted by the railroads on routes outside of major cities is 50 mph.  Reducing train speeds would be one effective strategy to reduce risk of catastrophic derailments.

It is also essential to strengthen emergency response capabilities. No one at the Forum asked or speculated on what would it cost if railroads paid for adequate emergency preparedness or if FRA increased their oversight in any serious way. The scale of the needs here is vast, given that there are an estimated 2 million firefighters, 80% of which are volunteers, and 20% of those turn over every year.  They all need hazmat training and appropriate resources to respond in any real way to a unit crude oil train accident.rail placard.jpg

Finally, in order for emergency responders to do their jobs, they need to know what substance they are dealing with during an accident.  Full disclosure of tanker train contents and characteristics is essential.  Communities also have a right to know this information about the mile long trains hurtling through their neighborhood, but this was never even mentioned during the Forum.

The residents of Lynchburg, Virginia and thousands of others who have witnessed the devastation of crude oil train derailments over the past year probably join me in wondering whether the federal government is going to do anything to keep these dangerous oil trains out of communities, or try to make those tanker trains safer, or make the trains slow down, or provide adequate emergency response resources, or… anything.  How many more fiery derailments will it take to act?

Full notes of Fred Millar are available to community, public health and safety advocates upon request.

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