Potentially explosive trains rolling past 55 schools along a 60 mile stretch in NY and NJ

Repost from WABC TV7 Eyewitness News, New York, NY
[Editor: Trains actually pass right UNDER one school.  A shocking video and excellent investigative reporting.  Someone really should research and list the schools (and other vital structures) along the Union Pacific tracks proposed as the route for Valero Benicia crude-by-rail.
UPDATE, Nov. 1, 2014 – Note previous NRDC study on this issue in California, especially p. 3 of It Could Happen Here, The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California, which lists the number of schools.  More detailed mapping is available on the NRDC’s Risk Zone Maps.  – RS] 

The Investigators: Potentially explosive trains rolling through New York, New Jersey neighborhoods

By Jim Hoffer, October 31, 2014

National Geographic series on Energy: New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Repost from The National Geographic

New Oil Train Safety Rules Divide Rail Industry

Many railroad companies want more time to retrofit cars in the U.S. and Canada, but some are forging ahead.
By Joe Eaton for National Geographic, October 31, 2014
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil and derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. Regulators in Canada and the United States have been working on new standards for trains that carry flammable fuel. – Photograph by Paul Chiasson, Associated Press

Three days after an oil train derailed and exploded in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, Greg Saxton wandered through the disaster site inspecting tank cars.

For Saxton, the damage was personal. Some of the tank cars were built by Greenbrier, an Oregon-based manufacturer where he’s chief engineer. Almost every car that derailed was punctured, some in multiple places. Crude oil flowed from the gashes, fueling the flames, covering the ground, and running off into nearby waterways.

Each day, as Saxton returned to the disaster zone, he passed a Roman Catholic church. “We never came and went when there wasn’t a funeral going on,” he said.

In the wake of this and other recent accidents as energy production soars in North America, Canadian and U.S. regulators are proposing new safety rules for tank cars that carry oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids. Saxton and Greenbrier have pushed for swift changes, but others in the industry are asking for more time to retrofit cars like the type that exploded at Lac-Mégantic. (See related stories: “Oil Train Derails in Lynchburg, Virginia” and “North Dakota Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude“)

“If you don’t set an aggressive time line, you won’t see improvements as quickly as the current safety demands require,” Jack Isselmann, a Greenbrier spokesman, said. “We’ve been frankly just perplexed and confused by the resistance.”

Industry Pushes for More Time

The tank cars that derailed at Lac-Mégantic were built before October 2011, when the American Railway Association mandated safety enhancements to the oil and ethanol tankers known in the industry as DOT-111 cars. The cars lacked puncture-resistant steel jackets, thermal insulation, and heavy steel shields, all of which could have lessened the destruction, experts say.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed rules that, if finalized, would require higher safety standards for new oil cars. The rules also require owners to retrofit older cars or remove them from the rails by October 2017.

Canadian regulators in July mandated that DOT-111 tank cars built before 2014 be retrofitted or phased out by May 2017. Transport Canada, which regulates rail safety, has also proposed aggressive safety standards for new tank cars and will seek industry comment this fall before finalizing its rules.

Saxton and others at Greenbrier support the proposed regulations, which could be tremendously lucrative to the company. However, others in the rail supply industry say the proposed retrofit time line cannot be met.

The Railway Supply Institute—a trade organization that represents the rail industry—has asked DOT to allow legacy cars in the oil and ethanol fleet to remain on the rails until 2020.

Thomas Simpson, the institute’s president, said a survey of rail maintenance and repair shops found that only 15,000 of the roughly 50,000 non-jacketed legacy tank cars in the crude oil and ethanol fleet can be modified by the proposed 2017 deadline.

For many cars, the retrofit process would include adding thermal protection systems, thick steel plates at the ends, and outer steel jackets, as well as reconfiguring the bottom outlet valve to ensure it does not break off and release oil during a derailment.

That’s too much work to complete before the deadline, and the regulations have not yet been finalized, Simpson said.

The proposed deadline, he said, will “idle cars waiting for shop capacity and adversely affect the movement of crude and ethanol.”

Tying in the Keystone XL Debate

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and natural gas industry, also says the 2017 deadline to retrofit tank cars is too aggressive and could slow oil and gas production. (See related story: “Blocked on Keystone XL, Oil-Sands Industry Looks East“)

In comments to U.S. regulators and the press, API tied the safety upgrades to approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alberta’s tar sands oil through the Midwest to Texas refineries.

Workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec
The deadly oil train accident at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, raised awareness of the potential dangers of transporting crude by rail. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

If Keystone is not built, API president Jack Gerard said in September that the cost of the proposed oil tank rules would nearly double to $45 billion because demand for transporting crude by rail would be higher.  (See related story and map: “Keystone XL: 4 Animals and 3 Habitats in Its Path” and “Interactive Map: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil“)

Both API and the Rail Supply Institute have also warned regulators that a short time line for retrofitting oil cars could cause a spike in truck shipments of oil and ethanol.

But Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group opposed to Keystone XL, called these arguments misleading. Swift said Keystone XL would have little impact on retrofitting tank cars, because most train traffic from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota moves to East Coast and West Coast refineries. He said that traffic would not be affected by the pipeline.

Keystone XL would have the capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of oil-sands crude a day, with up to 100,000 barrels a day set aside for crude from the Bakken. By 2016, the rail industry in Canada is expected to carry about as much oil as Keystone XL would. The U.S. rail industry is already there: Almost 760,000 barrels a day of crude had traveled by rail by August.

Swift said the costs to the oil industry are worthwhile if lives are saved. “The argument that we need to wait until the oil industry does not need tank cars until we can make them safe is ridiculous on its face,” he said.

Greenbrier Gears Up to Meet Demand

In February, Greenbrier introduced a beefed-up tanker with a 9/16-inch steel shell (1/8-inch thicker than many DOT-111 cars), 11-gauge steel jacket, removable bottom valve, and rollover protection for fittings along the top of the cars.

Greenbrier calls the tanker the “car of the future,” saying it’s eight times safer than the DOT-111. Isselmann said Greenbrier has received more than 3,000 orders for the new car and plans to double its manufacturing capacity by the end of the year.

In June, Greenbrier and Kansas rail-service company Watco joined forces to form GBW Railcar Services, creating the largest independent railcar repair-shop network in North America. Isselmann said the company plans to hire 400 workers and start second shifts at its factories to meet demand for retrofitting DOT-111 tank cars.

In comments to U.S. regulators, GBW said it currently has the capacity to retrofit more than 10 percent of the fleet of DOT-111 tank cars.

Isselmann said that number will grow as other companies take advantage of the market once regulators release final rules. For that reason, he said the industry’s current capacity to meet regulations is less important than its ability to ramp up quickly to capture the increased business that new safety standards could bring.

“This notion that the status quo is going to remain—it’s diversionary at best,” Isselmann said.

An oil tanker car at Lac-Megantic, Quebec
Almost every tanker in the Lac-Megantic accident was punctured. New standards would mandate stronger cars, among other measures. – Photograph by Ryan Remiorz, Associated Press

Some in the industry are responding to public concern before rules are finalized. In April, Irving Oil—the owner of Canada’s largest refinery, in Saint John, New Brunswick, where the Lac-Mégantic train was headed before the disaster—completed a voluntary conversion of its crude oil railcar fleet.

Also in April, Global Partners, one of the largest U.S. distributors of gasoline and other fuels, began requiring all crude oil unit trains making deliveries at its East and West Coast terminals to meet October 2011 safety standards for tank car design.

“As an industry, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to maximize public confidence in the safety of the system that carries these products across the country,” Eric Slifka, Global Partners’ CEO, said in a press release.

A Push to Harmonize Regulations

As the U.S. and Canada consider train safety regulations, oil and rail companies are pushing to ensure that the same tank cars can be used to haul flammable liquids in both countries.

Regulators say they are working together to make that happen. Lauren Armstrong, a spokeswoman at Transport Canada, said the department is holding technical discussions on new tank car standards with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.

However, coordinating tank car regulations between the two countries would have to overcome current gaps, industry representatives say.

In April, Transport Canada banned the use of the oldest and least crash-resistant DOT-111 tank cars, which lacked bottom reinforcement.  The U.S. so far has not banned the cars from carrying oil and ethanol.

Canada also set a 2017 deadline for retrofitting the cars. In the U.S., regulators are expected to release final rules by early 2015. The process, however, could continue much longer.

The strongest standards will carry the day, said Thomas Simpson, the president of the Railway Supply Institute. Given the large amount of oil that moves between the two countries, Simpson said it makes no business sense for companies to keep two different sets of cars to meet the two sets of rules.

Communities Concerned About Safety

But as final rules are being hammered out in the U.S., some train safety advocates and community groups worry they are being left out of the process.

Karen Darch, co-chair of TRAC, a coalition of Illinois communities concerned about train congestion and rail safety, said she is hopeful that final rules will include a fast deadline to retrofit old cars. (See related story: “Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Train Rules“)

But she said rail and oil industry lobbyists have had much more access to policymakers than community advocates, and she’s concerned they will have a greater impact on final rules.

“The inside players, the guys in the industry,” she said, “they seem to be able to be in front of the decision-makers more than we have been.”

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Canada toughens train brake rules, to impose ‘audit blitz’

Repost from Yahoo News Canada

Canada toughens train brake rules, to impose ‘audit blitz’

By Richard Valdmanis | Reuters – 29 Oct, 2014
Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt holds a press conference in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hilll in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt holds a press conference in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hilll in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada has issued an emergency order to railways detailing how many handbrakes they must set on unattended trains to prevent deadly runaways, and will hire new staff to conduct an “audit blitz” of rail companies’ safety systems.

The changes are the latest in a slew of regulatory moves in North America since a train carrying crude oil crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year, killing 47 people and highlighting the dangers from a surge in oil transport by rail.

The announcement on Wednesday came in response to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board’s final report in August on the Lac-Megantic crash that found shortfalls in railway safety culture and federal oversight of the industry.

“We will always remember what happened in Lac-Megantic. I do believe that the measures that we are announcing today will improve railway safety, and make the transportation industry more accountable,” Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said.

Canada’s Conservative government has already imposed several new regulations in the wake of Lac-Megantic, including toughening tank car safety and requiring railways do risk assessments, produce emergency response plans, and improve the security of parked trains.

As part of the new rules, Transport Canada said railway operators had to test the handbrakes they set and use other “physical structures” to complement them.

(Full details of the announcement: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=897699)

In the Lac-Megantic crash, a train laden with light crude as volatile as gasoline had been left unattended on a main line several kilometers up a gentle slope. Investigators said the conductor had not set enough handbrakes and the airbrakes had been released after a fire broke out in the engine.

Transport Canada said it will hire about 10 new auditors and begin an “audit blitz” on railway companies’ safety systems. In some cases the regulator will also require rail companies, mainly short lines, to submit reports on how they train their staff, Raitt said.

Raitt said the government will bring in new monetary penalties for railways whose internal safety systems fall short. In its August report, the Transportation Safety Board found that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, which operated the train that crashed in Lac-Megantic, had developed a safety management system in 2002, but had not fully implemented it.

The watchdog said Transport Canada needed to be more hands on with safety management systems, making sure they work rather than just check that they exist.

Transport Canada said it will also hire engineering and scientific experts to help research the properties of different kinds of crude oils carried by railways, and launch inspections to ensure they are properly labeled on trains.

“Crude oil is something that needs to be moved in the country,” Raitt said. “Our job is to make sure it is done in the safest way possible.”

(Additional reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Jeffreys Hodgson and Benkoe)


Indiana TV investigation: Through Your Backyard

Repost from WANE TV15 – Fort Wayne, Indiana
[Editor: Regarding railroad hazmat notification … significant quote by a County Emergency Management Director in Indiana: “The first I heard about it was from you.  I believe if the state was aware of that, I would have that information.”  Excellent video on this 2-month investigation.  Apologies for commercial content on the video…. – RS]

Through Your Backyard

By Adam Widener, October 30, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The volume of crude oil being shipped via railroads is rising across the country. Much of it comes from North Dakota and is heading for the east coast. It’s a path that funnels millions of gallons directly through northeast Indiana every week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said the increase in crude-by-rail poses a greater risk for incidents and recently ordered railroad companies to tell each state where and how often trains are hauling large amounts of the energy product.  Federal officials cited several oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada as a reason for the order.

But some emergency responders in northeast Indiana had no idea about the growing threat traveling through their backyard, until 15 Finds Out began asking questions.

Energy independence

To understand the severity of that communications gap, one must first understand the reason for the rising number of oil trains.  More and more petroleum crude oil is being drilled at the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota.  Rail companies say it’s traveling to refineries in high quantities via the most economical option: rail.

“There’s an important development happening in this country and it’s happening here in this community,” said Dave Pidgeon, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern Corp. “We are moving towards greater energy independence.”

Quebec Oil Train explosion 15 Finds Out Through your backyard
A fireball shoots into the air following a deadly oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada in 2013.

Major incidents

But since the beginning of 2013, oil train derailments have caused major problems across the U.S. and Canada. One organization highlights 10 such accidents in that time frame.

On April 30, a CSX train carrying 105 crude oil tank cars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The highly flammable crude oil caught fire.  Emergency crews evacuated 350 people from their homes. Up to 30,000 gallons of petroleum crude oil spilled into a nearby river.

The most notable oil train derailment happened in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada on July 5, 2013.  An unmanned, runaway oil train carrying crude oil derailed, exploded, caught fire, and killed 47 people.  2,000 people had to be evacuated from the town.

“Imminent hazard”

The dramatic rise in oil trains combined with recent derailments caused the USDOT to file an emergency order in May.  Federal officials cited an “unsafe condition” or “unsafe practice” for crude-by-rail causing an “imminent hazard.”

The DOT ordered railroad companies to begin reporting to each state’s Emergency Response Commission. Beginning in June, railroads were to tell state officials the expected movement and frequency of trains transporting 1 million gallons or more of crude oil from North Dakota.

Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Transportation have lines in northeast Indiana. A media spokesperson for each company said they’re following the emergency order.

“We share information with the state emergency management services across our network,” said Tom Livingston, CSX’s regional vice president for government affairs in the Midwest.

“Be as well-informed as possible”

The emergency order makes other important recommendations. It says state and local first responders should “be as well-informed as possible as to the presence of trains carrying large quantities of Bakken crude oil” in their area. That way, they have “reasonable expectations” to “prepare accordingly for the possibility of an oil train accident.”

15 Finds Out uncovered that wasn’t the case for some first responders in northeast Indiana.  On October 1, 15 Finds Out spoke with Michael “Mick” Newton, emergency management director for Noble County. At the time, Newton had never heard of the emergency order and didn’t know about the increase in crude-by-rail in his county. 

“The first I heard about it was from you,” Newton said.  “I believe if the state was aware of that, I would have that information.”

15 Finds Out obtained proof that the Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS) actually did have that information and delayed passing it along. I-Team 8 at our sister station, WISH-TV in Indianapolis, recently got a copy of an email sent to several emergency management directors across northern Indiana.

The email included Norfolk Southern’s oil train route maps and how many of its oil trains travel through 12 northern Indiana counties with more than 1 million gallons every week.

Norfolk Southern sent IDHS that information in a letter dated June 3, 2014. But IDHS didn’t forward it to EMA directors until October 8, ironically after 15 Finds Out and I-Team 8 began asking questions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has noted those crude-by-rail stats are public.  Still, IDHS denied a request for copies and said that information could hurt public safety by creating a vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

Millions of gallons “through your backyard”

Click image to see full graphic.
Northfolk Southern weekly shipments: Click image to see full-screen graphic.

Because of legal concerns, 15 Finds Out is not releasing Norfolk Southern’s oil train exact routing maps.  Noble and DeKalb Counties have 13 to 24 trains carrying a million gallons or more of crude oil every week. Whitley and Allen Counties have between 0 and 4 trains carrying a million gallons or more every week.

Leaders with CSX were more forthcoming with oil train information. Livingston said 20 to 35 trains carrying a million gallons or more of North Dakota Crude Oil travel on its Garrett line every week.

15 Finds Out shared those stats with Newton on October 1.

“Nobody’s come up with, other than you, of any information like that to me,” he said.

It was a similar story in DeKalb County. EMA Director Roger Powers said he hadn’t received any crude-by-rail notifications from IDHS until, ironically, the day of his interview with 15 Finds Out.

Click image to see full-screen graphic.
CSX weekly shipments: Click image to see full-screen graphic.

“It’s always good for us to know,” Powers said. “When we don’t know, that’s when we get caught sometimes and have to pull back and regroup and think about how we are going to attack this.”

“Internal delay”

When asked why it took IDHS four months to give first responders the oil train notifications, public information officer John Erickson released a statement that said in part:

There was an internal delay at IDHS with respect to the first notification the agency received regarding the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) order. This notification was not evaluated as efficiently as it could have been, and as a result, was not forwarded to the local responders as quickly as IDHS would have liked.

The statement said the agency has since modified its evaluation process of these notifications and will, in the future, get them to local emergency responders as quickly as possible.

There was an apparent confusion at IDHS regarding the oil train notification. The statement said officials weren’t sure if it was the particular notification required under the DOT order. Since IDHS considers the information to be highly sensitive, the agency said the documents had to be “carefully evaluated regarding which agencies had a need to know.”

Read the entire statement from IDHS

In the end, Newton argued that his department’s response would be the same whether they knew how many oil trains pass through or not.  Despite the four month delay, both Newton and Powers are each thankful they now have the proactive information. They are now passing those stats down to first responders, like Auburn Fire Chief Mike VanZile.

“Since you said something to me I’ve done some research, and now I think through your efforts and some other folks’ efforts, now the state has given our EMA director, homeland security office, some vital information that he has passed on to me,” VanZile told 15 Finds Out. “Millions of gallons going across these rails, that’s a huge concern.”

15 Finds Out continues its investigative series “Through Your Backyard” next week. Tune in Thursday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m. to hear what the railroad companies and U.S. Department of Transportation are doing to make crude-by-rail safer.