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.

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Seattle: More than 750 turn out for meeting on oil-train study

Repost from The Seattle Times

More than 750 people turn out for meeting on oil-train study

Hundreds of people concerned about the increasing number of oil trains traversing the state came to a Thursday evening meeting in Olympia to comment on the preliminary findings of a state study on oil-train safety and spill response.
By Hal Bernton, October 30, 2014

State officials are proposing more funding and more regulatory authority to step up oversight of the surging numbers of oil trains carrying crude through Washington, and to better prepare for any possible spills.

The proposals are included in the preliminary findings of a state Department of Ecology study, which was reviewed at a Thursday evening meeting that drew more than 750 people, the vast majority of whom are opposed to increased oil train traffic in the state.

The report — in an interim form — is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in December. The draft findings already are spurring state agencies to prepare legislation, according to Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

The report includes a dozen measures that could be taken up by the Legislature to try to improve safety and spill response. They include modifying the railroad regulatory-fee structure so that more rail inspectors are hired, providing new state authority to monitor the safety of rail crossings on private roads and launching a new state grant program to finance firefighting equipment.

The report is being prepared by a team of consultants along with the state Ecology Department, Utilities and Transportation Commission and other state agencies. It examines the public health, safety and environmental risks posed by the movement of crude oil by rail as well as by vessel through Washington waters.

The oil trains moving through Washington reflect a fundamental shift in sourcing of Pacific Northwest oil as Alaska North Slope crude production declines and the Bakken fields of North Dakota boom.

In 2011, almost no oil trains traversed Washington.

Now, state officials say, some 19 trains carry crude across the state each week. Over a year’s time, those trains move some 2.87 billion gallons of oil. After they unload their crude, some of the Bakken oil is transported by tug and barge to Puget Sound-area refineries

In the aftermath of a July 6, 2013, oil-train derailment and explosion in Canada that killed 47 people, crude trains have raised public concern and prompted state officials in Washington and elsewhere to increase scrutiny of such trains.

There were eight other “notable crude oil derailments” in North America in 2013 and 2014, and the report says that Bakken crude “may present significant risks with respect to public safety due to its higher volatility and flammability.”

By 2020, in Washington, the crude-oil traffic through the state could more than triple to 59 trains a week if expansion plans for terminals are actually completed,

“We felt it was important to lay out what is in the realm of the possible, “ said Scott Ferguson, a Department of Ecology official who has assisted with the report.

The increasing numbers of oil trains have caused plenty of unease to roil through the state. Some 200 people signed up to speak Thursday evening, and Department of Ecology officials listened to hours of passionate testimony from people upset about tanker cars filled with crude.

Those who testified spoke about the potential for spills that could foul tribal fisheries in the Columbia River, drinking water aquifers for Olympia and sensitive coastal waters near Bellingham.

They talked about the potential for exploding tanker cars that would kill people living in a “blast zone” along the rail lines.

Many were veterans of the movement to try to block development of coal terminals in Washington state, wearing red shirts that declared “Power Past Coal.” They frequently waved signs that declared oil and coal are bad for Washington.

“Our state is at a crossroads with proposed increases in crude oil and coal transportation, testified Kathryn Chudy, a therapist who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “Adding more crude oil and coal trains to this risk jeopardizes their safety, and can in no way be justified.”

Frank Gordon, a Grays Harbor County Commissioner, fears what an oil spill would do to the salmon runs in his area and said he opposes a proposal to develop a new oil terminal at Hoquiam.

“We don’t need oil trains coming to Grays Harbor. It’s just not worthwhile,” Gordon said.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, in an interview before the hearing, said that BNSF has a strong safety record in transporting crude oil by rail.

He said that BNSF has assisted with firefighter training and taken other steps to improve safety. To help reduce the risks of a derailments, for example, the crude oil trains move at speeds of less than 20 miles an hour through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

“We have invested nearly $500 million in the past three years in track upgrades in Washington,” Melonas said

BNSF also is focusing on crew compliance with railway rules, as well as inspections to improve safety as trains move along the rails.

“As a common carrier we are obligated to move all types of freight,” Melonas said. “We don’t control what we haul, but we control how we haul it.”

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Stop Valero Crude By Rail petition: over 1,000 signatures

Crude Rail Car ORIGINAL car v.11 - COLOR 179pxRepost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: After a new list was compiled, the number of signatures as of October 29 was found to be approaching 1,300.  To add your name, go to SafeBenicia.org.  – RS]

Crude-by-rail opposition: 1,000 signatures collected

Petitioners seek more support at final farmer’s market

Opponents of the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project say they have gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the refinery’s application and plan to return Thursday to the Benicia Certified Farmers Market in hopes of gathering more names.

Pat Toth-Smith, a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, said the organization has been staffing a table at the market since it opened in spring, and members will be doing the same thing Thursday that they have all season long.

“More people are finding out about this issue, and people want more information,” she said.

Toth-Smith said the organization’s petition “is basic.”

She said it asks that the undersigned be counted as opposing the shipment either of sweet Bakken shale crude or sour Canadian tar sands oil by train into Benicia, the Bay Area or communities along rail lines both before and after Benicia.

She said the petition also cites as concerns derailments, fires and explosions associated with increased crude oil rail traffic.

Project supporters have been collecting signatures of their own, too, and have delivered them, 100 or more at a time, during city public meetings. Requests to contribute to this story weren’t answered by press time.

Valero Benicia Refinery applied early in 2013 to extend existing Union Pacific Railroad tracks into its property, in addition to other infrastructure changes, so the refinery could substitute delivery of crude oil by train for the equivalent of oil currently brought in by transoceanic tanker ship.

The refinery has said in statements supported by a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) that bringing the oil by rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area because any emissions released by trains would be more than compensated by reduction in emissions from those ships.

But opponents worry that gases emitted uprail of Benicia wouldn’t have the offsetting benefits, and have cited explosions and fires associated with derailments as more crude is delivered from North American sources by rail.

The city agreed last year with those who said a mitigated negative declaration would be an insufficient environmental document under the California Environmental Quality Act, and ordered the more extensive analysis, the Environmental Impact Report. A draft of that report was issued in June and has been circulated for public evaluation.

The city Planning Commission had three lengthy hearings during which more public comment was accepted, and after the panel extended the deadline for comments California Attorney General Kamala Harris also weighed in, criticizing the DEIR.

Responses to public comments are being written before the city releases the final environmental report for a vote on its certification as well as the refinery’s use permit request.

Despite coverage of several Bay Area marches against crude-by-rail projects, public meetings by proponents and opponents and Benicia’s own hearings on the project, Toth-Smith said at each farmers market day someone has approached members of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community to say they hadn’t heard of the proposal.

However, she said, more residents are noticing both pro and con yard signs.

“People in Benicia are very smart and well-educated, and they know what they want to do,” she said. “Some people are cautious. They peruse everything they can. People take the process seriously, and I’m thrilled. It’s important people explore everything. People love Benicia and want it to stay like it is. That’s the main worry.”

She insisted that objections to the project didn’t mean opponents don’t like Valero.

“It’s about the transportation,” she said. “Valero is a good neighbor.”

Andres Soto, another member of the local organization, agreed that transport by rail is the main concern. But he also said there are problems with the DEIR.

“Some are demanding recirculation (of the document),” he said. “They must see their ship is on the rocks.”

He said the group’s table at the farmers market has been important for reaching out to Benicians, who make up the bulk of the signatures the petition has gathered. He said he sees the petition “as a barometer of sentiment of the Benicia community.”

Soto said his organization is distributing yard signs and keeping a tally of those he said were stolen by project supporters — more than 35 so far.

He noted that the Planning Commission hearings on the DEIR drew so many people that the Council Chamber at City Hall was full, and overflow seating had to be arranged in the building’s outdoor patio, Commission Room and conference rooms.

If 300 show up at one of those meetings, “that’s a lot of people,” he said. But 300 is a tenth of a percent of the city’s nearly 30,000 residents.

Soto said there are some residents “who don’t know; they’re not really plugged in.” That’s one of the reasons his organization will keep up its petition campaign after the farmers market concludes its season. Thursday’s market is the last until spring.

“What’s important to Benicia people is if there is a catastrophic event, who is on the hook for the toxic cleanup?” he said. They also want to know who would be responsible for the economic impact of an explosive derailment, or how it would affect the value of their homes.

High school students also have signed the petition, telling him they’re concerned about global warming and the environmental impact of production of both Bakken and tar sands crude.

He said he objects to those who are trying to use “scare tactics” such as suggesting the refinery might leave if the project isn’t approved, “especially after Attorney General Kamala Harris’s letter” in which she pointed out what she considers deficiencies in the document.

“People who wrote the draft EIR did a shabby, shabby job,” Soto said.

“It’s scandalous.”

 

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