MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO: Seven things you need to know about oil-by-rail safety

Repost from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)

7 things you need to know about oil-by-rail safety

By Emily Kaiser, Feb 26, 2015
Derailment in Mount Carbon, West Virginia
This aerial Feb. 17, 2015 file photo photo made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Steven Wayne Rotsch | AP file

Last week’s oil train derailment in West Virginia launched a national conversation about the safety of shipping oil by rail. It’s a topic we’ve been hearing about over the past couple years, especially here in Minnesota, where Bakken oil crisscrosses the state’s rail lines in large volume.

It’s a complex topic combining federal policy with scientific questions. The Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold has been following the issue closely and spoke to MPR News’ Tom Weber to explain what you need to know.

Here are 7 things you should know about oil transport by rail:

1. The most misunderstood part of crude oil transport by train: It’s very explosive.

“The kind of oil that’s being taken out of the ground in North Dakota and put into these tanker cars is a much lighter oil,” Gold said. “It is a very gassy oil; it has a lot of ethanes, and butanes and propanes dissolved in it. It really does explode and that’s really what’s causing the problems.”

When a set of tanker cars goes up in flames, it can cause 20-story-tall fireballs.

Footage from the West Virigina derailment last week:

2. The amount of crude oil carried by train has increased exponentially in less than a decade.

According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude in 2008. Last year is was 400,000.

We’ve been moving small amounts of crude by rail for years, but it was one or two cars in long train, Gold said. Now we see 100 to 120 tanker cars all filled with crude oil. That’s 70,000 barrels of crude per train, he said.

3. Once the crude oil is extracted in North Dakota, it has to be transported to the country’s major refineries on the coasts.

Refineries are built to utilize the gases removed from the product. If it was stabilized near the extraction site, North Dakota would have to find a way to use or dispose of the ethane and propane gases that make the oil explosive.

4. Railroads have become “virtual pipelines” for oil.

From a Gold WSJ article:

While these virtual pipelines can be created in months, traditional pipelines have become increasingly difficult to install as environmental groups seek to block permits for new energy infrastructure.

“What we are seeing on rail is largely due to opposition to and uncertainty around building pipelines,” said Brigham McCown, who was the chief pipeline regulator under President George W. Bush . Pipelines, he adds, are far safer than trains.

5. Pipeline leaks and spills are environmental problems. Oil train derailments are public safety issues.

When you have a tank car that derails and starts losing it’s very gassy oil, it’s going to burst into fire rather than leak into waterways, Gold said.

6. If you live close to these rail lines, get in touch with local first responders.

Gold recommends checking with emergency responders nearby and ask if they are properly trained to handle a crude oil train derailment. Make sure your fire chief is in contact with the rail companies to know when major shipments come through your area. Push for decreasing train speed limits and increased track inspection.

7. Can we make the tanker cars safer? Gold gave us the latest:

MPR News Producer Brigitta Greene contributed to this report.

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    Multiple train disasters: Public awareness increasing exponentially

    By Roger Straw, Editor, 2/26/15
    Oil train.
    Oil train. Credit flickr user: Roy Luck (CC-BY-2.0)

    A series of horrific train accidents over the past two weeks has opened a floodgate of media news stories, investigative reports, editorials and calls for action.  Local, state and federal first responders and emergency planners, as well as elected and appointed officials have produced an incredible amount of headlines.  As an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch put it, “Public awareness of these issues is increasing exponentially.”

    That is good news for those of us who have been calling for a moratorium on dangerous crude by rail and a cutback and eventual ceasing of production of Bakken crude and Canadian tar-sands dilbit.

    Here is a rough sampling of a few of the postings by media nationwide:

    MONTANA PUBLIC RADIO: Rail Safety Analysis Sparks Concern Over Oil Trains
    By Edward O’Brien, 2/26/15

    A new analysis of train safety and recent accidents involving spilled crude oil has caught the attention of many Montanans, especially as more trains carrying oil are moving through the state.  ¶ That’s because a lot crude moves on our rail lines.  ¶ Joe Hanson is well aware of the risk presented by these crude shipments.  ¶ “I went to the door and opened it up and it was just this gray, greenish cloud floating in the street. It was really eerie because of the street lights.”  ¶ That was April 11 of 1996 when 19 Montana Rail Link freight cars derailed near Hanson’s Alberton home. Six of those cars contained hazardous chemicals including chlorine gas.  ¶ The spill killed one person and forced the evacuation of over 1,000 Alberton residents for over two weeks.  [MORE]  [AUDIO]


    RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH: Op-Ed: Missed opportunities could prove toxic for Virginia
    By Greta Bagwell and Emily Russell, February 25, 2015 10:30 pm

    The headlines should be familiar to Virginians by now: “River on fire after train derailment”; “Drinking water supplies shut down to thousands after spill”; “Polluters fined for violating environmental laws.” Last week, another CSX train carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia. At least 15 rail cars caught fire, sending a neighborhood into evacuation mode….The train cars were state-of-the-art, designed to address safety concerns arising from the transport of a highly flammable fuel. ¶ The intended destination of this fuel? Yorktown, Va. With this train derailment, we have now had two railway accidents on the same railroad that cuts across the commonwealth…. [MORE]


    BUFFALO ART VOICE WEEKLY: Buffalo’s Bomb Trains
    by Michael I. Niman, 2/26/15

    They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”  [MORE]


     

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      INSURANCE JOURNAL: Derailed Train in West Virginia Had Safer Tank Cars

      Repost from Insurance Journal

      Derailed Train in West Virginia Had Safer Tank Cars

      By John Raby and Jonathan Mattise | February 26, 2015 

      The fiery derailment of a train carrying crude oil in West Virginia earlier this month is one of three in the past year involving tank cars that already meet a higher safety standard than what federal law requires – leading some to suggest even tougher requirements that industry representatives say would be costly.

      Hundreds of families were evacuated and nearby water treatment plants were temporarily shut down after cars derailed from a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude on Feb. 16, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning down a house nearby. It was snowing at the time, but it is not yet clear if weather was a factor.

      The train’s tanks were a newer model – the 1232 –designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago. The same model spilled oil and caught fire in Timmins, Ontario this month, and last year in Lynchburg, Virginia.

      A series of ruptures and fires have prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.

      If approved, increased safety requirements now under White House review would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars being used to carry highly flammable liquids.

      “This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

      Oil industry officials had been opposed to further upgrading the 1232 cars because of costs. But late last year they changed their position and joined with the railway industry to support some upgrades, although they asked for time to make the improvements.

      According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.

      The downside: trains hauling Bakken-region oil have been involved in major accidents in Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Alabama and Canada, where 47 people were killed by an explosive derailment in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

      Reports of leaks and other oil releases from tank cars are up as well, from 12 in 2008 to 186 last year, according to Department of Transportation records reviewed by The Associated Press.

      Just two days before the West Virginia wreck, 29 cars of a 100-car Canadian National Railway train carrying diluted bitumen crude derailed in a remote area 50 miles south of Timmins, Ontario, spilling oil and catching fire. That train was headed from Alberta to Eastern Canada.

      The train that derailed in West Virginia was bound for an oil shipping depot in Yorktown, Virginia, along the same route where three tanker cars plunged into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, prompting an evacuation last year.

      The train derailed near unincorporated Mount Carbon just after passing through Montgomery, a town of 1,946, on a stretch where the rails wind past businesses and homes crowded between the water and the steep, tree-covered hills. All but two of the train’s 109 cars were tank cars, and 26 of them left the tracks.

      Fire crews had little choice but to let the tanks burn themselves out. Each carried up to 30,000 gallons of crude.

      One person – the owner of the destroyed home – was treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries were reported, according to the train company, CSX. The two-person crew, an engineer and conductor, managed to decouple the train’s engines from the wreck behind it and walk away unharmed.

      The NTSB said its investigators will compare this wreck to others including Lynchburg and one near Casselton, N.D., when a Bakken crude train created a huge fireball that forced the evacuation of the farming town.

      No cause has been determined, said CSX regional vice president Randy Cheetham. He said the tracks had been inspected just three days before the wreck.

      “They’ll look at train handling, look at the track, look at the cars. But until they get in there and do their investigation, it’s unwise to do any type of speculation,” he said.

      State officials do have some say over rail safety.

      Railroads are required by federal order to tell state emergency officials where trains carrying Bakken crude are traveling. CSX and other railroads called this information proprietary, but more than 20 states rejected the industry’s argument, informing the public as well as first-responders about the crude moving through their communities.

      West Virginia is among those keeping it secret. State officials responded to an AP Freedom of Information request by releasing documents redacted to remove nearly every detail.

      There are no plans to reconsider after this latest derailment, said Melissa Cross, a program manager for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

      ___

      Contributors include Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C.; Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; and Pam Ramsey in Charleston, West Virginia. Mattise reported from Charleston.
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        ASSOCIATED PRESS on the Oxnard train crash: Life-saving train design is rarely used

        Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

        Life-saving train design is rarely used

        By Justin Pritchard, Feb 25, 2015 12:37 PM PST                                            
        AP Photo
        In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, Workers stand near a Metrolink train that hit a truck and then derailed in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in the town 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Engineers have figured how to blunt the deadly force of a train smashing into a truck on the tracks. Yet few U.S. rail systems have adopted the technology, which is believed to have played a significant role in the remarkably low number of serious injuries from Tuesday’s commuter rail crash in California. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

        LOS ANGELES (AP) — Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the collision between a Southern California commuter train and a truck abandoned on the tracks was this: No one died and only eight people on board were admitted to hospitals.

        Officials with the Metrolink train system credit cars designed to blunt the tremendous force of a head-on collision.

        Accident investigators have not yet said what role “crash energy management” technology played in Tuesday’s wreck. But the fact that so few among the 50 people on board were seriously injured is prompting other commuter train systems to take a renewed look at safety technology that has been around for at least a decade but still is not widely used in the United States.

        A spokesman for Metro-North, the New York City commuter railroad where a fiery collision between an SUV and a train Feb. 3 killed six people, said the California crash will prompt Metro-North “to assess whether the system could be beneficial in enhancing safety.”

        It is not clear whether the technology would have made a difference in the most recent Metro-North crash, in which more than 400 feet of electrified third rail snapped into a dozen sections and speared the train. The Metro-North passenger cars meet federal design standards but do not include crash energy management systems, spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a statement.

        Back in California, Metrolink officials are crediting crash energy management, which was designed and built into three of the four double-decker passenger cars involved in the accident, with the remarkably low number of serious injuries even though the impact at an estimated 55 mph was violent enough to fling several cars onto their sides.

        “Safe to say it would have been much worse without it,” Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said of how the technology performed during the crash in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

        The safety systems can vary in design, but the general idea is to disperse the energy of a crash away from where the passengers sit. Metrolink’s cars have collapsible “crush zones” at the ends of its cars that help absorb the impact, along with shock absorbers, bumpers and couplers.

        It is the same principle at work in the “crumple zones” in newer cars. They are designed to absorb the force of a crash while keeping people inside safe.

        Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. secretary of transportation stood at the site of a horrendous Metrolink crash near downtown Los Angeles and called for the widespread adoption of this kind of train car.

        In response to that 2005 accident in which a train smashed into an SUV in Glendale, killing 11 people, Metrolink bought dozens of new passenger cars equipped with these systems.

        In 2010, the first of those cars rolled into use. By June 2013, the system had 137 of the cars – about two-thirds of its fleet – bought for $263 million from South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem Inc., Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said.

        While federal regulators for years have weighed rules that might require the technology, they have not formally proposed such measures for trains with a top speed of less than 125 mph. Rules are in place for a small subset of trains that can go faster.

        Aside from Metrolink, crash energy management equipment is used by Amtrak, including on its Acela line in the Northeast, and two systems in Texas, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

        One obstacle to more widespread use of the train technology is that it has to be designed into new passenger cars, and railroads that bought cars without it in recent years may not want to invest in new ones so soon. Railroads can’t simply retrofit existing cars.

        “It is not a bolt-on device,” said Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer for the American Public Transportation Association. He has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration as it considers whether to propose rules for the systems.

        The advisory committee on which he sat finished its work in 2010. The Federal Railroad Administration would not comment Wednesday on the status of possible regulations.

        Meanwhile, federal investigators looking into the Southern California wreck focused on the man who drove his pickup truck onto the tracks, then abandoned it as the train approached before dawn. Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, was arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident.

        Ron Bamieh, an attorney for Ramirez, said his client did all he could to try to free the truck, then ran for help. But National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said late Tuesday that the truck was not stuck in the sense that it bottomed out on the tracks. He also noted that its emergency brake was on.

        Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, New York, and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this story.
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