Unsafe rail cars remain in service, Senators angry

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN

Slow pace of oil train fixes draws Senate ire

Article by: JIM SPENCER, Star Tribune
Updated: March 7, 2014

On Capitol Hill, senators were told that none of the thousands of inadequately protected rail cars has been removed from service.

OilTrainAn oil train headed for Minnesota rolled through Casselton, N.D., scene of an explosive rail accident in December. Photo: New York Times file.

WASHINGTON – Virtually all of the potentially unsafe rail cars carrying crude oil across the country remain in service, hauling highly flammable liquid, an official from the American Petroleum Institute (API) testified at a Senate hearing on rail safety Thursday.

API official Prentiss Searles told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that to his knowledge the oil and gas industry had retired none of the puncture-prone tankers from their fleets.

The issue arose after Searles testified that 40 percent of the rail cars now hauling crude have updated superstructures designed to keep them intact if they derail.

Heitkamp pressed Searles to clarify his point. The senator explained that crude oil shipments from her state’s Bakken formation are growing so fast that all the newer, safer tanker cars being produced are needed for increased capacity, not replacement.

The tanker fleet “has grown,” Heitkamp said to Searles. “You haven’t taken any [of the more vulnerable cars] off the rails.”

“Not to my knowledge,” Searles replied.

Those cars continue to carry crude oil despite a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determination that “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”

There were 27,130 substandard cars carrying crude oil as of the third quarter of 2013, according to the Railway Supply Institute. Another 29,071 carried ethanol, which also is flammable.

Frustration with the speed at which safety reforms are being implemented dominated Thursday’s hearing, which came in the wake of fiery oil train derailments in North Dakota and Canada.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, pointed out to a panel of government regulators and private industry representatives that federal rules for safer tank cars have been 2½ years in the making with no resolution.

“We’re moving as fast as we can,” answered Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Her response and those of leaders of the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Communications Commission, drew an exasperated rebuke from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chaired the hearing.

“We need to get it right, but we need to get it done,” Blumenthal said.

The volume of crude oil moved by train from production points in the United States to refineries grew from about 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. Each tank car holds 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

Virtually all of that oil gets where it is going without incident. But in the very rare exceptions, consequences have been destructive and sometimes deadly. The danger raises the stakes for people living near rail lines in states like Minnesota, where eight oil trains pass on a daily basis, six through the Twin Cities.

The oil and gas industry, which owns or leases most of the rail cars used to ship crude oil, developed a set of voluntary standards for more puncture-proof and leakproof tanker cars. But the NTSB considers the new design inadequate, something the petroleum institute disputes.

“This is shaping up as a regulatory fight,” Heitkamp observed. “This is very problematic from a public ­perspective.”

Besides the structure of rail cars, lack of computerized control of trains — called positive train control — and the unique volatility of oil drawn from the Bakken Formation were sore points at the hearing.

Positive train control will require installation of roughly 22,000 antennae near tracks across the country. The Federal Communications Commission has delayed antenna  deployment while it checks to see if any of the sites violate environmental and historic preservation laws. Several senators blasted the FCC for bureaucratic foot-dragging.

The unique volatility of Bakken oil also remains in dispute. The oil and gas industry denies it, but the Department of Transportation has said the oil drawn from North Dakota “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

Quarterman of the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the government has moved from testing its flash point and boiling point to looking at its vapor pressure and sulfur and flammable gas content. Still, regulators and industry have not settled on a new testing or classification regimen.

“It’s a learning process,” Quarterman said

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    TSB releases analysis of crude oil samples from train accident in Lac-Mégantic

    Repost from CNW (newswire.ca)
    [BenIndy Editor’s note: this news release doesn’t really tell much about the results of the testing.  The first link below goes to the actual report, which is a thorough scientific analysis.  I will be watching for a good review that tells the story in simple layperson’s terms.]

    GATINEAU, QC, March 6, 2014 /CNW/ – The Transportation Safety Board of  Canada (TSB) today released its engineering laboratory report (LP148/2013) on the analysis of the petroleum crude oil contained in tank cars of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) train that derailed on 6 July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

    As the TSB noted in its 11 September 2013 news release announcing the issuance of safety advisory letters to Canadian and U.S. regulators, test results indicate that the level of hazard posed by the petroleum crude oil transported in the tank cars of the occurrence train was not accurately documented.

    For this report, samples were collected from the 9 tank cars at the end of the occurrence train (MMA-002). These tank cars did not derail and were pulled back to Nantes, Quebec after the accident. Samples were also taken from 2 tank cars located at Farnham, Quebec. These 2 tank cars were part of another unit train operated by MMA (MMA-874) that was transporting petroleum crude oil of the same origin as the oil carried by train MMA-002. All the samples were tested and examined. The TSB is releasing the engineering laboratory report documenting this comprehensive analysis in advance of the final investigation report.

    The Lac-Mégantic train derailment remains a priority for the TSB, and a team of experts continues to be dedicated to the investigation, which is now in the report-writing phase. If at any stage during the remainder of the investigation the TSB identifies additional safety deficiencies, it will communicate directly with regulators and the industry, and inform the public.

    The TSB is an independent agency that investigates marine, pipeline, railway and aviation transportation occurrences. Its sole aim is the advancement of transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.

    SOURCE  Transportation Safety Board of Canada

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      NTSB: Public Forum in D.C. April 22-13

      Repost from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

      NTSB Press Release

      National Transportation Safety Board Office of Public Affairs


      NTSB to Examine the Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol by Train

      MARCH 6, 2014

      WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board today announced it will hold a public forum on April 22-23 in Washington that will examine the safety issues associated with the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by rail.

      The forum, Rail Safety: Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol, will explore DOT-111 tank car design, construction and crashworthiness; rail operations and risk management strategies; emergency response challenges and best practices; and federal oversight.

      “While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail has been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “This forum will explore both the risks and opportunities that exist to improve the safety of transporting these important commodities.”

      A detailed agenda and list of participants will be released closer to the date of the event and will be made available on our website at www.ntsb.gov.

      The forum will be held in the NTSB Board Room and Conference Center, located at 429 L’Enfant Plaza, S.W. Washington, D.C. It will be free and open to the public. No registration is necessary. For those who are unable to attend in person, the forum can be viewed via webcast at www.ntsb.gov.

      Office of Public Affairs 490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW Washington, DC 20594 Eric M. Weiss (202) 314-6100 eric.weiss@ntsb.gov

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        Mayor Patterson’s Op Ed, SF Chronicle, 03Mar2014

        Repost from San Francisco Chronicle, Opinion, Open Forum

        Governor must ensure rail tanker safety

        Elizabeth Patterson
        March 3, 2014                                 

        There isn’t a moment to lose. Gov. Jerry Brown should issue an executive order to ensure that the state is prepared to deal with the highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming by rail and water into California.

        There should be no hesitancy in taking this step, and no excuse. The exponential increase in the shipment of this “peculiar” crude is documented and has the attention of my community, and my sister communities in Solano, Contra Costa, Yolo and Sacramento counties. Citizens have organized to ask local and state officials to address their concerns about the safety of the increased rail transport of crude in what many experts – and the National Transportation Safety Board – say are the notorious DOT-111A tank cars, whose design makes them prone to puncture in accidents.

        Last year’s explosive tanker rail accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, destroyed its small downtown and spilled fuel that burned on the lake and its shore. As the Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk noted in his letter to me, “A similar accident in Davis as the one in Quebec would likely produce even more catastrophic results, in terms of loss of life and the destruction of our downtown.”

        According to the California Energy Commission, crude by rail shipments will increase in 2014 to more than 50 million barrels from the 6 million barrels in 2013.

        We have seen fiery accidents documented last year with 10 major explosions involving oil trains in the United States and Canada. Clearly these increased crude-by-rail shipments in unsafe tank cars pose imminent danger to the small rural communities, such as Dunsmuir (Siskiyou County), the site of a 1991 derailment that dumped thousands of gallons of pesticide into the Sacramento River, dense urban settings in the Bay Area and all that lies in between.

        Public safety must be addressed. Rail incidents involving crude oil spills increased exponentially from fewer than five in 2000 to 90 in 2012, as reported by the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration. And there is more: While the burning of Mégantic Lake is an environmental disaster, our stressed and endangered rivers, delta and wetlands alongside the tracks in California are also at risk.

        These shipments of Bakken formation oil are carloads of hazardous chemicals, often incorrectly labeled. How would the Suisun Marsh survive a potential spill, explosion and fire? What contaminants could enter our delta waterways – a water source for 25 million Californians – from several vulnerable rail crossings?

        The governor should waste no time in issuing an executive order that would address:

        Are we prepared? The governor should direct state agencies, working with federal authorities, to assess the state’s prevention and response rules, as well as inspection programs, involving the transport of petroleum products.

        Who responds? Which are the relevant local agencies? Are there well-trained, well-equipped personnel ready to respond to rural, urban and environmental incidents?

        What’s the law? Does the Legislature need to change the law or regulations to enhance safety and improve coordination with federal agencies to improve the state’s ability to prevent and respond to incidents?

        As mayor of a small city affected by the increase in crude-by-rail traffic, oil and hazardous materials off-loading, I expect nothing less than my state to focus its attention and resources on these public health and safety concerns – for the sake of us all.

        Elizabeth Patterson is the mayor of Benicia, a refinery town.

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