All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

National Fee to Respond to Train Spills?

Repost from Governing the States and Localities

Chicago Mayor Calls for National Fee to Respond to Train Spills

In this photo released by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency a tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama outside Aliceville, Ala.,  Nov. 8, 2013. Associated Press Photo/Alabama Emergency Management Agency
As the U.S. enters an energy boom and rail remains the chief way of transporting it, cities need to get behind national efforts to improve safety, oversight and emergency response, Rahm Emanuel says.
by | January 23, 2014
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is proposing a national freight fee for hazardous materials to improve rail safety and help cities respond to the kind of disasters that destroyed a small Canadian town last year.

As rail transportation surges to meet the demands of an oil and gas boom underway in the U.S., cities need to take the lead on demanding better oversight, better safety and robust ways of responding to accidents, Emanuel said Thursday during the winter gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He pointed to the derailment of crude oil tankers in Alabama last year and incidents in North Dakota to illustrate the problem.  He compared an explosion last year in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic that leveled 30 downtown buildings and killed more than 40 people to Dresden after allied bombing raids in 1945.

The federal government would impose the fee on companies that extract crude oil and “the industrial consumers of it,” according Emanuel’s office. The mayor said the fee would fund new investments in rail safety and infrastructure, first responders in the locations of disasters and rebuilding efforts. If not through a national effort, the burden will fall mostly on individual cities, Emanuel said.

“You will end up having to do this because it’s going to be something we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” he said. “We are literally in the early stages…of an ever increasing amount of this material coming into our cities.”

But the fee, which would take Congressional authorization, was couched within a broader call of improvements that included building safer rail cars, safer railroads and giving local officials more information about the freight entering their cities.

“None of us know what’s coming through our cities,” Emanuel said. “It may be sitting there for days and we may not know.”

The same day Emanuel proposed the fee, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a joint statement calling for better route planning that avoids more densely populated areas. The organizations also recommended more robust efforts to correctly classify hazardous materials before they’re shipped and oversight to ensure companies have plans for dealing with disasters.

Crude oil shipments by rail have jumped more than 400 percent since 2005, according to the U.S. safety board.

It’s not just big-city mayors who should be worried, said Mayor Butch Brown of Natchez, Miss. Thousands of cars filled with crude oil make their way from Canada each year in Natchez, where they’re transferred to barges headed down the Mississippi River, Brown said.“It’s not just critical to the metropolitan areas; it’s very critical to the smaller areas that have fewer resources to deal with these issues than larger metropolitan areas do,” he said.Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who served as mayor of Charlotte before his nomination in 2013, said he welcomes all ideas for dealing with the growing problem, but there’s no “magic bullet” and broader action is needed on everything from enforcement to prevention and emergency response.

“We’ve got some work to do convincing our leaders in Congress to give us the resources we need to do inspections in a much more robust way and also make sure we have the enforcement mechanisms,” he said.

A spokeswoman in Emanuel’s office said he’ll be “working with national leaders to find the right way to implement” a more “comprehensive set of safety and infrastructure investments,” of which his proposal is one piece.


    Railroad Safety Problem is Old News

    Repost from Governing the States and Localities

    Railroad Freight Safety Has Been a Problem for a Long Time

    by | January 27, 2014

    By Curtis Tate

    Long before crude oil and ethanol were transported by railroads in large quantities in minimally reinforced tank cars, other flammable and poisonous materials were riding around the country in the same cars, threatening major cities and waterways.

    Federal regulators might be weeks away from issuing new safety guidelines for tank cars carrying flammable liquids, after a series of frightening rail accidents over the past six months.

    But the type of general-service tank car involved in recent incidents with crude oil trains in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota _ the DOT-111-A _ has a poor safety record with hazardous cargoes that goes back decades, raising questions about why it took so long for the railroad industry and its federal regulators to address a problem they knew how to fix.

    Other, more specialized types of tank cars received safety upgrades in the 1980s, and the industry’s own research shows they were effective at reducing the severity of accidents.

    Tank car manufacturers have built new DOT-111A cars to a higher standard since 2011, but the improvements haven’t caught up to tens of thousands of older cars.

    To be sure, improper railroad operations or defective track cause many accidents involving tank cars. But the National Transportation Safety Board, which makes recommendations but has no regulatory authority, has cited the DOT-111A’s deficiencies many times over the years for making accidents worse than they could have been.

    “Moving as quickly as possible to upgrade the tank cars is critical,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who’s now a transportation safety consultant. “No one wants to see it happen again.”

    A review of federal reports and documents going back four decades shows that the DOT-111A tank car factored into a wide range of calamities, including:

    • A 1981 rail yard accident that shut down a portion of Newark International Airport and blocked traffic from reaching the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan until a punctured tank car finally burned out its contents of flammable ethylene oxide after 40 hours.
    • A 1983 rail yard accident that triggered the evacuation of 9,000 people in Denver when corrosive nitric acid escaped through a puncture in a tank car, forming a large vapor cloud.
    • A 1991 derailment _ the worst chemical spill in California history _ that sent a tank car loaded with a toxic pesticide tumbling into the Sacramento River, poisoning a 40-mile stretch of one of the state’s most important water supplies and fishing areas.
    • A 1992 spill near Superior, Wis., that resulted in the release of benzene into the Nemadji River, leading to the evacuation of 40,000 people in Superior and nearby Duluth, Minn., and the deaths of 16 species of wild animals near the accident site.
    • A 2001 derailment midway through a 1.7-mile, century-old rail tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore in which a punctured tank car carrying flammable tripropylene fed a raging fire that burned for five days, ruptured a 40-inch water main and prompted the evacuation of the Camden Yards baseball park.

    Many tank cars that were built starting in the 1960s were designed to carry as much cargo as possible, which meant thin shells that could easily puncture or rupture in a derailment. While economical, the designs proved disastrous in a number of horrific incidents involving toxic and flammable gases.

    The deaths of numerous railroad workers and emergency responders in the 1970s spurred regulators and the industry to improve the safety of the pressurized tank cars used to transport “all kinds of exotic materials that cause battlefield-like damage,” NTSB official Edward Slattery told The Associated Press in 1978.

    By the early 1980s, pressurized cars were equipped with puncture-resistant shields, fire-resistant thermal insulation and devices to help the cars stay coupled in derailments, reducing the risk that they could strike and puncture each other.

    The non-pressurized DOT-111A, however, was left mostly unaltered. Upgrades probably weren’t necessary when the cars were carrying benign products such as corn syrup or vegetable oils, but regulators also allowed the cars to transport flammable and corrosive materials.

    In accident after accident over the next three decades, the NTSB repeatedly referred to the cars’ shortcomings.

    “The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years,” the NTSB wrote the Federal Railroad Administration in a letter dated July 1, 1991.


      Oil trains delay Amtrak trains

      Repost from The Hill

      Oil shipments blocking Amtrak trains

      By Keith Laing
      January 29, 2014, 06:02 pm
                    Getty Images

      Freight trains carrying crude oil shipments are blocking Amtrak trains in the northwest United States, according to complaints from the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP).

      The passenger railway advocacy group wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that oil-by-rail shipments are blocking trains on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route, which runs from Chicago to Portland and Seattle.

      Crude oil train shipments have come under fire after a series of derailments. The railroad passenger association said trains that stay on the tracks are also causing problems for Amtrak passengers.

      “Delays of up to eight to ten hours have plagued the Empire Builder, inflicting extreme inconvenience—often at considerable personal expense—to literally thousands of Amtrak passengers and their families,” NARP President Ross Capon wrote to Foxx.

      “While severe weather has played a contributing factor, the delays are in large part due to the logjam of rail congestion caused by hundreds of additional freight trains transporting crude oil extracted in North Dakota to refineries in other parts of the U.S.,” Capon continued.

      Capon said NARP “recognizes the key role that America’s freight railroads play in fueling economic activity in the U.S.”

      But he said that Amtrak and the freight rail company that operates the tracks the Empire Builder line runs on should be able to work out a better scheduling agreement.

      “Amtrak and host railroad BNSF Railway Company must come together to ensure that the Empire Builder’s passengers have continued access to adequate, reliable public transportation,” he said. “The Empire Builder serves communities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, and Oregon, with some 18.8 million people living within 25 miles of an Empire Builder station. The train acts as a vital transportation link for hundreds of rural communities to essential services in urban population centers.”

      Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline have said there would be less crude oil shipment by rail if the controversial project was allowed to be built. The Obama administration has resisted calls for constructing the pipeline, citing environmental concerns, even as it plans to ramp up its regulation of oil trains.

      Capon said it was particularly important for officials to figure out a way to make service reliable on Amtrak’s northwest line because it travels through several smaller states that have sparse air service.

      “Amtrak’s Empire Builder carried 536,400 passengers in fiscal year 2013 along a 2,256 mile corridor that has little in the way of transportation alternatives, and regularly experiences extreme winter weather conditions that close down airports and road networks,” he said. “Without a fully functioning rail service, many of these Americans will be effectively stranded.”

      Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told The Hill that the company is dealing with the oil train-induced delays by shipping stations in Grand Forks, Devil Lake, Rugby, N.D. to make up time on its overnight cross country trip.

      Magliari said Amtrak was negotiating with BNSF Railway for an equitable solution.

      “We met two weeks ago with BNSF,” he said. “This dates back well before current winter weather blast. They told us they are making capacity improvements, but we should not expect to see an improvement in how our trains managed with their tracks until later this year.”

      Magliari said the detours around trains that are carrying crude oil “requires passengers to disembark in Fargo, N.D. at 3:35 a.m. to get on chartered buses to take them to the three missing stops.

      “We’re going to keep working with BNSF to try to mitigate these delays and inform our passengers what’s going on, but we’re concerned about this for our passengers and for our business,” he said. “This is our most popular, by ridership, overnight route in the country. It’s going to celebrate 85th anniversary later this month.”

      Amtrak acquired the Empire Builder route from a private rail company when it was created by Congress in 1971.

      A BNSF spokeswoman told the Grand Forks Herald newspaper that it was “working” with Amtrak to find a solution to the delays.

      The company blamed the train backup on winter weather in the midwest U.S.

      “BNSF service is being impacted by extreme cold and winter weather conditions across the Midwest,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth told the North Dakota paper.

      “The extreme cold and snow are presenting significant operating challenges for our operations,” McBeth continued. “To recover, we are operating our westbound trains on our route through New Rockford and eastbound traffic through our Devils Lake route. We will continue working with Amtrak as our network recovers.”