All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Bomb Trains: a whole new spin on the 1%

Repost from The Martinez Gazette

Martinez Environmental Group: The 1 percenters

May 8, 2014 | by GUY COOPER,  Special to the Gazette

This is not about income inequality. Doesn’t involve Warren Buffett or the Koch brothers (er, not directly anyway). This is about oil train safety.

Another crude oil train just derailed this past week, exploding cars dumped into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia. Could have been much worse. A 100-car oil train right in town. Could have destroyed the town. But it was only going 24 miles per hour, was properly operated and apparently had no mechanical problems. It’s thought the ground along the riverbank gave way beneath the tracks. That’s comforting.

In the midst of this crude-by-rail (CBR) rush, the railroads repeatedly tout a 99 percent safety record. Really? What does that mean? Ninety-nine percent of what? How do you account for all of these accidents lately?

Amazing how fast this CBR infrastructure ramped up. An almost 50-fold increase in six years. I have no idea how something like that can be accomplished, but I do know they didn’t sweat all the small stuff like, oh, issues of life and death, health and safety.

U.S. rail is reported to have spilled more oil in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, 1.15 million gallons. That figure doesn’t even include Canadian spills like the 1.5 million gallons at Lac Megantic alone. The Association of American Railroads reported carrying about 434,000 carloads of crude last year, 12.5 billion gallons, so a few million gallons spilled here or there is just a drop in the bucket. The rail industry quotes a 99.998 percent safety record based on billion tons per mile successfully delivered to its destination. In other words, if one car of a 100-car train falls off the tracks, splits open and blows up, but the rest of the cargo survives unscathed, the safety rating of that train remains 99 percent.

I guess that’s a useful stat to entice oil producers, but it’s not what interests me. I want to know how often the trains run into trouble. A 2013 U.S. State Department assessment comparing pipeline to rail noted trains have an “increased likelihood of spills.” The more trains, the more likely an accident. From 2008 to 2013, the annual number of carloads of crude on the rails jumped from around 9,500 to over 400,000. The number of accidents likewise skyrocketed.

Perhaps a more useful way to look at things from our side of the tracks comes from a Tim Truscott Facebook page that maintains a running list of bomb train derailments in North America ( train-derailments/250370288468161). Found it via Roger Straw’s terrifically informative blog across the water, The Benicia Independent (

Mr. Truscott states, “By ‘bomb train,’ I mean those trains hauling one or more cars of crude oil, fuel oil, ethanol, methanol, propane, butane, liquified natural gas (methane), vinyl chloride, ammonium nitrate or high-nitrogen fertilizer such as anhydrous ammonia, phosphoric acid or some other highly volatile or especially toxic or caustic cargo. I’m also counting derailments if the engine or engines derail and cause a diesel fuel spill. So far in North America in 2014, we have seen an average of one bomb train derailment every five days.”

He lists 23 incidents so far this year. I suppose that’s just 1 percent of something. I prefer to think of it as one per week.

So when I hear that whistle blow and I halt my walk to the waterfront as the next oil train passes, I’ll have to wonder. Is that this week’s one percenter coming down the line?

    Wall Street Journal: on the DOT’s nonbinding safety advisory

    Repost from The Wall Street Journal
    [Editor: Stakeholders, senators, and even the tank car builders say the feds haven’t gone far enough.  Significant quotes: “‘Making it voluntary is not going far enough,’ Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) told Transportation Secretary” … “The trade association representing railcar builders and car-leasing companies said the advisory doesn’t go far enough toward new standards for tank-car construction and retrofitting the existing car fleet.”  – RS]

    U.S. Urges Companies to Use Sturdier Tank Cars For Oil-Trains

    The Advisory Effectively Applies to About 66,500 Shipping Containers
    By Russell Gold  |  May 7, 2014

    U.S. safety regulators urged companies shipping crude oil from North Dakota to stop using tank cars that have been implicated in fiery accidents.

    The Transportation Department’s nonbinding safety advisory, which carries less weight than an emergency order, said shippers should use the sturdiest cars in their fleets to transport crude from the Bakken shale.

    The advisory effectively applies to about 66,500 tank cars—68% of the total commonly used to transport oil and other flammable liquids. Shippers instead should use the roughly 31,000 cars that have been retrofitted to improve safety or were built to higher standards.

    The call to get the older tanker cars off the rails drew immediate criticism as too weak.

    “Making it voluntary is not going far enough,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) told Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Mr. Foxx assured her that the federal government was moving as quickly as possible to issue new rules.

    The American Petroleum Institute said the industry had been working to upgrade tank cars for three years, and that during the next year “about 60% of railcars will be state-of-the- art, which is part of a long-term comprehensive effort to improve accident prevention, mitigation and emergency response.”

    The trade association representing railcar builders and car-leasing companies said the advisory doesn’t go far enough toward new standards for tank-car construction and retrofitting the existing car fleet.

    “With regulatory certainly, the car industry can get working” on retrofits right away, said Thomas Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute in Washington, D.C.

    Calling Bakken crude shipments “an imminent hazard,” the agency also issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring railroads operating trains carrying more than one million gallons of Bakken crude the oil—about 35 carloads—to notify state officials about the movement of these trains. Trains transporting oil typically include at least 100 cars.

    Railroads haven’t historically liked to disclose the routes or contents of their hazardous-material shipments even to the communities they travel through. But the Association of American Railroads, which represents the country’s big freight railroads, said its members will “do all they can to comply with the Transportation Department’s Emergency Order.”

    State and local officials have complained that they haven’t been told about crude shipments, which have been rising rapidly. About 715,000 barrels of Bakken crude are being shipped by rail each day, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, or almost 10% of all the oil pumped in the U.S.

    A spokesman for  Berkshire Hathaway Inc. ‘s BNSF Railway said it routinely provides information to interested state agencies and emergency responders about the hazardous materials on its routes. He said BNSF also “believes that promulgation of a federal tank-car standard will provide much needed certainty for shippers and improved safety and response time for all first responders.”

    The Canadian Transport Ministry last month gave railcar owners 30 days to stop using the roughly 5,000 least crash-resistant tank cars.

    Regulators have been grappling with the rising amounts of crude oil being shipped across the country. A fiery derailment in Quebec last summer killed 47 people; more recently, crashes and derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia have involved fire and explosions.

    Federal investigators suspect that crude from the Bakken shale is more combustible than oil from other regions.

    A Wall Street Journal analysis in February found that Bakken oil was very flammable and contained several times the level of combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.

    The Bakken oil field has grown quickly, producing more than a million barrels a day and outpacing the capacity of pipelines. Companies have increasingly relied on railroads to transport the oil to refineries on the coasts.

    In February, railroads said they would slow down oil trains to no more than 40 miles an hour in urban areas and try to route these trains around high-risk areas. But a crude train that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., last week was traveling at only 24 miles an hour. Its cargo didn’t explode, but leaking oil burned in the James River.

    —Betsy Morris and Bob Tita contributed to this article

      “Stop Crude by Rail” Benicia Activist Marilyn Bardet Honored With 13th Annual Anthony Grassroots Prize

      Repost from The Rose Foundation
      [Editor: We are so proud of our colleague and friend, Marilyn Bardet.  This honor is more than well-deserved.  What would Benicia be without her sharp eyes and driving, precision vocabulary on issues of community health and safety.  Don’t miss the photos and videos far below.  – RS]

      2014 Anthony Prize Winner – Marilyn Bardet

      “Stop Crude by Rail” Benicia Activist Marilyn Bardet Honored With 13th Annual Anthony Grassroots Prize

      Oakland, CA, May 6, 2014

      Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment today announces Marilyn Bardet of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community as the winner of the 2014 Anthony Grassroots Prize, an annual Earth Day award recognizing an outstanding example of grassroots environmental stewardship.

      Last year, the Valero refinery proposed adding a massive crude oil rail terminal to their facility. The project would bring 100 rail tanker cars through Benicia every day, potentially carrying some of the dirtiest and dangerously explosive crude oils such as tar sands and Bakken crude. Bardet sprang into action, forming a new group, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, and collaborating with other fenceline communities and national organizations like Natural Resources Defense Council, who nominated her for the Prize, to stop crude by rail in Benicia and the Bay Area.

      “It takes a special kind of person to stand up to big oil on behalf of the community,” according to Anthony Prize founder Juliette Anthony. “We salute Marilyn Bardet’s 20 years of advocacy and celebrate her many past achievements. With the threat of hundreds of oil tanker cars headed to Benicia every day loaded with dirty, explosive Bakken crude, we need her now more than ever.”

      Bardet embodies the unsung grassroots activist spirit for which the Prize was established, helping lead community efforts to protect Benicia residents from toxics and hazards for the past twenty years. She, along with fellow residents, has taken on David v. Goliath local challenges posed by big corporations including Koch Industries and the Valero Refinery – and won. In 1995, she led a successful local campaign to stop Koch Industries’ proposed petroleum coke storage and shipping terminal at the Port of Benicia and continues to support community efforts to shape a post-carbon Benicia.

      Upon learning the news of her award, Bardet was “amazed and honored.” “The Anthony Prize might as well be the Nobel Prize for us small groups working in the trenches,” says Bardet. “Pulling grassroots activists out of the woodwork and showcasing the amazing things they are getting done in their local communities is a noble, important thing Rose Foundation is doing.”

      In 1999, Bardet helped found the Good Neighbor Steering Committee (GNSC) in Benicia, a residents’ association formed out of concern about what would happen once the former Exxon refinery was sold to Valero. Since its founding, Marilyn and the GNSC have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Valero refinery, monitored developments, and encouraged the creation of a Community Advisory Panel after a string of incidents including flaring, spills, and fires.

      In 2008, GNSC and Bardet were instrumental in securing “The Valero/Good Neighbor Steering Committee Settlement Agreement,” providing $14 million in environmental benefits to the City of Benicia, including a commitment to air quality monitoring, improvements in energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reductions, and water-saving measures.

      Like many grassroots activists, Bardet doesn’t do this work for a paycheck, but for love of her community. For Bardet, “the most profound challenge we all now face is the accelerating rate of climate change. Continuing “business as usual” run by Big Oil – pretending we can go on extracting and burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow – is a dead end with horrific long-range consequences.” The Anthony Grassroots Prize, to Bardet, “honors all the good work being done by so many communities helping bring about the necessary transition to a post carbon, resilient, sustainable and just economy and culture. Accepting this award, I receive it for many.”

      Bardet has designated the $1,000 prize money be awarded to Benicia Community Gardens, a grassroots non-profit of which she is the Board Chair. Benicia Community Gardens has established two community gardens, a local CSA program, and the first Benicia community orchard.

      For more information about Marilyn Bardet and the campaign to Stop Crude By Rail, contact: Marilyn Bardet, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, (707) 745-9094 or (707) 816-9777,

      ABOUT the Anthony Grassroots Prize
      The Anthony Grassroots Prize was endowed by Juliette Anthony, a lifelong environmental activist who has received wide recognition for her work in protecting the Santa Monica Mountains, banning the toxic gasoline additive MTBE, promoting solar power and publicizing the negative environmental impacts of ethanol.

      ABOUT Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment
      Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment supports community-based advocacy to protect the environment and public health through grant-making and direct service programs. Rose Foundation’s focus includes grassroots activism, watershed protection, environmental justice and consumer rights. Rose also administers New Voices Are Rising, a youth leadership development and environmental justice advocacy training program.

      For more information about the Anthony Grassroots Prize & Rose Foundation, contact: Tim Little, Executive Director, Rose Foundation, (510) 658-0702 ext. 301,

      Marion Gee, Communications Coordinator, Rose Foundation, (949) 378-5253,


      Marilyn Bardet Biography

      A California native, born and raised in San Mateo, I have been an activist for social justice and against war since high school. Graduated from UC Berkeley in 1970, BA in the humanities; in 1985, studied fine art and graduated with BA and Masters in Painting from Boston University School of Fine Arts, where I taught drawing and design. Actively opposed Vietnam War and all subsequent US-instigated “resource wars,”including “Star Wars.” Volunteered for Defense and Disarmament Institute in Boston in the 80’s; in the 90‘s, served as boardmember of the Mt. Diablo Peace Center, Walnut Creek; in 1995, helped lead successful fight against Koch Industries’ proposal for a petcoke storage and shipping terminal at the Port of Benicia intended to serve all 5 Bay Area refineries; worked on several Cal-EPA-led toxic cleanup projects in Benicia, including military site cleanup of formerly used defense site where live ordnance was discovered – a site intended for residential development by Ford Motor; in 2005, helped successful fight against Bechtel’s and Shell Oil’s proposal for a Liquified Natural Gas terminal and power plant at Mare Island, Vallejo; in 2000, when Valero bought the Exxon refinery in Benicia, helped found the refinery watchdog group, the Good Neighbor Steering Committee; since 2005, have served as board chair of Benicia Community Gardens, a grassroots non-profit that has established two community gardens, a local CSA program with Terra Firma Farm, and recently a first Benicia community orchard.



      Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community

      Good Neighbor Steering Committee

      Benicia Community Gardens