Posted with permission of the Authors
[Editor: Click on this link for a PDF version with illustrations. Be patient – a large download. – RS]
CRUDE-BY-RAIL: Design issues
Authors: C. Bart Sullivan EE, Amir Firouz CE, SE
Article 1: An Overview of the Crude-by-Rail project
According to the proposed Valero crude-by-rail project, 100 rail cars a day of Bakken crude oil will be delivered to the Benicia Valero refinery every day, 365 days a year. As each rail car of Bakken crude oil has been shown to have the explosive power of two million sticks of dynamite,1 we believe that citizens of Benicia should be aware of and understand the risks associated with the project as only one crude by rail accident in Benicia, or elsewhere associated with this project, will negatively impact Benicia, forever.
As the proposed Valero crude-by-rail project, if implemented, will touch and impact many lives here in Benicia and beyond, we have decided to write a series of articles as public information to help the public understand the risks associated with the current engineering design of the Bakken crude by rail oil offloading facility and storage. This first article is a general overview of the Valero crude by rail project covering general risks and design concerns that will be viewed in more depth in later articles.2
Due to Bakken crude being a more volatile compound than regular crude oil, the transportation and storage of Bakken crude has special logistical considerations and should be treated differently than regular crude. The Bakken rail cars will be positioned within a few feet of local businesses. Local businesses and public areas are located within the blast zone of the rail cars. Millions of gallons of Bakken crude will be stored in existing tanks, which are spaced very close together and are located within a few hundred feet of Benicia residents, and in relatively close proximity to Robert Semple Elementary School.
Bakken crude oil is about as explosive as gasoline
Bakken crude oil (Bakken crude) comes from the Bakken formation, which is one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the United States. The Bakken formation is an interbedded sequence of black shale, siltstone and sandstone that underlies large areas of northwestern North Dakota, northeastern Montana, southern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba.3 Due to this rock structure, Bakken contains a considerable amount of volatile gases, which make Bakken crude about as flammable and explosive as gasoline.4 This simply means that unlike regular crude oil, for safety Bakken should be transported and stored in manner similar to other highly flammable liquids such as gasoline.
An aerial view of the proposed Valero crude by rail project
Figure 1 illustrates an overview of the proposed crude-by-rail offloading and storage locations.5 As is illustrated in figure 1, the proposed offloading location of the rail cars containing the Bakken crude would be located adjacent to the Valero property line parallel to East Channel road. The Valero refinery property line is separated from East Channel road by Sulfur Springs Creek, which is a small creek. Sulfur Springs Creek is not a buffer zone but is rather a wildlife habitat that is accessible to the public and is used by people for recreational and educational purposes.
As illustrated in the upper right corner of figure 1, when the rail cars arrive, they would be positioned in a line parallel to East Channel road in a location a few feet adjacent to the Valero property fence line, and positioned within a few feet of Sulfur Springs Creek, East Channel road, and existing parking lots and their associated businesses that front East Channel road.
As also illustrated in figure 1, the offloaded Bakken crude would be piped to existing crude storage tank farm located as shown in the lower right corner of figure 1. The tank farm contains crude storage tanks that appear to be between 100 and 220 feet across, and are capable of storing several millions of gallons of Bakken crude. As shown, the proposed Bakken crude tank farm is located within a few hundred feet from Benicia homes.
Moreover, a review of figure 1 shows that there is a buffer zone of undeveloped land (shown as light green lines for color and light gray for black and white) on the west and south sides of the refinery (except for the tank farm on the south-east corner). The proposed locations for the volatile Bakken crude to be shipped, offloaded, stored, and processed on the site are located on the sides of Valero refinery with the least buffer distance to adjacent non-Valero businesses, on the north side (along the East Channel road) and the south-east tank farm extension. Because of this, the design seems to be a step backwards in terms of land use planning, at the expense of the safety of Benicia citizens and local business.
The Bakken crude offloading facility proposal positions rail cars very close to other onsite explosive fuel sources and offsite local businesses
Figures 2A-C, illustrate the location and general design of the proposed Bakken crude offloading facility. Figure 2A shows an aerial view of Valero’s proposed Bakken crude offloading facility,6 figure 2B shows the plan view of the proposed facility, and figure 2C shows an aerial view of the proposed facility and its proximity to Benicia businesses, such as Conco, Praxair, Insight glass, and other businesses. As illustrated in figures 2A-2C, the rail cars delivering the Bakken crude would be positioned within about 200 feet of these and other local businesses that front East Channel road.
The distance between the local business and the rail cars is critically close considering the potential power of a Bakken crude rail car explosion
Each rail car being used to deliver Bakken crude is designed to hold about 34,000 gallons of crude oil.7 Due to their shape and construction, rail cars can explode in pretty much any direction, so it is good to look at the case where the car explodes like a bomb, radially. Figure 3 shows a mapping of radiant heat from a rail car explosion.8 Each dotted circle represents the thermal energy that would be produced from an explosion of just one of the rail cars holding Bakken crude.
Figure 3 also shows that Sulfur Springs Creek, East Channel road, and businesses fronting East Channel road are within the blast radiuses (blast zones), which could lead to serious injury or death for people located in and around those businesses, adults and children enjoying Sulfur Springs Creek, and people traveling along East Channel road adjacent to the rail cars. For example, expert Phyllis Fox states in her report to the city of Benicia, that “….based on this analysis, individuals along East Channel Road and Industrial Way within the thermal radiation 5 and 10 kW/m2 circles would suffer serious injuries and fatalities….”9
In addition, because of the close proximity, the adjacent onsite storage tanks, rail cars, and other facilities are within the blast zones. For example, figures 2A-C and 3 show that crude storage tanks 1739, 1720, 1716, 1718, and 1719 are within the blast zones. Because of the close proximity between the rail cars and the tanks, a blast from a rail car filled with Bakken crude would likely damage and/or ignite the fuel in at least one of those tanks which could lead to catastrophic chain reaction onsite explosions which would likely extend outside the Valero property line.
The current proposed design does not consider vulnerability to external attacks
Unfortunately, due to today’s terrorist activities, terrorism and acts by individuals on society must be considered when designing a project that if attacked could lead to significant injury or death of citizens. Here, as illustrated in figures 2A-2C, the location of the proposed facility and position of offloading rail cars is directly adjacent to a public street, East Channel road. As such, due to the relatively fragile construction of the rail cars and their explosive power when loaded with Bakken crude, the rail cars are vulnerable and easy targets to attack from persons positioned outside the refinery. For example, it would be easy for a person to position himself or herself on East Channel road and fire a weapon at one or more of the rail cars. Please note that a consequence of this added vulnerability would likely include countermeasures to restrict access to areas adjacent to the offloading facility thereby eroding civil liberties of Benicia businesses and residents to access public and private areas of the city.
Due to the change from regular crude to Bakken crude, the Bakken Storage tanks are spaced very close together and too close to the public for public safety:
Figure 4 provides a closer aerial view of the Bakken crude storage tanks. The storage tanks range from about 100 feet to about 220 feet in diameter and are spaced about 200 feet apart. These tanks were originally designed and spaced to hold regular crude oil. Due to the change in oil from regular crude oil to much more volatile Bakken crude, these storage tanks do not seem to be spaced far enough apart to mitigate the effects of a Bakken crude explosion. For example, according to a report from “World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology” to mitigate the effects of an explosion the safe recommended distance between tanks holding gasoline is between 181 meters to 904 meters (594 feet to 2,966 feet).10
Further, one of the accident scenarios mentioned in the environmental impact report (EIR), a thermal tear, could result in injuries and fatalities at the nearest residence at Lansing Circle, approximately 2,000 feet northwest of the northern end of the Project site. An accident at Tanks S-1701 to S-1708, which would store the imported crude oil, could additionally result in injuries and fatalities in the Hillcrest neighborhood, about 1,000 feet from the nearest residence on Hillcrest Avenue.11 These accident scenarios should be considered.
What to do now:
If you are concerned about Valero’s crude-by-rail project, please contact the Benicia city council members to voice your concern. The contact information for the city of Benicia city council may be found at http://www.ci.benicia.ca.us.
1 Bomb trains – the scariest threat you didn’t know about (retrieved 9/17/16 from http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2016/Bomb-Trains/)
2 Most of the information for this article may be found at
3 Bakken formation: News, Map, videos and information sources (retrieved 9/17/2016 from http://geology.com/articles/bakken-formation.shtml)
4 Why Bakken Oil Explodes. (retrieved 9/17/16 from http://www.sightline.org/2014/01/21/whybakken-oil-explodes) “The PHMSA findings were corroborated by the industry-oriented Bakken Shale blog, calling it “flammable like gasoline.” The “flash point”—the lowest temperature at which ignition can occur—is lower for Bakken oil than for lower grade crude oils, which means that Bakken crude is particularly flammable. The post also warns that when flammable gases are dissolved in oil, the oil should be “degasified” before transportation.”
5 Nov. 2013 Valero Ap., Figure 2-2
6 Valero crude by rail project plans (retrieved 9/17/16 from http://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/vertical/sites/%7BF991A639-AAED-4E1A-9735-86EA195E2C8D%7D/uploads/Project_Plans_ONLINE_VERSION.pdf)
7 DOT-111 tank car (retrieved 9/17/16 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOT-111_tank_car)
8 Figure 7A. Comments on Valero’s Appeal of Planning Commission’s Denial of Valero Crude-by-Rail Project by Dr. Phyllis Fox, Ph.D., PE, April 4, 2016.
9 Comments on Valero’s Appeal of Planning Commission’s Denial of Valero Crude-by-Rail Project by Dr. Phyllis Fox, Ph.D., PE, April 4, 2016. Page 31.
10 World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Chemical, Molecular, Nuclear, Materials and Metallurgical Engineering Vol:8, No:2, 2014
11 Comments on Valero’s Appeal of Planning Commission’s Denial of Valero Crude-by-Rail Project by Dr. Phyllis Fox, Ph.D., PE, April 4, 2016. Page 27.