All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Council opposes crude by rail in Vancouver, WA – safety issues

Repost from The Oregonian
[Editor – Significant quote: “a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.”  – RS]

Fiery oil train accidents heighten scrutiny of major Vancouver, WA rail terminal

By Rob Davis | April 11, 2014
 
Port of Vancouver oil terminal – 2.  The Port of Vancouver’s rail loop would be used to unload 360,000 barrels of oil daily from trains. (Courtesy of Port of Vancouver)

Building the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Pacific Northwest was never going to escape controversy, not in a region with a robust environmental lobby.

But for a planned terminal in Vancouver, Wash., a series of fiery oil train explosions has expanded opposition and heightened scrutiny of a project promising to be a bellwether for a growing number of facilities in development along the West Coast.

Tesoro Corp., a major oil refiner, and Savage Cos., a supply chain logistics manager, are proposing to bring four loaded oil trains a day through the Columbia River Gorge into Vancouver, where crude would be loaded on barges bound for West Coast refineries. The terminal could process 131 million barrels of oil annually, seven times more than trains hauled through Washington last year.

Trains and trade are an indelible part of Vancouver’s identity. Roughly 75 trains move daily through the city, which traces its history to being a hub of the Pacific Northwest’s 19th century fur trade.

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But a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.

“We’re pushing a margin of safety that we’re not ready to deal with,” Councilman Larry J. Smith, a retired Army infantryman, said at a recent meeting. “The accidents sort of prove that. We have a ways to go to prove that we’re safe and secure and taking care of our citizens.”

Oil trains today aren’t as safe as they could be. Most tank cars moving oil are outdated models. While the federal government is tightening safety standards, new rules aren’t expected before late 2014. Upgrading the country’s rail fleet could take as long as a decade.

Meanwhile, the characteristics of the North Dakota oil moving by rail remain poorly understood. Before oil trains exploded, crude wasn’t thought to be especially flammable. But samples show that oil moving through Vancouver into Oregon is saturated with more propane and other flammable gases than comparable types of crude.

Those uncertainties led the Port of Portland to reject crude-by-rail terminals until safety gaps are addressed. But in Vancouver, the port has pushed ahead, with top leaders saying they believe stronger safety standards will be place by the time the project – worth $45 million over 10 years in lease revenue to the port – finishes a state permitting process expected to take a year or longer.

The port had a warning that the project would be more controversial than it expected. The agency approved its lease with Tesoro-Savage less than three weeks after the first oil train accident, which killed 47 people in Quebec last July.

After that accident, port and company representatives said something similar couldn’t happen in Vancouver. The Quebec accident, they said, happened on a short-line railroad with different standards than the main-line track that the BNSF Railway Co. operates in Vancouver. That was reinforced when a second accident happened on a short-line operator’s track in Alabama in November.

Then came a third oil train explosion in December – on a main line BNSF operates in North Dakota.

North Dakota oil train derailmentA string of train accidents involving crude oil from North Dakota have created massive fireballs, including this one outside Casselton, N.D., in December 2013. Bruce Crummy/The Associated Press

Todd Coleman, the Port of Vancouver’s executive director, said his agency may have approached the project differently and gotten safety questions answered up front if it had known more accidents would follow. But Coleman said he is still confident that the project’s state permitting process will make it as safe as it can be.

In the meantime, Coleman has traveled to Washington, D.C., advocating for regulators, railroads and Tesoro-Savage to improve oil train safety.

The port recently commissioned a safety study that concluded the risks of an oil train derailment on its track are very low and recommended $500,000 in rail improvements the agency pledged to make. The study didn’t examine the chances of human-caused errors, the leading cause of rail accidents.

And the port has yet to approve a separate Tesoro-Savage safety plan, which Coleman said could “conceivably” allow the port to require tighter safeguards if federal regulations don’t catch up.

“It’s unfortunate incidents that have happened, absolutely,” Coleman said. “But it will make it safer in the future.”

That hasn’t assuaged fears among people Jack Burkman talks to. The three-term Vancouver city councilman and other elected officials say they’ve been barraged by questions from worried residents.

“I’m stopped everywhere in town by people I never would’ve expected to be concerned about this,” said Burkman, a retired engineer. “There’s too much lack of understanding. While the likelihood of an accident may be really, really low, the problems we’ve seen have been horrific. That’s what people are having a hard time wrapping their arms around.”

The project, which could employ 120, is clearly important to Tesoro. After City Council members announced last month that they would oppose the project, Tesoro executives immediately flew into town to meet with business leaders and the local newspaper to press their case.

Loading oil on barges in Vancouver would allow the company to move North Dakota crude to its California refineries for less than the full rail journey would cost. It could export Canadian crude or move U.S.-produced crude if the oil industry successfully lobbies to lift a ban on exporting domestic supplies.

A Wall Street analyst who follows Tesoro said the terminal faces a tougher permitting process amid rising opposition to crude-by-rail terminals.

“It’s a bit ahead of other projects and it’s a bit bigger, so it’s a bit more of an indicator relative to these smaller projects about whether they get approved,” said Allen Good, a Morningstar analyst. “If it does get stopped, it will give a lot of momentum to groups opposing other crude-by-rail facilities.”

One of the project’s most prominent opponents is Barry Cain, a developer working on a $1 billion waterfront redevelopment of a former Boise Cascade paper mill. He’s an unlikely opponent: A businessman who praises the domestic crude boom for helping the United States reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

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A rendering of the waterfront redevelopment project that developer Barry Cain is working on in Vancouver, Wash.Rob Davis/The Oregonian

Three oil trains a day already move past Cain’s development site, on the key BNSF line that connects to refineries in northern Washington. But the terminal would bring four more. Cain said he worries that fear about exploding oil trains will damage property values, make financing or insurance harder to find and dissuade potential development partners.

“We don’t want to lead any fight,” Cain said of his development partners. “We’re all businesspeople, we’re not the type who’d normally be opposed to this. It’s good to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. But this affects the project we’re working on.”

Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will have to approve or reject the project if it clears a quasi-judicial process being led by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Inslee has not taken any position on it.

    Lac-Mégantic Coroner – final sad admission

    Repost from The Montreal Gazette

    Coroner identifies 40th victim of Lac-Mégantic disaster, Admits that remaining 7 missing people will never be identified

     By Anne Sutherland, THE GAZETTE April 9, 2014

    MONTREAL — Using microscopic bone fragments and DNA samples, forensic anthropologists have identified the 40th victim of the train derailment at Lac-Mégantic last July.

    Jimmy Sirois, 30, has been positively identified and removed from the list of missing persons.

    The Quebec coroner’s office had a monumental task after the explosion and fire that decimated the town of Lac Mégantic on July 6.

    In all, 47 people were reported dead and with the positive identification of Sirois there are still seven officially classified as missing.

    In a statement, the coroner’s office said that due to the intense heat of the fire, fed by tanker trucks full of volatile petroleum products, and the destruction to human remains, it will be impossible to identify any more of the missing, who are:

    Jacques Giroux, 65, Denise Dubois, 57, Marie-France Boulet, 62, Richard Veilleux, 63, Louisette Poirier, 76, Willfried Ratsch, 77 and Bianka Charest Bégnoche, 9.

      Another derailment – Philadelphia again, hazmat, no spill, major road closing

      Repost from NBCPhiladelphia.com

      Train Hauling Chemicals Derails, Blocks Major Road for Hours

      By NBC10 Staff | Thursday, Apr 10, 2014
      A Conrail train jumped a track in the Port Richmond section of the city. NBC10's Daralene Jones has the details on the investigation.NBC10.com – Daralene Jones – A Conrail train jumped a track in the Port Richmond section of the city.

      A freight train hauling hazardous materials derailed this morning at a Philadelphia signal crossing causing a major road to be closed for hours.

      Two rail cars went off the tracks blocking Aramingo Avenue between Castor Avenue and E Butler Street in the Port Richmond section of the city around 3:15 a.m.

      The derailed cars remained blocking the road for hours before they were lifted out of place, the track was repaired and the road was reopened.

      The rail crossing in the industrial/commercial area flashed and bells rang for some time as the derailed nine-car freight train remained in the middle of the road near a ShopRite store for hours.

      There were no injuries and luckily none of the tanker cars overturned or leaked.

      A Conrail spokesman said that it appeared that the tanker cars jumped the rail and landed in the mud after the actual rail cracked. NBC10 cameras captured the cracked rail.

      The spokesman said that the tanker cars were hauling flammable liquids including acetone in two cars and phenol in the rest. Acetone is a common industrial solvent that is harmful if swallowed or inhaled.

      Conrail said nothing leaked during the accident and there was no immediate threat to neighbors in the area.

      Motorists were urged to avoid the area if at all possible as the cleanup continued.

      NBC10’s Jillian Mele suggested taking Frankford Avenue or Richmond Street to avoid Aramingo Avenue. She warned however to expect heavier volume on nearby roads.

      The seven cars that remained on the tracks were detached from the derailed cars around 6 a.m. It isn’t clear when the remaining derailed cars will be cleared. Heavy equipment was brought in to remove the cars.

      The rail cars were removed just before 9 a.m. but the road remained closed as crews worked to repair the track. About 30 minutes later the road reopened to traffic.

      Conrail crews remained on the scene investigating and making further repairs.

      The track was inspected within the last month, a federal requirement.

      Conrail is owned by Norfolk Southern and CSX, the railroad company that was under scrutiny last month by city council for its safety and maintenance practices.

      “We’re going to make sure they are focusing on investing in their infrastructure to make sure incidents don’t take place in the future,” said Philadelphia city councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “It starts with leadership and although we don’t have regulation over our railways, that’s not a reason for us to not get involved.”

      Another recent train derailment in Philadelphia prompted Johnson to hold hearings about railroad safety in which officials with CSX testified.

      “We have to call them out, through our hearings,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to do business here in the city of Philadelphia you should be held accountable.”

      The Federal Railroad Administration provided NBC10 reports which showed that Conrail was involved in 17 accidents last year, a 55% increase over 2012. The data also shows eight accidents caused by tracks and 14 total derailments, up 39% from 2012.

      ——

      Photos and Videos – Train Derails While Carrying Chemicals 
      A train derails on Aramingo Avenue causing a road block. The train was carrying flammable chemicals and appeared to derail after hitting a crack in the track.