All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Barrington Illinois leading the charge on rail safety

Repost from National Geographic / Daily News

Photo of a train loaded crude oil passing through the Chicago area.

The amount of crude oil being transported on trains like this one, seen in Illinois and bound east, has increased 85-fold since 2006. Recent accidents involving oil trains have raised safety concerns.  PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL MEIER
Marianne Lavelle
National Geographic
PUBLISHED JANUARY 17, 2014

When a freight train rolls through Barrington, Illinois, gates with flashing lights lower to block all four of the village’s cross-town thoroughfares—often at the same time. It happens 20 times a day.

And as more and more of those trains have become “unit trains”—carrying only one type of freight, crude oil—residents have been voicing concerns about matters far more urgent than the time they lose idling at grade crossings. “People are seeing those black cars and they know there’s something different going on,” said village president Karen Darch. (See related blog post:“Eight Steps for Safer Oil Trains Eyed by U.S. Safety Officials”)

Barrington, a suburb of about 10,000 people 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Chicago, has been leading a push for tougher U.S. safety regulations on the nation’s sharply increasing oil train traffic. Some tangible action on that plea came Thursday, when U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx held a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., to press oil and rail company executives to come up with a plan for safer operation of oil trains.

Foxx gave the executives 30 days to produce recommendations to address a host of safety issues, from weak tank cars to the lack of real-time data on freight risks for emergency responders. The unusual meeting indicated that President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking immediate steps to boost safety while the department works on new regulations that could be a year away.

For more than 20 years, safety investigators have been warning that the majority of  tank cars used to haul flammable liquids on North American railroads are prone to puncture. And with sharply increasing production of both petroleum products and ethanol in the past five years, there is now an “unprecedented volume of flammable liquids currently in rail commerce,” said the investigative agency, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a recent regulatory filing.

Proposals for new rules languished until last July 6, when an unattended crude-oil train rolled down a grade at high speed into Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where it derailed and exploded, leveling the center of the small lakeside town and killing 47 people. (See related stories: “Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause” and “Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.”)

Since then, there have been at least four other fiery oil train derailments involving the same suspect tank cars in North America, including two in just the past three weeks. Some 2,400 residents near Fargo, North Dakota, were forced to flee their homes on December 30 when an oil train collided with a train carrying grain. (See related, “N.D. Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude.”) Then, on January 7, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed in northwest New Brunswick, Canada; authorities evacuated 45 homes and barred residents from the site for four days while the fire burned.

Although no one was hurt in either incident, industry observers believe the most recent accidents have increased pressure on regulators, both in the United States and Canada.

A tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama

The November derailment of a tanker train carrying crude in western Alabama was one of at least four oil train accidents in the last three months.  PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL CASTLE, ABC 33/40 VIA AP
Action can’t come soon enough for the train towns that have watched up close as crude oil shipments on U.S. Class 1 railroads, the major freight lines, increased 85-fold since 2006, from 4,700 carloads to 400,000 in 2013, according to a rail industry regulatory filing. In Barrington, Darch notes that many of her constituents, including her own husband, rely on trains: the commuter line that takes them into Chicago each day on separate tracks that intersect the newly busy freight line, also at a grade crossing. “It’s ironic,” she said. “The town has grown up on the rail and we don’t want to die on the rail.”

Unsafe at Any Speed?

The most controversial issue before the U.S. regulators is whether to order retrofits or an aggressive phaseout of the rail tank cars called DOT-111s. As early as 1991, the NTSB warned the cars were inadequate for flammable materials and were unable to withstand the forces of an accident, even in a train traveling at slow speeds.

There are stronger railroad tank cars in service, but they are used to carry pressurized liquids, like liquefied petroleum gas and chlorine. The DOT-111s, in contrast, have become workhorses hauling a wide range of liquids, from corn syrup and vegetable oil to nonflammable hazardous liquids like caustic soda and liquid fertilizers. And an estimated one-third of them are now carrying cargo that could catch fire.

The DOT-111 problem burst into view on June 19, 2009, when a train hauling ethanol derailed and exploded in Cherry Valley, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. The blast and fire killed a passenger in one of the cars stopped at the grade crossing, injured seven other people, forced evacuation of 600 homes, and caused $8 million in damages. Especially haunting: 44-year-old Zoila Tellez died trying to flee, but could not outrun the fireball.

The NTSB determined that railroad operating practices, including problems with track maintenance and inspection programs, caused the accident. But it concluded that the severity of the accident was due to flaws in the DOT-111.

After Cherry Valley, the rail industry adopted a new voluntary standard for the cars. Since 2011, new DOT-111 tank cars have been built with greater puncture resistance, thicker tank material, and improved pressure valves. But after Lac-Mégantic, the rail industry said more improvements were needed.

In a November filing before federal regulators, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association urged that all existing DOT-111 tank cars be retrofitted or quickly phased out. For the new (post-2011) cars, the railroads said proposed improvements—steel jackets, head shields, and top-fitting protections—could cut the risk of an accidental spill in half. For older cars, the rail industry said it would cut the risk by 75 percent.

In a rail industry quirk, it is not the railroads that own the tank cars. The majority of cars are owned by leasing companies, who then lease them to the rail customers—the oil and ethanol industries. The initial cost for an overhaul, then, would fall first on the leasing companies, who would then pass the cost along to the oil and ethanol industries. The Railway Supply Institute, representing railcar builders and leasing companies, estimates retrofitting the fleet would cost more than $1 billion.

The oil industry has strongly opposed a forced retrofit or phaseout of old DOT-111s. Such a move would “have the broadest-reaching consequences that the rail industry has ever faced,” the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a December filing to regulators.

API argued that the DOT-111s “are safe under normal operating conditions,” and regulators should instead focus on railroad maintenance and operation. API noted that broken rails and welds cause the majority of derailments, and that human error also is an important factor. “The best way to limit the impact of a derailment is to prevent a derailment in the first place,” said API.

The oil industry group said retrofitting would strain rail repair shops, which it said already are operating at capacity. Forcing at least 50,000 older tank cars into the shops would have the unintended consequence of backlogging the building of newer cars built to meet the 2011 voluntary standards, the trade group said. (API also argued that the 15,000 or so newer cars should be allowed to stay in service without retrofit, contrary to the rail industry’s argument.)

Adding to the logistical challenge of an overhaul, API said, is the fact that many U.S. railroad car manufacturers have gone out of business.

The potential for new safety regulations to bottleneck booming North American crude oil production is a far greater concern for the oil industry than the cost of new tank hardware, observers say. Rail has served as handmaiden to North Dakota’s rise to number 2 (behind Texas) among U.S. oil-producing states, getting oil to refineries despite lack of pipeline capacity in the prairie. December figures show 69 percent of the crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale is being sent by rail, up from 28 percent in the spring of 2012. And Bakken oil production has roughly doubled over that time to close to one million barrels per day.

“The implication for upstream production . . . and railcar leasing companies is hard to miss,” said Washington, D.C.-based energy policy analyst Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners in a report for his clients, also noting oil prices could be affected. “A regulation mandating immediate retrofits or phaseouts has potential to significantly constrain capacity out of the Bakken (where a majority of crude travels by rail), and limit ethanol shipments, too.”

It also is a concern for producers in the remote oil sands of Alberta, Canada, who are increasingly turning to rail. In fact, in its environmental impact statement on the controversial proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline linking Alberta producers with Gulf of Mexico refineries, the U.S. State Department concluded that if the pipeline weren’t built, the oil would get to market anyway—by train. (See related story and interactive map: “Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma” and “Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.”)

At the Crossroads

A high-stakes regulatory battle affecting the flow of North American oil wasn’t on the radar anyone—and certainly not for Barrington, Illinois—in October 2007. That’s when the big railroad Canadian National (CN) initiated its purchase of the smaller Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railway line that arcs around Chicago from Waukegan, Illinois, to Gary, Indiana. CN’s idea was to route trains around the congested city hub. For Barrington, it has meant an increase from three freight trains a day through town to 20.

Map showing Barrington, Illinois

“The irony is that they moved the traffic from a part of downtown (Chicago) that had a lot of overpasses and underpasses,” said Richard Streeter, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Barrington and other midwestern rail towns. “That’s not the case on the old EJ&E.” In fact, the trains travel directly in the path of cars and trucks at more than 130 at-grade crossings. Barrington and more than a dozen other communitiesalong the line fought the purchase, raising an array of noise, traffic, and safety issues. But U.S. regulators approved the deal with the caveat that separations be built at two of the grade crossings.

Four months after CN’s purchase of the EJ&E was finalized, the communities were shaken by news of the fatal ethanol train derailment—a CN train on another line—just an hour to the west.

Soon after the NTSB’s findings that the DOT-111 contributed to the Cherry Valley tragedy, on April 3, 2012, Barrington and neighboring rail towns, called the TRAC coalition, filed a petition with U.S. safety regulators, seeking an overhaul of the DOT-111 fleet and real-time information sharing with emergency responders on hazardous car contents. Barrington’s Darch said not much happened with the request for action, though, until the oil train disaster at Lac-Mégantic.

“That literally was a firestorm that ignited the whole debate again,” said Darch, who recently visited the Canadian town to meet and talk to officials who are still grappling with the aftermath. “It really was such a tragedy that it no longer could it be ignored, as it had been for over 20 years.”

In the fall, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) started the process of acting on  Barrington’s proposal and several other long-standing requests for regulatory action on flammable hazards on trains, including four from the NTSB. Even while the agency was accepting comments, two more fiery DOT-111 accidents occurred in North America, on October 19, in Gainford, Alberta, and on November 7, when a shipment of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Aliceville, Alabama, resulting in a large spill and fire.

Darch said that for towns like Barrington, it will not be enough to have standards for newly built tank cars to be stronger. The older tank cars continue to be a “weak link” that threatens the integrity of all tank cars in an accident, she said.

“The status quo is clearly intolerable for any community that has the misfortune to be on the losing end of fate,” said Barrington and the TRAC coalition in their comments filed with PHMSA, likening their plight to “a game of Russian roulette.”

“However, it is not the shippers or railroads or leasing companies looking down the barrel of the DOT-111 revolver,” they said. “It is the communities that have absolutely no power to get up and walk away from the danger.”

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

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Diane Bailey: California Attorney General Letter, Protests in Pittsburg 1/21/14

Repost from Diane Bailey’s blog, Switchboard, Natural Resources Defense Council

California Attorney General Tells Major Oil Terminal Developer, WesPac, to Hold Up in Pittsburg

Posted January 17, 2014 by Diane Bailey in Environmental JusticeHealth and the Environment,Moving Beyond Oil

The California Attorney General, Kamala D. Harris, sent a stark letter to the City of Pittsburg this week warning of “significant legal problems” with the documentation around the proposed WesPac mega oil terminal. The eleven page letter noted “fundamental defects” and “errors” in the Recirculated Draft Environmental Impact Report for the 242,000 barrel per day rail and marine terminal for failing to do the following:

  • Adequately disclose and analyze local air quality impacts to the already impacted community of Pittsburg;
  • Consider the effects to other Bay Area communities of refining the new crudes;
  • Propose and analyze feasible mitigation that could reduce local air quality, impacts;
  • Adequately disclose and address the risk of accidents that could result from transportation and storage of the new crudes;
  • Fully disclose and consider mitigation for the Project’s climate change-related impacts; and
  • Consider a reasonable range of feasible alternatives that could reduce the Project’s significant impacts.

Thumbnail image for WesPac Rally.jpg

The letter urges the City of Pittsburg to correct these problems before moving forward. However, these issues arise from fundamental and serious environmental, health and safety flaws that are inherent to the project. NRDC together with dozens of other advocates, civic leaders and thousands of residents have raised these issues repeatedly over the past few months as awareness of the project has grown.  A rally and march last weekend brought hundreds out to demonstrate their pride in Pittsburg and opposition to the WesPac project.

This Tuesday, January 21st, another rally is planned in front of City Hall (65 Civic Avenue, Pittsburg) at 5pm before the City Council meeting. Please come show your support for a healthy and safe Pittsburg, before the city moves forward with this dirty and dangerous oil terminal. Pittsburg deserves better.

WesPac Rally2.jpg
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Leaked UN Climate Report Paints Bleak Picture For Humanity

Reposted from Daily Kos, reporting on article in the New York Times

THU JAN 16, 2014 AT 04:04 PM PST

Leaked UN Climate Report Paints Bleak Picture For Humanity

by Dartagnan                          climate change photo: climate change climate-change.jpg

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/science/earth/un-says-lag-in-confronting-climate-woes-will-be-costly.html

When Historians in 2100 look back at the events of the early 2000’s they will conclude that the most profound and far-reaching characteristic of the political gridlock in the United States during that era wasn’t either party’s position on taxes, Social Security, Medicare, immigration, guns, gay marriage or abortion, but rather the reflexive dismissal by the Republican Party of anything preceded by the letters “U.N.”

Writing on virtual, evanescent screens in their air-conditioned enclaves, situated well above saturated coastal regions teeming with desperate populations, they will ask themselves why any nation–let alone the world’s wealthiest–would permit a cabal so xenophobic, so vehemently anti-science to dictate climate policy at a time when the whole of human civilization stood dependent on concerted, cooperative action. They will ask why any nation would have empowered those whose sole objection to scientific truth boiled down to the fact that it was presented to them by an international organization, made up of folks with odd-sounding names and possibly even different skin colors than themselves.

They may call it a failure of democracy, a capitulation to overweening greed, an inherent flaw of Capitalism. But no one will seriously conclude that there was any shortage of warnings.

Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report.  Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found. Delay would likely force future generations to develop the capability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found.  But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the approach would likely be wildly expensive compared with taking steps now to slow emissions.

The findings are those contained within a draft of the Third Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report is the final of three installments and will be released for publication in April 2014. A final document synthesizing the three reports is scheduled for publication in October 2014.   As has been the case in the past, the report’s findings were “leaked’ to various news organizations, including Reuters and the New York Times.  The purpose of the report is to influence and inform the U.N. in its negotiations among 190 countries to achieve a treaty governing “greenhouse” emissions that cause global warming.However, the outlook is anything but optimistic.

The report says that the development of alternative energies is being outpaced by an acceleration in fossil fuel emissions in developing countries like China. As the Times article notes, the wealthiest countries are in effect “outsourcing” their greenhouse gas emissions to countries where the goods that the wealthy nations consume are manufactured. Further, not only are countries failing to develop alternative energies, they’re also failing in their efforts to adapt to what the Panel now sees as inevitable climate disruption.

According to the draft report, the cost of maintaining rising temperatures within “safe” levels will amount to 4% of the world’s GDP by 2030:

Most scenarios that meet the 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) cap on global warming that world leaders endorse require a 40 percent to 70 percent reduction in heat-trapping gases by 2050 from 2010 levels, according to the third installment of the UN’s biggest-ever study of climate change. The world would need to triple the share of renewables, nuclear power and carbon-capture and storage to meet that.

But the problem in achieving those goals is as much a matter of political will as it is cost:

Efforts are underway to negotiate a new international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, but it is not even supposed to take effect until 2020, and it is unclear whether countries will agree on ambitious goals to limit emissions. It is equally unclear how much political support a new treaty will gain in China and the United States, the world’s largest emitters.
The Obama administration is pushing for a deal, but any treaty would have to be ratified by the Senate; many Republicans and some coal-state Democrats are wary, fearing economic damage to the country.
The new report suggests, however, that the real question is whether to take some economic pain now, or more later.

As the quote above notes, the United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Not coincidentally, they are economic competitors as well, and it’s probably not too simplistic to conclude that neither will move appreciably on climate change unless the other does. In fact China’s reticence (and India’s) is usually trotted out as an excuse by those in this country who oppose meaningful efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  But despite its refurbished image over the past two decades, China remains a totalitarian dictatorship that is not particularly moved by internal public opinion (even if it is beginning to comprehend the magnitude of its own environmental catastrophe). It is, however, responsive to economic self-interest and its standing in the eyes of the world. The effect of a concerted international effort that included the United States would be difficult to withstand. But the U.S. is unwilling to mount such an effort, due in large part to a climate denialist movement financed by the fossil fuel industry and enabled, for the most part, by its surrogates in the Republican Party.Some of the report’s other conclusions:

* Greenhouse gas emissions grew by an average 2.2 percent per year between 2000 and 2010. Global emissions since 1970 outstrip those for the preceding 220 years.* Just 10 nations accounted for 70 percent of emissions in 2010.

* Industrial emissions from developing nations now exceed those from industrialized ones, though high income nations are net importers of carbon dioxide emissions embedded in goods from abroad.

* Pledges for emissions cuts by 2020 that were made by the world’s biggest emitters in 2010 don’t correspond to the ‘‘lowest cost” emissions reduction trajectory and would lead to greenhouse gas concentrations of as much as 650 ppm by 2100.

But the most disturbing conclusion is that at the upper end of the IPCC’s potential estimates for CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, it will become more expensive to fight climate change than to deal with its effects.

Which is just another excuse for Republicans to continue to fiddle while the Earth burns.

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO DARTAGNAN ON THU JAN 16, 2014 AT 04:04 PM PST.
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