Sacramento area mayors, emergency responders to send letter of concern to Valero

 Repost from KTXL FOX40 Sacramento/Stockton
[Editor: This is an excellent video report, but I can’t post it to run here because it runs commercial ads ad nauseum.  My apologies but you really should click on the image which takes you to the KTXL page where you can view this video.  It has footage from Valero’s community meeting, brief comments by West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cobaldon and Fire Chief Rick Martinez of West Sacramento, and an update from the April 17 Sacramento Area Council of Governments.  The text below summarizes the video, if you can’t stomach the commercials.  – RS]

Communities Concerned Over Crude Oil Train Plan

Note - this will take you to KTXL's website for the video.  Please be patient - commercial ad content.
Note – this will take you to KTXL’s website for the video. Please be patient – commercial ad content.

SACRAMENTO 17 Apr 2014 – Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor train is the chauffeur-driven commute for thousands in the Sacramento region.

But those runs to the Bay and back may soon be sharing the rails with something that could turn those trips of ease into trips of angst.

“That could be scary. It might deter me from taking the train,” rider Mary Pierschbacher said.

Those fears are about Valero’s plan to send up to 100 train cars full of a highly flammable crude oil through downtown Sacramento every day.

The cars would be traveling on Union Pacific lines through Roseville, West Sacramento, Davis and on into Benicia to a proposed rail terminal at Valero’s refinery there.

Tempers flared at public meetings in Benicia as the company and homeowners debated the potential threat that could be rolling through neighborhoods.

“Our crew, the railroad and the community is clearly capable of responding to an incident that happens,” Valero’s Chris Howe said.

Late notice of the impact in the Valley sent reps from targeted cities into a Thursday meeting at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

Mayors and emergency responders plan to draft a letter of concern to Valero.

“We can’t plan for every eventuality, but we need to know what the range of possibilities are so we can make the appropriate preparations. And if we can’t then we need to raise our voices and object to the project,” said West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon.

“I think  we still have a lot of work ahead of us to come to to a real solution, but i think we’ve taken some good first steps today,” said Rick Martinez, Fire Chief of West Sacramento.

The plan for more crude to ride the rails is a way to keep pace with increased fracking in places like northeastern North Dakota in the Bakken oil fields.

The trouble is that explosion in production is bringing to the surface oil that is lighter and more flammable than other types.

Bakken crude was in the 72 runaway train cars that derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec last July – killing 47 people and decimating the town’s center.

If a crash like that happened along the Capitol Corridor route through Sacramento,  the new Kings arena could be just one of many city investments destroyed.

And as of right now,  crews forced to respond would have little information about how many rail cars were filled with what.

“For our first responders who are supposed to be taking care of the emergency…it doesn’t help with even less information for them to go on,” said Adams.

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    California Assembly: new safety legislation for emergency readiness

    Repost from The Sacramento Bee, Capitol Alert
    [Editor: for more on Assemblyman Dickinson’s bill, see his press release here.  I am unable to find the bill’s number as of this writing.  The press release concludes with “The bill will be heard by the legislature in the coming months.”  More info via Dickinson’s office: Contact: Taryn Kinney, State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0007, Tel: (916) 319-2007, Fax: (916) 319-2107  – RS]

    VIDEO: Dickinson bill seeks crude oil train emergency preparedness

    April 17, 2014  |  VIDEO BELOW: The Sacramento Bee/Dan Smith

    IMG_RB_Crude_Oil_7.JPG_5_1_F420A1K7_L47055198.JPGPointing to the catastrophic derailment in Quebec of a train transporting oil and similar accidents, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has unveiled legislation to get emergency responders more information about crude-carrying trains that roll through California.

    As the United States reaps the fruits of a domestic energy boom, driven in part by huge volumes natural gas extracted via hydraulic fracturing, the amount of oil transported via rail has grown apace. According to the California Energy Commission, 6.1 million barrels of crude chugged into California on trains in 2013, accounting for 1.1 percent of the amount processed at California refineries.

    “It is safe to say that we’ve all become alarmed with learning about the large increase in certain types of crude oil and oil products that California refineries will be receiving,” Dickinson said during a Thursday news conference at the downtown Sacramento train station.

    Cities have begun raising the alarm about safety hazards, and officials have testified to Congress that most communities are ill-prepared to handle the aftermath of a derailment. In addition to the deadly derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, oil trains have jumped the tracks and ignited in Alabama and  North Dakota.

    Now, with a Bay Area refinery planning to move huge amounts of crude oil on a rail line running through downtown Sacramento, Dickinson has proposed legislation requiring railroads to disclose more information about oil shipments to those who would be dispatched to handle a potential rail accident.

    “Because of this rapid change in the transportation of crude by rail, state safety rules are simply not what they need to be,” Dickinson said.

    Currently, railroads don’t have to notify cities in advance about their cargo. Trains carrying hazardous materials, like oil or acid, must have warnings stenciled on the side of the cars containing the dangerous commodities.

    Under Dickinson’s bill, blueprints detailing facts like the volume of oil being transported in a given day; how many cars are being used; and the characteristics of the oil being conveyed would go to local officials. The state agency that now obtains that information would be compelled to share it with local fire and police departments.

    “If (responders) know what they’re dealing with,” Dickinson said, “they’ve got a much better chance of controlling and containing the incident and also protecting their own lives.”

    Gov. Jerry Brown has also taken note of the growing risk. Under the governor’s budget, the state’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response would get more money and staff to deal with the growing risk of inland oil spills. As it stands now, the agency responds to oil spills in marine areas.

    PHOTO: A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton.
    VIDEO: The Sacramento Bee/Dan Smith
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      NY Times: More shipments, new accidents and calls for safety

      Repost from The New York Times, Business Day [Editor – this NYT article was a detail sheet linked to the major article, “Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret“.  I am posting here because it is a serious contribution to our understanding of the huge increase in rail disasters in 2013-14.  – RS]

      More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety

          A sharp increase in rail shipments of oil over the past decade has been accompanied by accidents and derailments that have renewed the debate about regulating transportation of hazardous materials. The shipments are regulated by federal authorities; state and local officials have little say. Despite warnings of safety risks, measures to restrict or ban such transportation have been defeated.                      Related Article
      More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety
      More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety
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        NY Times: Our secretive railroads

        Repost from The New York Times, Business Day
        [Editor: partway through this article there is an image with instruction to click for the inset article, “More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety“.  Don’t miss this – it details the massive increase in oil by rail accidents 2005-1014.  The inset is also available here on BenIndy at More Shipments.  – RS]

        Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret

        By JAD MOUAWAD  |  APRIL 15, 2014

        Jodi Ross, town manager of Westford, Mass., and Joseph Targ, its fire chief, could learn little when a train derailed there this year. Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

        Jodi Ross, town manager in Westford, Mass., did not expect she would be threatened with arrest after she and her fire chief went onto the railroad tracks to find out why a train carrying liquid petroleum gas derailed on a bridge in February.

        But as they reached the accident site northwest of Boston, a manager for Pan Am Railways called the police, claiming she was trespassing on rail property. The cars were eventually put back on the tracks safely, but the incident underlined a reality for local officials dealing with railroads.

        “They don’t have to tell us a thing,” Ms. Ross said. “It’s a very arrogant attitude.”

        American railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concern about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.

        Local and state officials complain that they receive very little information about when hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes. Federal interstate commerce rules give them little say in the matter and railroads are exempted from federal “right to know” regulations on hazardous material sites.


        Graphic: More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety (click on image for details)

        Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine.

        This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 miles per hour when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders.

        Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway.

        Recently, resolutions seeking more information from the railroads have been approved in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham, Wash., and are being debated by the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota, among other places.

        The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. Last July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the border with the United States, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.

        Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of “iconic targets” like sports arenas along the way.

        That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.

        The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.

        But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.

        And railroads are also allowed to consider the economic effects of their routing choices and how it would affect their customer relationships, which gives them additional flexibility in their choice.

        Gary T. Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the results of the program’s analysis “are considered sensitive security information, and we are not able to share details.”

        Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, said the system had not demonstrated that it reduced shipping hazards by avoiding populated areas. “The federal government has produced not one line of public assessment on the effectiveness of the law in reducing risk,” he said.

         
        Aftermath of an oil train accident in Casselton, N.D. this year. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

        Railroads are subject to periodic federal audits. But none has ever been fined over its choice of route since reviews started in 2009, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

        Some analysts cautioned that rerouting was not always possible or even desirable. Brigham A. McCown, an administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Bush administration, said a railroad may decide that a shorter route through a city may have better tracks, and therefore be less risky, than a longer route with older tracks.

        “Rerouting may be less effective than some believe,” he said. “The current concern is that the volume of hazmat is growing exponentially, and the question is whether the agencies have the adequate resources to actively monitor that.”

        Railroad officials said they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities. But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to “bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning,” a constraint that precludes them from making the information public.

        “We feel the information is getting to where it needs to get,” said Thomas L. Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the Association of American Railroads. “It should be on a need-to-know basis. Public availability of highly detailed information is problematic from a security perspective.”

        In 2005, the District of Columbia and a handful of other communities sought to stop the traffic of hazardous products in their city centers. But the ban was successfully challenged in federal court by CSX.

        “It’s hard for the regulator and industry not to become somewhat comfortable with each other’s dance moves — like in an old marriage,” said Reuven Carlyle, a representative in the Washington State Legislature and chairman of the House finance committee. “But you shouldn’t have double-secret nondisclosure agreements. Information is not a luxury. Regular people have a right to this information.”

        The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that railroads “avoid populated and other sensitive areas” when shipping hazardous materials, something they are not required to do today.

        Little oil was transported by trains just five years ago. Today, about 784,000 barrels a day of oil, or 11 percent of domestic production, goes on trains, according to the Association of American Railroads, and those figures are expected to keep growing in the next decade. Carrying mostly oil from the Bakken, these trains cross the country to reach coastal refineries.

        Oil trains regularly run through Minneapolis and St. Paul, for instance, instead of using bypass tracks to the west, according to Frank Hornstein, a Democrat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

        Railroad officials say there is no need for tighter regulation. They argue that the industry has made big investments in recent years to upgrade tracks and that train safety has improved.

        But critics say the federal government has been too slow to address the danger posed by these new shipments.

        “There is an unwillingness to use any kind of enforcement power at the federal level,” said Mike O’Brien, a Seattle City Council member who sponsored a resolution seeking greater disclosures from the industry. “The railroads have a lot of protections through federal statutes. That’s the ongoing challenge we face as cities.”

        A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret.
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