All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

DOT-111 – the ‘Soda Can’ of tank cars – Long wait for safety rules

Repost from WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, NPR

The Long Wait On Safety Rules For The ‘Soda Can’ Of Rail Cars

By David Schaper, April 15, 2014
Safety advocates have been pressuring Canadian and U.S. officials to create new safety standards for tank cars and to make old DOT-111s like this one more puncture-resistant.   Nati Harnik AP

Freight trains roll through the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill., every day, many pulling older tank cars known as DOT-111s. They’re known as the “soda can” of rail cars, says village President Karen Darch, because their shells are so thin.

Many of the DOT-111s are full of heavy Canadian tar sands crude oil. Some carry ethanol. And more and more of them are loaded with light Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

“The worry is that if there’s a derailment and the car is punctured, if any of the flammable materials in it … spills out and explodes, it will create a huge fire, as we saw last summer in Lac-Megantic,” Darch says.

The center of that small town in Quebec just north of the U.S. border was incinerated in July after an unattended oil train rolled downhill and derailed. More than 60 of the DOT-111s on that train exploded into flames, killing 47 people. Since then, safety advocates have been pressuring Canadian and U.S. officials to create new safety standards for tank cars and to make the old DOT-111s more puncture-resistant.

But the regulatory authorities have not acted yet — not even after three fiery derailments of oil trains since, all in rural areas in which no one was injured. Darch believes it’s only a matter of time before there is another.

“In towns like ours, it can derail blocks from a high school with 3,000 kids, right by houses, neighborhoods where people are sleeping in the middle of the night. And even with the best response, you’re going to have very catastrophic results,” she says.

And it’s not just those living near railroad tracks who are increasingly concerned.

“The regulatory uncertainty of not having regulations to build new cars to, or not having regulations to modify the current fleet, is starting to adversely impact my industry,” says Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, which represents rail car manufacturers.

Simpson says that since 2011, the industry has been building to a stronger standard on its own, making new tank cars more puncture-resistant. But some are recommending an even stronger standard than that — and there’s some disagreement between manufacturers, oil companies and the railroads over just how robust the new standard should be.

Manufacturers are becoming frustrated, he says.

“We are willing to build new cars to a tougher standard. We are willing to modify the current fleet to a tougher standard to continue to remove the risk of moving hazardous material by rail, but we would not take that step until we are certain that the steps we do take would be approved by the federal government,” Simpson says.

And that lack of momentum was the focus of a Senate subcommittee hearing on the topic last week. Republican Susan Collins of Maine tried to pin down Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on when the new tank car standards would be ready.

His target date, Foxx said, is “as soon as possible.”

“That’s a frustrating answer,” Collins said.

“I understand. It’s frustrating for me to give it to you,” Foxx said. “But I can promise you, senator, that we are working as hard as we can to get the rule done as quickly as we can.”

When pressed, Foxx says he hopes the new rule will be ready before the end of this year. But that vague response leaves industry groups, safety advocates and community leaders somewhere they don’t want to be: in oil tank car limbo.


    Farmers: Oil trains may delay fertilizer shipments

    Repost from Ag Week

    Oil traffic could delay US fertilizer shipments, farmers warn

    Increasing use of railroads to ship crude oil could disrupt fertilizer cargo this spring as Midwest farmers prepare for planting, U.S. agriculture leaders warn, even as one railroad said on Monday it will take steps to ensure timely deliveries.
    By: Reuters, April 15, 2014

    WASHINGTON — Increasing use of railroads to ship crude oil could disrupt fertilizer cargo this spring as Midwest farmers prepare for planting, U.S. agriculture leaders warn, even as one railroad said on Monday it will take steps to ensure timely deliveries.

    The planting season is nearly at hand in states such as the Dakotas and Minnesota, where soybean, wheat and corn growers will lay millions of tons of fertilizers like nitrogen and potash that mostly arrive by train.

    Those supplies are not stockpiled near the fields and the farmers rely instead on steady deliveries by rail.“

    Since we don’t store fertilizer, the next very few weeks are incredibly important for South Dakota farmers,” said state Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch.

    But fertilizer cargo is being waylaid as railroads are clogged by trains carrying crude and other freight and that could ultimately jeopardize the fall crop, farmers have warned lawmakers and other officials.

    “If rails are too congested for fertilizer in the weeks ahead, the problem will solve itself because there won’t be anything to harvest in the fall,” said Dave Andresen of Full Circle Ag, a farm services company in South Dakota.

    BNSF Railway Co. said on Monday it had assigned more locomotives and train crews to expedite fertilizer deliveries so nutrients can arrive at delivery points on time.

    “We understand the shortness of the season and the necessity of timely delivery,” the rail operator said in a notice to farm customers.

    CHS Inc., a top farm supplier in the Upper Midwest, expects to help meet near-term demand for nutrients but is concerned supplies could dwindle a little later in the growing season.

    “In the early weeks of planting, farmers need a recharge and the fertilizer sheds need to be stocked up before then,” said Jeff Greseth, the company’s head of crop nutrition.

    Supply lines have been snarled in part by clearing grain bins of the remainder of last year’s crop and recovering from harsh winter weather.

    Barges ferrying dry fertilizer on the Mississippi River and into Minnesota have found some waterways frozen over for longer than normal, Greseth said.

    “The ice has some deliveries running a week, 10 days late,” he said, but an increase in oil-by-rail traffic has also weighed on the train network.

    Rail shipments of crude oil have been on the rise in North Dakota’s Bakken energy patch, where production is nearing 1 million barrels per day, and roughly 72 percent of that fuel moves on the tracks.

    Last week, farmers beseeched federal officials to make sure rail operators such as BNSF and Canadian Pacific Railway Co were giving them enough access to the tracks.

    The Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory agency that arbitrates rail disputes, has heard from farmers across the upper Midwest that a shortage of rail cars and delivery delays were endangering their livelihoods.

    BNSF executives have said service will improve in the years ahead along with investment and an expected uptick in farm, crude oil and other commodity shipments.


      Protesters dress in hazmat suits at Capitol in Albany, NY

      Repost from The Albany Times Union, Capitol Confidential

      Environmentalists decry ‘death trains’

       April 15, 2014 by Rick Karlin, Capitol bureau
      (Rick Karlin/Times Union)

      It sounded a bit like a rehearsal with lots of run-throughs of songs Tuesday, but environmentalists concerned about all the oil trains going to the Port of Albany, along with the possibility of more to come, say they’ll  be back later this month when the Legislature is in session.

      As well as singing some protest songs, members of Environmental Advocates and People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE) donned hazmat suits as part of their plea for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give close scrutiny to a proposal by Global Partners to build a plant at the Port of Albany that would possibly serve to heat and thin tar sands oil from Canada that might eventually be shipped to the city by train and then via barge down the Hudson.

      Currently, the port is handling oil that is fracked in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota. Environmentalists are upset over the potential dangers of the tankers of oil coming by train. Shipping tar sands oil would add ecological insult to injury they say, due to the higher potential greenhouse gas emissions of that relatively dirty fossil fuel.

      “This is Governor Cuomo’s Keystone moment,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, referring to the proposed Keystone pipeline that would run from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

      Here is EA’s release and some video from our photographer Cindy Shultz, of the gathering:

      Local residents and environmental leaders led a Capitol protest today calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to reject the oil industry’s plans to turn New York State into a “virtual Keystone pipeline” for Canadian tar sands oil.

      A letter to Governor Cuomo from national environmental figures Bill McKibben (, Margie Alt (Environment America), Michael Brune (Sierra Club), and Larry Schweiger (National Wildlife Federation) was released noting the Cuomo Administration’s approval of any crude oil heating facility in New York State would have national and global environmental and public health implications. Such approval would also significantly increase the extraction and distribution of some of the world’s dirtiest and most dangerous crude. Protesters also dressed in hazardous waste material (hazmat) suits to draw attention to the oil industry’s idea of 21st century economic development: spill cleanup.

      The letter can be found online.

      Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York said, “This is Governor Cuomo’s keystone moment. For two years under the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) watch, the oil industry has laid the groundwork to turn New York into a primary route to market for some of the dirtiest and most dangerous oil on earth. Nationwide, eyes are watching the Governor, because of the destruction tar sands would have on our climate. We thank our national partners for impressing upon the Governor that New Yorkers need him to move beyond rhetoric and act to protect our environment and public health.”

      Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club said, “With the numerous recent disasters involving shipping crude oil by rail, it’s obvious that rail is not the answer. And with pipeline tragedies like the ones on the Kalamazoo River and in Mayflower, AR it’s clear that pipelines aren’t the answer either. Ultimately, the only real way to protect public health and safety is to leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground and move as quickly as possible to clean energy like wind and solar.”

      Sandy Steubing of People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE) said, “The public doesn’t care about regulatory jurisdictions. We do care that the transportation of volatile Bakken crude threatens our basic health and safety needs.”

      Ned Sullivan, president of Scenic Hudson said, “Governor Andrew Cuomo has provided outstanding leadership in forging an economic development strategy for the Hudson Valley that builds on the strength of the river as the centerpiece of the regional economy. The Department of Environmental Conservation should follow the governor’s lead in safeguarding the natural and economic assets of the Hudson Valley by requiring a full and exhaustive review of the Global Companies’ proposed facilities in Albany and New Windsor with a special focus on the potentially devastating impacts of an accident or spill on the people, communities and natural treasures of the Valley.”

      Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity said, “Oil trains in New York have become virtual pipelines, with all the threats of actual pipelines, like Keystone XL. But in the case of oil trains it was pretty much anything goes until they started blowing up and killing people. Now, it’s time for government to act, and for human safety and the environment to come first, which is the way it should have been to start. “