All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Fire crews ‘ill-prepared’

Repost from Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Minnesota fire crews ‘ill-prepared’ for any oil train catastrophe

by: DAVID SHAFFER, Star Tribune
Updated: February 11, 2014 – 10:23 PM

Size of trains and N.D. blast make disaster prep a priority.

Six trains with 100 or more crude oil tank cars pass through the Twin Cities every day, and if one of them wrecks, state and local emergency responders don’t have the equipment needed to put out a catastrophic fire, state and local officials say.

To fight a major oil-train fire, local fire departments would need help from railroad emergency crews, officials said. That was the case in the Dec. 30 derailment, explosion and fire of an oil train near Casselton, N.D. Massive amounts of fire-suppressing foam, rather than standard water hoses, are needed to extinguish raging tank-car fires.

“There isn’t a fire department that has that much foam right now,” Jim Smith, assistant chief of operations for the St. Paul Fire Department, said in an interview Tuesday. Smith joined other emergency responders to discuss the issue last week with BNSF Railway Co., the largest North Dakota crude oil hauler.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific, the other regional crude oil hauler, have robust firefighting capabilities and have long worked with local fire departments on emergency response efforts. But some Minnesota officials say first responders need their own capability to fight a major crude oil fire involving multiple tank cars in a populated area.

“We are ill-prepared for this,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who is preparing legislation with Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, to address shortcomings in the state’s ability to cope with crude-oil emergencies on railroads or pipelines. “This is overwhelming the state right now.”

Worries about Minnesota’s rail-disaster response have emerged as Congress is studying rail safety after recent accidents, including the July crash of a North Dakota oil train that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on transportation will hold a hearing on rail safety, and a House committee will follow with a hearing later this month.

State is major way point

North Dakota, now the second-largest oil producing state, relies on rail to ship 70 percent of its nearly 1 million barrels per day of crude oil. Much of it gets loaded onto long “unit trains” that go from North Dakota to East Coast or Gulf Coast refineries.

This crude-by-rail business didn’t exist five years ago. Now, Minnesota is a major way point for these shipments. On average, eight oil trains of about 110 cars each pass through Minnesota daily, with six of them going through Minneapolis and St. Paul, said Dave Christianson, who oversees freight and rail planning for the Minnesota Transportation Department. All of the trains, including about two a day that go south through western Minnesota, pass through many smaller towns, he said.

“We have a definite risk associated with the movement,” Christianson said.

Crude oil now is the most common hazardous material on Minnesota railways, followed by ethanol, which is shipped through the Twin Cities on 70-car trains at the rate of about one per day, he said. Tank cars carrying chlorine and anhydrous ammonia have long been considered risks, but they aren’t packed together in dedicated unit trains.

MnDOT lacks a response team for rail petroleum accidents, Christianson added. Yet the agency has five experts who respond to the more common tanker truck accidents on highways involving hazardous materials, he said.

Hornstein said Minnesota needs its own responders and equipment to rapidly deploy in rail emergencies. He said the state House Transportation Finance Committee, which he leads, also will hold a hearing on the issue early in the legislative session, which begins this month. He’s considering a fee on railroads to pay for the program, with a cost that has not yet been determined.

More equipment needed

Smith, of the St. Paul Fire Department, said Minnesota emergency responders not only lack enough firefighting foam to immediately attack a multiple-tanker fire, they also don’t have equipment to spray large amounts of foam at tank cars.

“We have over 500 gallons of foam, and that would be a drop in the bucket if one of these trains were to go,” Smith said.

If an oil train exploded and caught fire in St. Paul, Smith said, the fire department initially would focus on evacuating people and setting up an exclusion zone, and rely on railroads or others to assist with fighting the fire. Minneapolis fire officials did not respond Tuesday to requests to comment on their plans.

BNSF, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific, which hauls ethanol in Minnesota, said they have firefighting crews across their rail networks. BNSF, for example, said it has more than 200 “hazmat’’ responders at 60 locations. Railroads also have offered free training to local fire departments and say they plan to offer more.

“We take the issue of safety seriously — it is a priority of our railroad,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific, which has its U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the rail industry is talking to federal regulators about oil train routes, reduced train speeds where risk is greatest and other steps to address the safety concerns. The rail industry also has voluntarily toughened standards for new tank cars to make them more puncture-resistant — a step that federal regulators are talking about taking.

The National Transportation Safety Board in January recommended routing oil and ethanol trains around populated areas. But many rail experts, including Christianson, say that may be difficult because many rail lines were built to reach places like the Twin Cities.

Fred Millar, a safety consultant who has worked on rail issues in Washington and elsewhere, said rerouting trains remains a good option for crude oil shipping by rail, but it would take strong action by the federal government to make it happen.

“It is a born-yesterday industry,” Millar said of the oil-by-rail phenomenon. “Unit trains are clearly posing a unique danger.”

David Shaffer

    Neil Young, live: “Mother Earth”

    Live from a stop on his “Honour The Treaties” tour.  Neil at the keyboard, singing, with photos of the devastation from tar sands extraction.  More information: – also

    “Oh, Mother Earth, with your fields of green, once more laid down by the hungry hand. How long can you give and not receive, and feed this world ruled by greed? … Respect Mother Earth and her giving ways or trade away our children’s days.” — Neil Young

    Neil Young – Mother Earth (Natural Anthem) Lyrics

    Artist: Neil Young

    Oh, mother Earth, with your fields of green
    Once more laid down by the hungry hand
    How long can you give and not receive
    And feed this world ruled by greed?
    And feed this world ruled by greed?

    Oh, ball of fire in the summer sky
    Your healing light, your parade of days
    Are they betrayed by the men of power
    Who hold this world in their changing hands?
    They hold the world in their changing hands
    Oh, freedom land, can you let this go
    Down to the streets where the numbers grow?
    Respect mother Earth and her giving ways
    Or trade away our children’s days
    Or trade away our children’s days
    Respect mother Earth and her healing ways
    Or trade away our children’s days

      Oil train safety bills in Washington state

      Repost from Skagit Valley Herald,

      Lawmakers focus on oil train safety in House, Senate bills

      Measures move forward as session’s Feb. 18 cutoff approaches

      By Daniel DeMay, GOSKAGIT

      OLYMPIA — Trains carrying crude oil across Washington, including those that may soon head to the Shell Puget Sound refinery at March Point in Anacortes, are the center of attention in state legislation under consideration this week.

      House Bill 2347 and Senate Bill 6524 are both aimed at stepping up the safety of oil trains in the wake of increasing numbers of spills and other rail incidents across the country last year.

      The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, would require quarterly reporting of oil transport data and a study of the state’s ability to respond to a spill, as well as provisions to increase safety of oil brought by tanker into Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. The Senate bill would require a study of the safety of rail oil transport in the state, including spill response abilities.

      Though the exact increase in oil trains through Washington is unclear, production of oil has risen dramatically in the U.S., mostly due an almost 1,000 percent increase in production in North Dakota, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

      Burlington City Councilman Chris Loving said the two measures are a step in the right direction, and he hopes they will wind up addressing evacuation in the event of a serious spill.

      “There’s no way we could fight a fire (from a spill),” Loving said.

      Loving said even the increase of one 100-car train per day that Shell hopes to bring to its refinery would worsen the existing problem of crossing the tracks that split Burlington north and south.

      The key for Farrell is transparency about what is passing through towns and cities in rail cars and tankers, and the dangers those products might pose to people, she said Tuesday before a vote on her bill in the House Environment Committee.

      “The public has a right to know what’s happening in our communities with regard to oil transport,” she said.

      Her measure passed in an 8-5 vote, days before the cutoff to get policy bills out of committee.

      The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, received testimony in a public hearing Tuesday afternoon in the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, chaired by Ericksen. Despite the late hearing, lawmakers there were confident it would get out of committee.

      The Senate proposal would require studies of safety and preparedness, create a $10 million fund and direct cities and counties to create first-responder programs for spill response. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would not require disclosure of rail or tanker shipment data and does not call for added provisions on tanker safety.

      Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said some version of the bill would move forward, although it may include portions of a third bill on the matter that has yet to be granted a hearing. That bill is essentially the equivalent of Farrell’s House measure.

      Ranker said he thinks the issue of oil transport is the biggest environmental and economic issue the state faces.

      “It’s something we’ve got to get a handle on,” he said after the hearing. “And right now, we don’t.”

      The lack of action in Ericksen’s bill drew criticism from lobbyists and other stakeholders who testified Tuesday. Most agreed that portions of the SB 6262, the companion to Farrell’s measure, would need to be included for SB 6524 to be adequate.

      “We’re really in a period of dramatic change,” said Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for Puget Sound Keeper Alliance. “We really think it deserves more than studying issues.”

      The House bill will need to be voted out of the House before Feb. 18 to get further consideration. The Senate bill needs to be out of committee this week and also make it out of the Senate before Feb. 18.

      — Reporter Daniel DeMay:; Twitter: @Daniel_SVH