All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Crude trains: risky bridge conditions

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor: This is an excellent analysis of refinery benefits and risks, including commentary on the aging bridges used by oil tanker trains.  – RS]

Crude oil trains revive Philadelphia refineries but deliver new risks

By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Monday, Apr. 7, 2014

Chunks of concrete are falling off Philadelphia’s 25th Street Viaduct, which stretches for several city blocks in South Philadelphia. Two or three loaded crude oil trains pass over the 86-year-old structure every day, bound for Philadelphia Energy Solutions, a sprawling refinery complex that’s now the largest single consumer of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

PHILADELPHIA — Just a few years ago, the region’s refineries were on life support, hurt by high prices of oil imported from foreign countries. Now, they’re humming again with the daily deliveries of domestic crude in mile-long trains.

As one of the country’s largest destinations for crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, Philadelphia illustrates both the benefits, and risks, of a massive volume of oil moving by rail.

“It’s a good marriage,” said Charles Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, an industry group. “Ultimately, it will be good for the consumer.”

Bakken_and_bridges_McClatchy2014-04-07_325But even as the oil and the trains that bring it may have saved refineries and jobs, they’re testing the limits of the city’s infrastructure and emergency response capabilities.

In January, seven loaded tank cars derailed on the 128-year-old Schuylkill Arsenal Railroad Bridge over the Schuylkill River. Though no crude was spilled, one car dangled precariously over the river and Interstate 76. Investigators blamed it on faulty track maintenance.

“We always hear that things will never happen,” testified former Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a former firefighter and mayor of nearby Marcus Hook, Pa., at a hearing last month, “but things always happen.”

The city grew up around its rail network, so the only way to the refineries for trains is through town. Some rumble over a steel viaduct through the campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Others snake through a tunnel under the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art and the steps made famous by Rocky Balboa.

One of the main routes to the sprawling refinery complex in South Philadelphia crosses a crumbling viaduct for several blocks through a residential neighborhood. Railroad officials say the 86-year-old viaduct is structurally sound, but residents are concerned about the chunks of concrete that regularly fall into the street.

“It may be perfectly safe, but the impression it gives just by looking at it is something else,” said Roy Blanchard, a longtime South Philadelphia resident knowledgeable about the railroads.

Robert Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX, which owns the structure and operates trains over it, said the viaduct was designed to accommodate heavy commodities, such as iron ore and coal, and the railroad is planning to improve it. It already has hired a contractor to begin removing loose sections of concrete.

While other major endpoints for oil trains, including Albany, N.Y., and towns in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest, have attempted to slow or stop the shipments because of environmental and safety concerns, Philadelphia largely has welcomed the boom.

State and local officials hailed the opening in October of a rail yard that now unloads two 120-car trains carrying 80,000 barrels of oil every day to feed the largest refinery complex on the East Coast. A partnership between Sunoco and the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, created Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which employs 1,000 workers.

Without Bakken oil to replace expensive imports, the refinery would have closed.

Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, flanked by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Rep. Robert Brady, both Democrats, called the revived operation “a symbol of the connection that exists between Pennsylvania’s expanding energy industry and the potential we have to achieve energy independence in North America.”

But it’s also created new challenges for emergency response agencies.

A series of fiery derailments involving Bakken crude oil since last summer has raised questions about whether government and industry fully accounted for the risks before railroads began hauling it. The worst killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Others in Alabama and North Dakota, while not fatal, drove home the need for new precautions.

“This crude is not the crude of old,” said Robert Full, chief deputy director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Full was testifying before a state House of Representatives oversight hearing last month in nearby Eddystone, Pa., the site of a rail-to-barge facility set to open this month. It will unload two trainloads of crude oil a day by the end of the year.

Bob Andrews, a Texas entrepreneur and fire protection engineer, testified that Pennsylvania should consider developing a specific crude-by-rail response plan to protect communities and the investment they have in keeping the oil moving.

“The Philadelphia area is a good place to start,” he said.

Clifford Gilliam, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Fire Department, said the oil shipments don’t change emergency response procedures, but the department is preparing for the possibility of an event larger in size and scope than what it’s planned for in the past.

He said the department has a good working relationship with the railroads and refineries and “has the training and capability to handle hazmat incidents and, if warranted, join forces with other agencies.”

The rail operations, and risks, cross into Delaware and New Jersey. Norfolk Southern delivers a train every other day to a Sunoco terminal across the Delaware River in Westville, N.J., with plans to double the shipments later this year.

Getting the cars into the Westville facility requires repeat backup moves that block two four-lane highways on a track only feet from several homes.

The drawbridge the trains cross was completed in 1896. An $18.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation helped pay for repairs to the aging span in 2011, before the oil trains began rolling across it.

At Eddystone, south of Philadelphia International Airport, workers are putting the finishing touches on new tracks that will transfer 160,000 barrels of oil daily from trains to barges by the end of the year. The companies involved in the operations say they’ve accounted for the risks.

CSX reached an agreement with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency last month to give first responders access to the railroad’s shipment tracking system. Norfolk Southern, which plans to supply the Eddystone facility, intends to offer safety training.

Jack Galloway, president of Canopy Prospecting, one of the companies developing the Eddystone facility, assured lawmakers last month that it would be “top of the line,” equipped with containment units under the trains and floating barriers around the barges.

“We don’t think there’s any possibility of this oil getting away,” he said.

More Information


    Flawed tests play down crude oil’s explosiveness

    Repost from The Toronto Globe and Mail

    Flawed tests play down crude oil’s explosiveness

    OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
    Published Monday, Apr. 07 2014

    Damaged rail containers and twisted wreckage can be seen on the main road through downtown Lac Mégantic, Quebec early July 7, 2013, a day after a train carrying crude oil tankers derailed and burst into flames. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)As Canada and the United States move to strengthen the rules for transporting crude oil by rail, there is mounting evidence that regulators are relying on tests that underestimate the risk of a fiery explosion like the one that destroyed Lac-Mégantic.

    The current testing regime was not designed for unrefined crude and, as a result, can play down the dangers of shipping some light crude oils, according to industry and transportation experts. A United Nations panel on hazardous materials shared similar concerns last week when it announced that it would review international standards for shipping crude oil, including how crude is tested and classified, in response to a string of recent accidents in North America.

    With the accuracy of the tests in question, there is suspicion that some shipments of Bakken crude may be more volatile than officials believed. It also raises the possibility that light crude oil drawn from other locations in North America is as potentially explosive as crude from the Bakken – but has not been receiving the same level of scrutiny.

    The devastating fire in Lac-Mégantic, Que. last July, began when a train carrying Bakken crude jumped the tracks and exploded in the centre of the small town, killing 47 people. A Globe and Mail investigation showed that oil from the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile and prone to exploding than conventional forms of crude.

    Crude oil with a high concentration of light ends – such as methane and propane – is “most at risk” of being mischaracterized in standard testing procedures, according to a recent report commissioned by Transport Canada. Those light ends are potentially dangerous because they can ignite and magnify the size of an explosion.

    The inaccuracies underscore how little is known about the risks of shipping crude oil by rail, a practice that has increased dramatically during the past five years and now accounts for an estimated 230,000 barrels of oil a day in Canada. Oil is widely known to be flammable, but regulators did not believe until recently that it had the potential to explode and cause the kind of destruction it did in Lac-Mégantic.

    Flash point and boiling point tests, which are required for crude shipments in Canada and the U.S., both have difficulty measuring samples that contain significant concentrations of light ends, according to the report to Transport Canada. Another common test, known as the Reid Vapour Pressure test, has also been criticized for use on crude oil because it can allow light ends to easily vapourize at the time samples are collected from highly volatile crude.

    “When you try to apply [current tests] to samples that have light ends, they don’t work as well,” said Bob Falkiner, a director for the Canadian Crude Quality Technical Association who also works for Imperial Oil. “You get biased results reported from those test methods because of the lost light ends.”

    A spokesperson for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said the minister is aware of concerns about the crude-testing regime and Transport Canada is “looking at options” related to volatility tests. Speaking with The Globe after an event in Toronto last week, Ms. Raitt also welcomed the UN panel’s decision to study crude shipments and testing.

    Producers in the Bakken are expected to stabilize crude oil before shipping it, in a process meant to remove many of the light ends from the rest of the product. Those light ends can be sold separately, but limited transportation infrastructure in the fast-growing Bakken area has led some producers to flare the products instead – which means they simply burn them on the spot. In some cases, flaring has become a “de facto stabilization process,” said Bill Lywood, founder and president of Crude Quality Inc.

    However, several industry experts said there is a financial incentive for producers to leave some light ends in the crude – rather than burning them off or selling them separately – because they can increase the overall volume of the crude they are selling. At the same time, because of testing limitations, it can be difficult for producers, shippers and buyers to determine whether enough of the volatile light ends have been stripped away before crude oil is transported across the country.

    In an effort to address the problem, some companies and industry experts are advocating the use of a newer vapour pressure test that uses a sealed, pressurized cylinder to prevent light ends from escaping when a sample is taken.


      Trio of videos: Lac-Mégantic Mayor speaks, residents return, media story of the year

      Repost from The Toronto Globe and Mail

      Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche has urged U.S. politicians at a congressional briefing session to enact rail reforms to help avoid a similar tragedy to the one that claimed 47 lives in her Quebec town last summer.Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche has urged U.S. politicians at a congressional briefing session to enact rail reforms to help avoid a similar tragedy to the one that claimed 47 lives in her Quebec town last summer. CP Video
      Video: Lac-Mégantic mayor pushes for U.S. rail reforms