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

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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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