Cities Grapple With Oil-Train Safety

Repost from The Wall Street Journal

Recent Derailments Raise Concerns Over North Dakota Crude Traveling by Rail Through Cities


Jan. 14, 2014 11:02 p.m. ET
A train carrying crude oil collided with another train and caught fire on Dec. 30 near Casselton, N.D. The Forum/Associated Press

Every day, a train more than a mile long travels alongside a highway in Albany, N.Y., a half-mile from the state capitol building and even closer to houses. Its cargo is crude oil from North Dakota, which federal regulators and railroads fear is more explosive than other oils.

In the past year, Albany has become an unlikely hub for the U.S. oil business, taking in shipments by rail and sending them out by ship down the Hudson River to refineries. Now officials there are trying to get up to speed on how to handle a potential oil-train accident, as are their peers from Chicago to Denver to New Orleans.

wsj image rr officials don't llike to talk

Bakken crude, which has been involved in three major explosions after rail accidents in the past seven months, is traveling to every corner of the country: west into Washington state and then south to refineries near Los Angeles; south to Gulf Coast refiners; north into Canada; and east to refineries in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

Railroads and oil shippers wouldn’t detail oil-train movements through their networks, citing security concerns. The Wall Street Journal identified routes through investor presentations and industry marketing material, as well as interviews with industry officials and experts.

The four major freight railroads involved— Union Pacific Corp. , BNSF Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National Railway Co. —all said they were sharing information about hazardous shipments with local emergency responders. Crude oil is classified as a hazardous substance.

Some critics worry about local preparedness. The growth in crude moving on railroads “came out of the blue,” said Peter Iwanowicz, a former head of New York state’s environmental agency and now executive director of a watchdog group called Environmental Advocates of New York.

“We’re not an oil-patch state,” he said. Officials may be aware of the oil trains, he added, “but are they prepared? I don’t believe so.”

John Layton, a captain in the Albany County Office of Emergency Management, said his agency recently met with Canadian Pacific and Global Partners LP, the storage and distribution firm that is shipping North Dakota crude through New York state.

“The crude trains are very big and carry a lot of potential fuel,” Mr. Layton said. “It has the potential to burn a long time.”

Global Partners, a public company based in Waltham, Mass., declined to comment.

Two local officials said Chicago, the largest rail hub in the U.S., might not be prepared for an oil-train accident. On Monday, Chicago Aldermen Edward Burke and Matthew O’Shea proposed levying a fee on every oil-filled railcar that passes through the city, to build up a fund that could be tapped in case of a derailment or fire in the city. Local officials can’t bar oil trains, which are regulated by the federal government.

Some cities say they are ready for the oil-train influx. One is Tacoma, Wash., where the fire department says it has a plan, personnel and equipment, but worries about suburban and rural fire departments.

The three explosions stemming from recent oil-train derailments include a July accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that incinerated the downtown and left 47 people dead. An oil train caught fire in Alabama in November, and a Dec. 30 accident in rural North Dakota sent towering flames into the sky. Neither of those two caused injuries.

Concerns about emergency responders helped prompt the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to warn that Bakken oil appeared to be more volatile than other crudes, which can burn but seldom have exploded. Dominique Dostie, a firefighter who fought the Lac-Mégantic blaze, said it took 30 hours of applying special foam to extinguish it.

“When emergency responders look at crude, they are thinking of a heavy crude that just sits there and is hard to ignite,” said Cynthia Quarterman, head of the federal agency, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The PHMSA is investigating whether Bakken crude might contain large amounts of gases and related liquids such as butane, propane and ethane.

At the American Petroleum Institute, “We look forward to reviewing PHMSA’s findings as part of a continuing effort to improve the safety of rail transportation,” said a spokesman, Brian Straessle.

New regulations that could require the industry to improve, phase out or retrofit tank cars used to haul some crude oil are over a year away, according to a schedule the Transportation Department published Tuesday.

The U.S. and Canada both have large refineries on their coasts to handle imported crude oil. Over the past five years, U.S. companies began pumping more oil from the landlocked midcontinent, and the industry has developed new ways of moving it to refineries.

The most common new mode is rail, which is handling about 750,000 barrels a day from North Dakota—more oil than comes out of the giant Alaska North Slope oil field.

New crude-by-rail projects have been proposed across the country. In New York, state officials said they have received applications from Global Partners to build another rail-to-river facility capable of handling one train a day in New Windsor, N.Y., about 65 miles up the Hudson from New York City.

In Vancouver, Wash., refiner Tesoro Corp. and logistics firm Savage Cos. have proposed building a railroad terminal that could handle 360,000 barrels a day, twice the size of the oil terminal in Albany.

Barry Cain, lead developer of Columbia Waterfront LLC, a $1.3 billion real-estate revitalization project in Vancouver with space 100 feet from the tracks, said he supports robust U.S. oil production but fears the trains would endanger residents. “What if one derails?” he asked. “There is no margin of error with these things.”

The general manager of the proposed new rail terminal, Jared Larrabee, said it and waterfront development can co-exist. “We believe the region can and should have both,” he said.

Vancouver Fire Dept. Battalion Chief Steve Eldred said hazardous-materials response plans are in place for existing train traffic, but would need to be studied and probably require additional resources to handle more oil trains.

Others say while the liquid cargo is labeled as crude, it is exploding like jet fuel. The North Dakota crude “has a tremendous amount volatility and puts out a lot of heat,” said Dennis Jenkerson, the fire chief for St. Louis.

“We train for this every year, and you prepare for the worst,” he said. “My biggest concern is that this crude is coming through the area and we really don’t know what it is.”

—Chester Dawson, Ben Kesling and Betsy Morris contributed to this article.  Write to Russell Gold at and Lynn Cook at

    California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

    Repost from the Sacramento Bee:

    California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

    By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau
    Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 – 11:17 pm


    Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware.   Curtis Tate / MCT
    Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware. Curtis Tate / MCT

    WASHINGTON   Wary of a series of fiery train derailments elsewhere in North America, California officials are bracing for a huge increase in the amount of crude oil transported by rail into the state and the dangers it brings with it.

    The state budget plan Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled this week bolsters the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, increasing its budget by $6.7 million and adding 38 staff members, “to address the increased risk of inland oil spills.

    The move comes as California’s Energy Commission projects that rail deliveries of crude oil could increase to as much of a quarter of the state’s total by 2016. In 2012, only 0.2 percent of the 598 million barrels of oil received by state refiners came by rail, according to the commission. Nearly two-thirds arrived by ocean-going vessels, and another third by pipeline.

    Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which includes the oil spill unit, said the state is preparing for a shift in deliveries by more traditional modes to rail, and the risks associated with it.

    “We’ve exceeded pipeline capacity, and that distribution is now shifting to rail,” he said. “In California, that change means we may see less of our oil coming in through marine terminals and more by rail into the state.”

    The volume of crude oil shipped by rail has increased exponentially in just the past few years, and many state and federal agencies are scrambling to adjust their emergency response plans. Trains brought about 3 million barrels of oil to California last year. In two years, it could be 143 million.

    Especially worrisome is oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, which federal officials have come to believe is more flammable than the more conventional oils California produces or imports. And most of the railroad tank cars that carry it to California and other states have proved vulnerable to ruptures or punctures in a derailment.

    In July, an unattended crude oil train derailed and exploded in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. A similar train derailed in Alabama in November, followed by another in North Dakota last month. Though both accidents resulted in spectacular fires and limited evacuations, no one was injured or killed.

    The rail industry and its Washington regulators insist that railroads have a good safety record. The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, says 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipped by rail reach their destination without incident. The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation’s rail network, said 2012 was the industry’s safest year on record.

    Initially, rail was a stopgap measure taken as proposed pipeline expansions encountered delays. But producers discovered its advantages. Though it costs more to ship by rail than by pipeline, it’s faster, has more capacity and can go pretty much anywhere pipelines don’t.

    Crude oil is already moving into California by rail. BNSF Railway, the nation’s largest rail carrier of crude oil, now hauls entire trainloads from North Dakota to refineries in Richmond and Bakersfield. Though the shipments are infrequent, plans are in the works to enable six more locations in California to refine oil brought in by train or transfer it to ships or pipelines. If all are completed, five or six 80- to 100-car trains a day would supply about 25 percent of the state’s oil needs.

    Bonham said the 245-member oil-spill unit is adapting to a shifting risk. To fund its expansion, the agency will begin collecting a fee of 6.5 cents a barrel to all crude oil shipped to refineries. Currently the fee only applies to marine shipments. Bonham predicts rail will largely displace tankers coming from Alaska or foreign countries.

    The largest chemical spill in state history was the result of a rail accident. In July 1991, a Southern Pacific freight train derailed near the northern California town of Dunsmuir, with one tank car spilling 19,000 gallons of a pesticide into the Sacramento River. The toxic green chemical created a vapor cloud that made residents ill and killed a million fish in a 42-mile stretch of contaminated river.

    One tank car can carry about 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Canadian authorities estimate that the train that derailed in Quebec spilled 1.5 million gallons, leaving an environmental catastrophe as well as a human one.

    BNSF and Union Pacific, the state’s other major railroad, plan to increase their shipments of crude oil to the state in unit trains. Both railroads operate trains through downtown Sacramento and the state’s other major population centers and along its major waterways, creating new potential hazards for communities and the environment.

    “It’s not going to be just one car,” said Tom Cullen, administrator of the state oil-spill unit. “We know it’s going to be more.”

    California officials say they’ve dealt with large amounts of oil spilled from marine vessels and inland wells.

    “We’re not going through this blindly,” Cullen said. “We appreciate what we’re taking on.”

    What does worry them, however, is Bakken crude’s flammability.

    The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last week warned that the oil is more hazardous than others and should be handled with extra care. The tendency of older, less protected tank cars to fail in derailments has compounded the concern. Some members of Congress and the rail industry are pushing regulators to move faster on new standards for tank car construction.

    Email:; Twitter: @tatecurtis


      Train Derailment in Benicia Industrial Park

      Repost from the Benicia Herald, 

      No spillage, none hurt in train derailment

      11/5/13, 10:05am 

      Coke dust contained after single rail car came off tracks in Industrial Park on Monday

      Staff Report

      Derailment in Benicia Industrial Park, 11/4/16

      Benicia police said a single rail car carrying coke dust from Valero Benicia Refinery derailed Monday, but no one was injured and no spillage occurred.

      The cause of the derailment is under investigation, Benicia police Lt. Frank Hartig said in a news release.

      He said Benicia Police Dispatch Center received a call at approximately 12:42 p.m. about the derailment at the intersection of Park and Bayshore roads in the Industrial Park, and Benicia police, Benicia Fire Department and representatives from the the refinery responded.

      Hartig said they learned that the rail car loaded with coke dust, a refinery byproduct containing sulfur, carbon and heavy metals, had derailed while leaving the Valero property and crossing Park Road.

      The train was traveling in an eastbound direction when the derailment occurred, he said, and the coke dust was contained in the rail car and there was no spillage.

      There were no reported injuries to anyone involved, Hartig said.

      He said investigators from the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the rail car, responded to take over as the primary investigating agency, and they will seek to determine whether the derailment was caused by issues with tracks or the rail car, or whether it was caused by operator error.

      He said the train engineers are cooperating with Union Pacific investigators, and the train engine is being examined as well.

      The derailment caused damage to the roadway at the train crossing site, Hartig said, but the roadway was reopened to vehicular traffic at approximately 2:30 p.m.

      The derailed train car remains on scene until machinery can arrive that will rerail the car, he said, and the roadway may have to be closed again until that can be accomplished.

      “Through the collaborative efforts of the agencies that responded to this incident, the scene was rendered safe, and in a short amount of time the clearing of the roadway and reopening to vehicular traffic was done quickly and efficiently,” Hartig said.


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