Modesto Bee editorial: Tell us when dangerous oil cars are rolling

Repost from The Modesto Bee

Our View: Tell us when dangerous oil cars are rolling

August 9, 2014

Tank cars suitable for carrying Bakken crude oil sit on the BNSF railroad tracks that run through Escalon in May. The cars were empty, but left unattended for several days at a time. MIKE DUNBAR —

Anyone who bothered to examine the 40 black, cylindrical railway tankers parked within 60 feet of a neighborhood in Escalon would have noticed a couple of markings. First was the red diamond-shaped placard with a flame on it; the other was the designation “DOT 111” in a grid stenciled on the tank.Those markings are what you find on tank cars used to carry the most dangerous liquids across America – including the volatile crude oil extracted from Bakken shale deposits in North Dakota.

A BNSF official said those unattended tank cars left on one of the double tracks in Escalon for a total of seven days over several weekends from April to June were empty. Unfortunately, no one in the community of 7,000 knew enough about them to bother to ask what was in them.

“I’m not aware of what was in those cars,” said Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello, who commands a staff of nine full-time firefighters and a volunteer force of 16. Up to 50 trains go through Escalon each day, and BNSF never notifies Escalon about what is moving along its tracks – unless asked.

That must change, because it’s entirely likely we’ll see far more of those cars in the future. And they won’t always be empty.

California’s Office of Emergency Services estimates shipments of Bakken crude will increase 25-fold by 2016 as 150 million barrels move to California’s refineries in the Bay Area, Southern California and eventually Bakersfield. Since all Bakken crude moves by rail, that could mean another 225,000 tank cars a year moving through Roseville, Sacramento, Modesto, Merced and beyond. Mother Jones magazine calls it a “virtual pipeline.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Bakken crude contains higher amounts of butane, ethane and propane than other crudes, making it too volatile for most actual pipelines. Those gases have contributed to the deaths of 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic in Canada, where a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in July 2013 and exploded. Less dramatic derailments, some with fires, have occurred in North Dakota, Virginia and Illinois. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 108 crude spills last year.

“When you look at the lines of travel from Canada and North Dakota, you figure if they’re headed for the Bay Area or to Bakersfield, the odds are that you’re going to see shipments going down the Valley,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who represents north Sacramento. That’s why he authored Assembly Bill 380, which would require the railroads to notify area first-responders whenever these trains are passing through.

But the nation’s railroads are largely impervious to local concerns; they’re governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and they’re powerful.

In July, the DOT issued proposed new rules for safe transport, including increased cargo sampling, better route analysis, a 40 mph speed limit on trains labeled “high-hazard flammable,” and switching to the new, safer DOT 111 cars after Oct. 1, 2015. The new cars have double steel walls, better closures and heavier carriages. Currently, they make up about a third of the nation’s tanker fleet.

California’s Office of Emergency Services has issued 12 recommendations, ranging from allowing better data collection to phasing out those old tank cars to better training for first-responders.

Laudably, the railroads are already doing most of these things. Since the mid-1990s, BNSF has offered – at no charge – training for handling spilled hazardous materials and dealing with emergencies. One of Escalon’s eight full-time firefighters was trained at virtually no cost to the city. BNSF said they would even do on-site training for departments. But not every fire department has taken the courses. A BNSF spokeswoman said Sacramento sent only one firefighter to the most recent three-day training on dealing with hazardous materials, including Bakken crude.

The federal DOT issued an emergency order in May to require all carriers to inform first responders about crude oil being shipped through their towns and for the immediate development of plans to handle oil spills. Unfortunately, it contains a discomforting criteria: the order applies only to trains carrying 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, or roughly 35 tank cars. And to reach DOT’s definition of a “high-hazard flammable train,” a train must have 20 tank cars.

But a Bakken explosion in Virginia blew one tank car an estimated 5,500 feet; a photograph of another explosion showed a fireball rising 700 feet from a single car. Our first responders ought to know when even one car carrying such material is coming through.

Dickinson’s bill would make notification available on a real-time basis, without having to ask. His goal, said Dickinson, is to “give first responders better information on how to respond. The techniques and materials used in dealing with different chemicals, or even different types of oil, vary widely. ‘I know I’m dealing with oil, but what kind of oil?’ My bill is aimed at getting better, more timely, more complete information to responding agencies.”

But his bill mirrors federal orders on the size of the train; our first responders need to know when any hazardous shipment is moving through.

The incredible expansion of America’s oil resources is creating many positives – from more jobs to less dependence on foreign oil. But it’s happening so fast that we’re devising the safety aspects as we roll along this virtual pipeline from North Dakota to California in the west and to New Jersey in the east. Accidents are happening along the way. Federal rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect public safety in this new world. Dickinson’s bill and the state OES recommendations would help, but we need a broader dialogue. As Dickinson said, “we know we’re going to have derailments, no matter how careful people try to be.”

That’s why first-responders such as Escalon’s Chief Mello must “prepare for anything, any day.” Knowing what’s coming gives us a head start.

Public Comments on Valero Crude By Rail DEIR July 10 to August 5, 2014

Latest Public Comments on Valero Crude By Rail DEIR now posted

August 7, 2014

The City of Benicia has posted on its website new comments received from July 11 through August 5.  See new public comments here:  Public Comments July 10-August 5 (127 pages, 6.2MB)

 In addition to many individual comments, you will find comments from 4 public agencies:

  • Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District
  • County of Yolo Board of Supervisors
  • California Department of Transportation and
  • California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research

The public has until September 15 to submit comments on the DEIR.  For resources in framing your comments, see  The DEIR itself may be studied here, and an extensive library of previously submitted public comments may be studied here.

 – Editor

Seven months after January derailment – family left living in tents

Repost from CBC News | New Brunswick

CN derailment near Plaster Rock has left family living in tents

Caleb Levesque and family say CN is to blame for the ongoing issues with their home
CBC News, Aug 08, 2014
Investigators at the scene of the CN derailment in Wapske, near Plaster Rock.
Investigators at the scene of the CN derailment in Wapske, near Plaster Rock. (Transportation Safety Board/Twitter)

Family members in Wapske, N.B., say they have been living in tents on their front lawn for more than a month after their house was ruined following a freight train derailment near Plaster Rock in January.

They say CN Rail is to blame.

Caleb Levesque, the son of the property owner, and his family, say their house remains unlivable due to damage from a train derailment back in January.

Jeff Levesque, whose home was damaged in the CN derailment near Plaster Rock
Jeff Levesque and his son Caleb, whose home was damaged in the CN derailment near Plaster Rock in January, say a carpenter hired by CN has done a botched job of repairs. (CBC)

Levesque says a carpenter hired by CN Rail to fix their house following the derailment left the house worse than before due to poor craftsmanship.

The initial heat of the train derailment melted much of the siding on the house. The carpenter replaced the siding but Levesque says the carpenter CN Rail hired didn’t do it right.

“So all the siding is falling off, buckling. So we’ve been getting a lot of water when it rains,” he said.

Levesque said when post-tropical storm Arthur arrived, the water came right through the new siding, leaving puddles on the floor.

“Completely soaked it, just big puddles on the floor. The inside of the house is soaked, damaged. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “It smells so bad you don’t even want to go in the house.”

Residents wary of mould

Levesque says the most concerning thing now is the mould throughout the house.

He says so far CN Rail has refused to fix the ongoing problem.

Levesque is staying in a tent with his girlfriend, their dog and cat. His father is in another tent, all on their front lawn.

Trains are rolling again near Plaster Rock
Trains are rolling again through the section that had been closed due to the derailment. (Matt Bingley/CBC)

To shower and launder, they’ve been driving to the house of a family friend. For cooking, they’ve made due with just a barbecue, without the use of a stove or fridge.

“It sucks. It’s not so bad when you’re just camping, but when you have to do it for over a month … it’s hard,” said Levesque.

He says CN Rail officials should acknowledge the unacceptable conditions their hired carpenter left the home in, and pay to make it right.

“They took the responsibility on when the train went by our house and derailed, they took the responsibility to fix everything that they had damaged,” said Levesque.

The Levesques got an initial quote on the damage from restoration specialist Nicholas Mann, of ServiceMaster Restore.

Mann estimated it would cost about $160,000 to fix the home properly. Levesque said CN Rail offered him $2,500 after receiving the report.

“Right now all we want is to get our house fixed and everything that was in the house replaced,” said Levesque. “We just want our house fixed so we can go home.”

Levesque says his lawyer hopes to meet with CN Rail in September to sort out a solution.

Train jumped the tracks

A 122-car train derailed on Jan. 7 with 19 cars and a locomotive jumping the tracks.

Five derailed tanker cars were carrying crude oil from Western Canada to an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B., while four other tankers carried liquefied petroleum gas.

About 150 people living within a two-kilometre radius of the crash site were forced to leave their homes for several days.

A Transportation Safety Board investigation found one of the wheels on the 13th car broke from “fatigue.”

An inside look at rail industry views on proposed safety rules

Repost from Railway Age
[Editor: Check out rail industry insider perspectives on the DOT’s proposed new safety rules, and a few of their hoped-for changes before the rules become final.  – RS]

DOT crude oil NPRM: Will cooler heads prevail?

August 7, 2014, by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
A recent call-in forum on crude by rail conducted by Cowen and Company Managing Director and Railway Age Contributing Editor Jason H. Seidl “helped affirm our view that the final version of the DOT’s safety rules may include some changes to the ones proposed on July 23.”

“We believe that the final draft of the [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on High-Hazard Flammable Trains and DOT 111 tank cars] could be more friendly to shippers than the first proposal,” said Seidl. “This, along with the removed uncertainty, could put a more positive spin on regulations that are sure to add costs for the industry.”

Retrofitting tank cars to 9/16-inch-thick steel is “a tall order,” said Seidl. “A railcar manufacturing executive on our panel suggested that retrofitting existing 7/16-inch-steel cars to 9/16-inch layers would be a problematic task, as the technology for implementing the conversion may not be currently available. Additionally, such an undertaking may be restricted by tight steel supplies, which could disrupt and prolong production for months. This would exacerbate concerns about the two- to five-year proposed compliance period, which is already viewed as insufficient by many players in the industry. According to our panelist, a more realistic retrofitting of the existing 7/16-inch-steel car fleet would take five to seven years and consist of other improvements, such as top fittings and thermal jackets. If retrofitting to a 9/16-inch-steel layer is ultimately adopted in one or more of the paths to compliance, the Greenbrier Companies could benefit as it already applies this standard to its “Tank Car of the Future” group of tank cars. That being said, we believe that the final version of the rules will include some key changes to the ones proposed on July 23.”

The Cowen panelists agreed that reducing crude oil train dwell time would make more sense than reducing speed. “The consensus opinion seemed to be that enforcing broad speed restrictions may not be the right approach,” noted Seidl. “The panelists indicated that emphasis should be placed on reducing the total time that High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFTs) spend in populated areas, and slower trains do just the opposite. Additionally, reduced train speeds would require more cars and detrimentally impact the supply chain, potentially resulting in higher dwell times in populated areas. One panelist suggested that CBR regulators should communicate with the groups that have created regulations for other rail-transported hazardous materials, such as chlorine. Such regulations, which rely in large part on reducing dwell time in densely populated areas, appear to have been effective in improving transportation safety.”

For safe and healthy communities…