Latest crude oil train derailment, Buhl, Alabama

Repost from Tuscaloosa News

Train derailment leads to evacuations in Buhl

No oil spilled, no one injured in 9-car accident

By Stephanie Taylor, June 16, 2014
Josh Jewell, a car shop supervisor for Alabama Southern Railroad, talks on a cellphone at the scene of a train derailment in Buhl on Monday. Jewell said the crash occurred at about 2:45 p.m. Monday afternoon. No one was injured, but seven crude oil tankers were totaled, as well as one box car. Jewell said the area will be cleaned up and the main line opened by today. Michelle Lepianka Carter | The Tuscaloosa News

Authorities ordered a mandatory — but temporary — evacuation Monday for some Buhl residents who live near the site of a train derailment.

Train cars carrying oil derailed near the 16000 block of Crosscut Drive and Sipsey Valley Road at 2:45 p.m., said Lt. Andy Norris, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. No oil was spilled, he said.

A total of nine rail cars derailed, and eight of them — seven tankers and a boxcar — were totaled.

Josh Jewell, a car shop foreman for Alabama Southern Railroad, said the cause of the derailment has not been determined but that about an eighth of a mile of track will need to be fixed.

He said the railroad hopes to have the main line reopened later today.

Immediately following the derailment, the sheriff’s department ordered everyone within 1,000 feet of the intersection to evacuate the area because of the threat of fire.

Only six residences were within that area, Norris said. People living in those homes were allowed to return after an hour and a half.

“We have asked people to evacuate as a precaution due to the fact that the rail cars are carrying oil,” Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Ron Abernathy said.

The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency and Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Service’s hazardous materials team responded to the derailment.

At about 4:30 p.m., the Sheriff’s Office posted on the department’s Facebook page that it was safe for residents to return to their homes.

The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident and determine its cause.

The derailment was at least the second such accident in West Alabama within the past 12 months.

Tar Sands on the Tracks: Railbit, Dilbit and U.S. Export Terminals

Repost from DESMOGBLOG

Tar Sands on the Tracks: Railbit, Dilbit and U.S. Export Terminals

2014-06-17  |  Ben Jervey

Last December, the first full train carrying tar sands crude left the Canexus Bruderheim terminal outside of Edmonton, Alberta, bound for an unloading terminal somewhere in the United States.

Canadian heavy crude, as the tar sands is labeled for market purposes, had ridden the rails in very limited capacity in years previous — loaded into tank cars and bundled with other products as part of so-called “manifest” shipments. But to the best of industry analysts’ knowledge, never before had a full 100-plus car train (called a “unit train”) been shipped entirely full of tar sands crude.

Because unit trains travel more quickly, carry higher volumes of crude and cost the shipper less per barrel to operate than the manifest alternative, this first shipment from the Canexus Bruderheim terminal signaled the start of yet another crude-by-rail era — an echo of the sudden rise of oil train transport ushered in by the Bakken boom, on a much smaller scale (for now).

This overall spike in North American crude-by-rail over the past few years has been well documented, and last month Oil Change International released a comprehensive report about the trend. As explained in Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude-by-Rail in North America (and in past coverage in DeSmogBlog), much of the oil train growth has been driven by the Bakken shale oil boom. Without sufficient pipeline capacity in the area, drillers have been loading up much more versatile trains to cart the light, sweet tight crude to refineries in the Gulf, and on both coasts.

Unfortunately, some of these “bomb trains” never make it to their destination, derailing, spilling, exploding and taking lives.

While shale oil, predominantly from the Bakken, has driven the trend, Canadian tar sands producers are increasingly turning their attention to rail. Hobbled by limited pipeline capacity out of Alberta, and frustrated by their inability (so far) to ram the Keystone XL pipeline through the American heartland, tar sands producers are signing contracts with Canadian rail operators. Canadian National Railway is getting the lionshare of the business.

Canadian National not only has the infrastructure in place near Alberta’s tar sands developments, but also operates 19 subsidiary railways in the United States under the Grand Trunk Corporation. Strung together, Canadian National network stretches 2,800 miles from Western Canada down to the Gulf Coast, the only company that can offer straight-through shipping from the tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

Of the upstream infrastructure — or the loading terminals up near the tar sands, the Oil Change International report explains:

At the time of writing there were 31 terminals in operation that load tar sands or heavy crude, with six of these expanding and an additional eight planned or under construction…

The first terminal designed to load unit trains with Canadian tar sands crude, the Canexus terminal in Bruderheim, northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, started operations in December 2013. It has a capacity of 70,000 bpd and loads tar sands bitumen from MEG’s Christina Lake SAGD project, among others.

Downstream, rail terminals are similarly adapting to handle shipments of tar sands crude. From the Runaway Train report:

Terminals designed to unload tar sands crude are currently concentrated in the Gulf Coast region, where the biggest concentration of heavy oil refining capacity is located…

The Gulf Coast terminals have about one million bpd of unloading capacity today, set to grow to over two million bpd in 2016. Some of this capacity is at refineries such as those operated by Valero in Port Arthur, Texas, and St. Charles, Louisiana. Valero has ordered 1,600 insulated and coiled tank cars specifically for hauling tar sands crude to its refineries.

The Gulf Coast also has significant midstream capacity on the Mississippi River, where crude oil, including tar sands crude, is unloaded from trains and pumped from storage tanks into local pipelines or loaded onto barges that deliver to coastal refineries via the Intracoastal Waterway.

Meanwhile, refineries on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are angling to get in on the action, hoping that their shipping advantages to Europe and Asia respectively will prove appealing to tar sands producers.

As described in Runaway Train, terminals on the West Coast are particularly well positioned to serve as a “fast-track out of North America for Canada’s tar sands.”

There are currently 13 crude-by-rail unloading terminals in California, Oregon and Washington, of which four are currently expanding their capacity. There are also 11 terminals planned or under construction.

Many of these are at refineries that, like their counterparts on the East Coast, are looking to take advantage of discounted domestic or Canadian crudes that they have little hope of ever gaining access to via pipeline. With a larger proportion of refining capacity geared up for heavy tar sands processing than exists on the East Coast, West Coast refineries such as the Valero facility in Wilmington, Calif., and the Phillips 66 refineries in California and Washington, are keen to rail in tar sands crude.

Accessing these West Coast refineries by rail, as well as the prospect of export terminals in Washington and Oregon, are potentially the tar sands industry’s best bet for major market expansion in the face of delays and possible cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and pipelines to the Canadian west coast such as the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain expansion.

These latter projects, which are primarily focused on exporting tar sands crude to Asia, face particularly stiff opposition from coastal communities, which fear the destruction of fisheries and coastal environments from the increased tanker traffic that would ensue.

Given the relative proximity particularly of Washington State refineries and ports to Alberta’s tar sands fields, these terminals offer oil companies a potential solution to the transportation bottlenecks that are threatening the viability of tar sands production growth. At least three proposals in southern Washington State have the potential to unload tar sands crude from trains and load it onto tankers for export to Asia or transport to refineries along the California coast.

Tar sands producers are particularly motivated to get their crude to coastal terminals and refineries for export. As we’ve covered in the past on DeSmogBlog, tar sands companies want to export their product, because the low-grade crude is more easily refined into diesel, which has a much larger market in Europe and Asia. This is the core reason that the Keystone XL, if built, would be little more than an export pipeline, and wouldn’t actually provide more oil to American markets, nor lower American gas and heating oil prices.

The Oil Change International report also shines a light on the fact that though crude exports are banned from the U.S., domestic refineries can legally export crude from Canada.

While crude oil of U.S. origin is subject to export restrictions, no such restriction applies to exports of Canadian oil through the U.S., as long as it can be shown that no U.S. oil was blended.

Shippers wishing to export Canadian oil from U.S. ports still have to apply for export licenses from the Department of Commerce, but these can and have been granted. Given the lack of pipeline capacity to Canadian ports, it is attractive for tar sands producers to find ways to get their product to a U.S. port where it can be exported. Crude-by-rail terminals on the West and East Coasts are strategically important as they are closer to Alberta than those on the Gulf Coast and it is therefore cheaper to reach these ports by rail.

Railbit vs. Dilbit

As this still-nascent segment of crude-by-rail develops, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to understand the distinction between a couple of different tar sands products that are being shipped by train. The vast majority of tar sand crude-by-rail shipments thus far have been diluted bitumen, or dilbit. Dilbit, which you have heard of as the tar sands crude that is already funneling through North American pipelines, is composed of the sticky, viscous tar sands bitumen, which is then mixed with about 30 percent diluent, allowing it to flow through pipelines. This mixture of dilbit is particularly volatile and abrasive, and reports have pointed to it being more likely to cause leaks and spills and explosions during transport.

Railbit is a relatively new designation for crude, and is defined as bitumen that has been mix with roughly 17 percent diluent. Moving railbit, rather than dilbit, saves tar sands shippers about half of the so-called “diluent penalty,” or the cost of adding the diluent to the mix.

So why are most trains still loaded with dilbit? Because to this point, most loading terminals are still being fed by feeder pipelines or trucks that can only handle this more watered down blend. That and the fact that special loading and unloading facilities are necessary to handle railbit, which is more viscous and needs to be heated in special tank cars to be unloaded. Some downstream terminals are making these investments, seeing railbit as a viable alternative going forward, but today dilbit is still dominant.

Either way, it’s dirty and dangerous, and tar sands bitumen in any form does nothing to lower American energy bills. Bitumen, by rail or pipeline or barge, is bound to wind up on a tanker to Europe or Asia.

Valero Draft EIR now available for download


Valero Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) now available for download

June 17, 2014, 8:30am

The City of Benicia posted the downloadable version of the Valero Crude By Rail Draft EIR this morning.  The print and digital copies will be made available at the Benicia Planning Department later in the day.

The DEIR can also be downloaded here on The Benicia Independent.

Oil train fires require SWAT teams, veteran firefighters tell states

Repost from The Island Packet, Beaufort, SC

Oil train fires require SWAT teams, veteran firefighters tell states

By Curtis Tate  |  McClatchy Washington Bureau  |  June 17, 2014

— A pair of Texans with decades of firefighting experience is encouraging state and local government leaders to consider establishing SWAT-like response teams for crude oil train fires.

A series of derailments of trains loaded with crude oil in the past year has exposed numerous safety vulnerabilities, including the integrity of the rail cars, the condition of the tracks and the way the trains are operated.

It’s also revealed a yawning gap in emergency response. Most fire departments across the country are simply not trained or equipped to fight the enormous fires seen in recent derailments.

“Emergency response is the most difficult part,” said Bob Andrews, founder and president of the San Antonio-based Bob Andrews Group, who has both firefighting experience and knowledge of the rail industry.

Groups representing firefighters, fire chiefs and emergency management agencies have testified in Congress in recent months that derailments such as those in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota are beyond their response capabilities.

“There’s only so much training you can do,” said Sam Goldwater, Andrews’ business partner. “Our first responders are pretty much maxed out.”

Andrews and Goldwater said they’ve received a favorable response so far from the state and federal officials they’ve approached. Several states have expressed interest in their plan, but a proposal for a specialty fire department in the Philadelphia region is the furthest along. They envision for their proposal to be a mix of public and private funds.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to work something out in Pennsylvania,” Andrews said after a recent meeting with state officials.

Entire trains of tank cars loaded with crude oil snake through Pennsylvania’s capital city every day, bound for refineries and terminals along the East Coast. The trains carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and western Canadian tar sands oil to a cluster of refineries and barge terminals in the Philadelphia area.

Andrews and Goldwater say that airports and refineries have their own firefighting teams with special expertise and equipment. And, they say, that’s precisely what’s demanded by the rise in crude oil shipments by rail.

“You need the airport idea,” Goldwater said, “but you need it for the 1,400 miles between North Dakota and the Delaware River.”

In March testimony before a Pennsylvania House of Representatives committee, Andrews said that the nation’s 783,000 volunteer firefighters are dedicated to their work. But according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, their ranks have declined 13 percent since 1984.

“It is not fair for the community, at the local or state level, to create an environment where well-meaning volunteers will feel compelled to commit themselves to conducting highly-hazardous operations, that they are neither trained, nor equipped to perform,” Andrews testified.

One such incident took place in West, Texas, in April 2013. A massive explosion at a fertilizer storage facility killed 11 firefighters from five departments. In July last year, a 72-car train of Bakken crude oil rolled away and derailed at high speed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The inferno killed 47 people and leveled much of the business district.

“Volunteer fire fighters and emergency response personnel being thrust into catastrophic events without adequate training or resources is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed,” wrote the National Transportation Safety Board after a toxic chemical leak from a rail car in November 2012 in Paulsboro, N.J.

Tim Burn, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that a broad-based training program was still the best approach.

“It is the duty of government to provide the resources needed for hazmat response,” he said, “and this public safety discussion should not be driven by profit motive.”

Goldwater said he and Andrews expected a return on their investment. However, he added, if anyone wanted to make lots of money, “this is not the thing to do.”

So far, the impulse of government and industry has been to simply fund more training for emergency personnel. But Andrews said that might not be the most effective approach. The firefighting profession experiences an attrition rate of about 20 percent a year. Call volumes have increased, putting more pressure on volunteer and career firefighters alike. It’s difficult for volunteers with full-time jobs to take off time for training, and most departments can’t afford to pay for it.

The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy organization, has offered to train 1,500 emergency responders at its rail testing facility in Pueblo, Colo. But with the random and rare nature of train derailments, the odds aren’t good that a limited number of trained personnel scattered across the country will be where they’re needed when something happens.

Andrews and Goldwater say their plans would be geographically tailored. Philadelphia is a major destination for crude oil, so its response needs may be different from places such as Albany, N.Y., or Sacramento, Calif., where oil trains pass through.

For safe and healthy communities…