Lynchburg city leaders: ‘We dodged a bullet’

Repost from The Lynchburg News & Advance

James River Association reflects on train derailment

May 14, 2014 11:08 pm  |  Alex Rohr
River association reflects on train derailment
Bobby Harris listens to Lynchburg City Manager L. Kimball Payne III speak during a community meeting on rail safety concerns hosted by the James River Association at the Craddock Terry Hotel and Event Center on Wednesday.  Photo by Autumn Parry

The phrase repeated throughout a James River Association forum reflecting on the CSX train derailment of two weeks ago was “we dodged a bullet.”

No one was killed in the wreck that caused 17 tankers of a 105-car train to derail on April 30. No one died in the subsequent fire after one tanker breached, spilling 20,000-plus gallons of oil into the James River. The damage to environment likely is minimal.

But the JRA held a forum Wednesday with City Manager Kimball Payne, Upper James Riverkeeper Pat Calvert and City Councilman Turner Perrow to reflect on the incident, the aftermath and what to do going forward to prevent a worse disaster.

Payne and Perrow had just left a meeting at City Hall when they were told separately about the wreck. Payne, who was named JRA’s 2014 River Hero at the beginning of the meeting, recounted watching black smoke from a window at City Hall.

He immediately thought downtown was on fire, the Depot Grille had been destroyed, and people had died.

“It was a horrifying thought. …So I, like an idiot, headed for the river,” Payne said.

By the time he arrived, police and firemen were on the scene, knew the tankers were hauling Bakken crude and were acting accordingly.

“Then I realized the Depot Grille was still standing and I felt a lot better. But the river was on fire. … It could have been a lot worse.”

As the April 30 incident unfolded, Payne, Calvert and Perrow found themselves in a national discussion on rail safety, fielding questions from reporters across the country.

“I don’t know how they got my cellphone. I was getting texts from CBS news,” Payne said.

Safety concerns related to the hauling of Bakken oil — more volatile than standard crude — have been growing nationwide following the fatal wreck in Quebec, Canada in July as well as derailments resulting in environmental damage. The National Transportation Safety Board, the agency investigating the derailment, held a forum the week before the Lynchburg wreck on rail safety, referencing a national increase in rail traffic.

“The national discussion is happening. We’re on the sidelines right now,” Perrow said after the meeting.

“What this did is it pulled Virginia into the conversation. We’ll see if we have a seat at the table or not.”

One week after the wreck, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to provide state agencies information about Bakken crude hauled by rail. The order did not include a requirement for the state to share that information with localities.

“We don’t think it’s strong enough. They need to do more,” Calvert said speaking for the JRA. He specified the JRA wants stronger regulations on rail cars, in particular the older models that have proved vulnerable even with upgrades.

While Payne said he wants to know what hazardous materials are hauled through Lynchburg in general and how to deal with them, he doesn’t know what the city would do with minute-by-minute details.

Ed Melton, general manager of RockTenn, a packaging manufacturer on Concord Turnpike near the tracks, attended the forum and said he is concerned about evacuating his employees.

But the speakers emphasized hazardous material safety is not only about crude or rail. Payne said the city needs to know the general dangers on roadways. Calvert said hazards on the James include those causing the February Duke Energy coal ash spill into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina and the January Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia.

“The James River watershed holds about 80 percent of the toxic substances in the state of Virginia. To me, that’s very alarming,” Calvert said.

He and JRA Chief Executive Officer Bill Street said addressing those hazards should be part of the discussion going forward.

“We don’t have all the answers. That’s why we wanted to bring people together to talk about it,” Street said.

All three speakers said because the issue involved interstate commerce — the oil was drilled in North Dakota, and the train came from Chicago on the way to Yorktown — a decision would need to come at the federal level.

Perrow said the discussion needs to include whether hazardous materials should be going through populated areas where they could cause loss to human life or less populated ones where it may take longer to respond resulting in harsher damage. He said personal safety and environmental health should be balanced with economic benefit.

“I know I haven’t given you any answers, but I don’t think they’re out there right now,” Perrow said.

Calvert said he drank out of a plastic water bottle and arrived at the meeting in an automobile — both acts dependent on crude oil.

“We’re all dependent on this. We are all sort of complicit in this. Now what are we going to do about it?” Calvert said.

Those who are interested in participating in the policy decisions, and at least making sure what can be done is done, may contact their government representatives.

Perrow, who has been educating himself on rail, and in particular rail car safety, said people should do the same, and also talk to Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner because they are involved in the conversation at the national level. The senators issued a joint statement May 5 asking for tighter regulations, and another after the May 7 emergency order urging further action.

When asked by an attendee what she and others could do to help shape policy, Perrow said they should get or stay involved with JRA.

Street said the JRA keeps its members informed about ongoing issues and lets them know when to contact representatives when decisions are being made so their voice can join others most effectively.

“We are the voice of the river,” Street said. “The more people we have in this effort, the stronger the voice will be.”

    Rachel Maddow: Disastrous record shows tank car hazard is decades old

    Repost from MSNBC – The Rachel Maddow Show
    [Editor: This is an incredible 18 minute report on the decades-long history of tank car failures, alerts by the National Transportation Safety Board … and inaction by the US Department of Transportation.  Enough!  – RS]

    Disastrous record shows tank car hazard

    Rachel Maddow  |  05/14/14

    Rachel Maddow illustrates the safety shortcomings of the rail tank cars that are used to in large number to ship highly flammable material including Bakken crude oil, pointing to accidents, explosions, and toothless warnings going back over decades.

      Non-pressurized DOT-111A tank cars known unsafe for decades

      Repost from McClatchyDC
      [Editor: The following influential report, published 1/27/14, was referenced in Rachel Maddow’s magnificent 5/14/14 expose on the decades of inaction on DOT-111 tank cars by the US Department of Transportation.  The Benicia Independent has published other reports by McClatchy’s Curtis Tate, but we had been unaware of this incredible – and timely – background piece.  Read, file away, send it with a letter to local, state and federal officials.  It’s time for action now!  – RS]

      Railroad tank-car safety woes date decades before crude oil concerns

      Curtis Tate  |  McClatchy Washington Bureau  |  January 27, 2014 

      — Long before crude oil and ethanol were transported by railroads in large quantities in minimally reinforced tank cars, other flammable and poisonous materials were riding around the country in the same cars, threatening major cities and waterways.

      Federal regulators might be weeks away from issuing new safety guidelines for tank cars carrying flammable liquids, after a series of frightening rail accidents over the past six months.

      But the type of general-service tank car involved in recent incidents with crude oil trains in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota – the DOT-111-A – has a poor safety record with hazardous cargoes that goes back decades, raising questions about why it took so long for the railroad industry and its federal regulators to address a problem they knew how to fix.

      Other, more specialized types of tank cars received safety upgrades in the 1980s, and the industry’s own research shows they were effective at reducing the severity of accidents.

      Tank car manufacturers have built new DOT-111A cars to a higher standard since 2011, but the improvements haven’t caught up to tens of thousands of older cars.

      To be sure, improper railroad operations or defective track cause many accidents involving tank cars. But the National Transportation Safety Board, which makes recommendations but has no regulatory authority, has cited the DOT-111A’s deficiencies many times over the years for making accidents worse than they could have been.

      “Moving as quickly as possible to upgrade the tank cars is critical,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who’s now a transportation safety consultant. “No one wants to see it happen again.”

      A review of federal reports and documents going back four decades shows that the DOT-111A tank car factored into a wide range of calamities, including:

      • A 1981 rail yard accident that shut down a portion of Newark International Airport and blocked traffic from reaching the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan until a punctured tank car finally burned out its contents of flammable ethylene oxide after 40 hours.
      • A 1983 rail yard accident that triggered the evacuation of 9,000 people in Denver when corrosive nitric acid escaped through a puncture in a tank car, forming a large vapor cloud.
      • A 1991 derailment – the worst chemical spill in California history – that sent a tank car loaded with a toxic pesticide tumbling into the Sacramento River, poisoning a 40-mile stretch of one of the state’s most important water supplies and fishing areas.
      • A 1992 spill near Superior, Wis., that resulted in the release of benzene into the Nemadji River, leading to the evacuation of 40,000 people in Superior and nearby Duluth, Minn., and the deaths of 16 species of wild animals near the accident site.
      • A 2001 derailment midway through a 1.7-mile, century-old rail tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore in which a punctured tank car carrying flammable tripropylene fed a raging fire that burned for five days, ruptured a 40-inch water main and prompted the evacuation of the Camden Yards baseball park.

      Many tank cars that were built starting in the 1960s were designed to carry as much cargo as possible, which meant thin shells that could easily puncture or rupture in a derailment. While economical, the designs proved disastrous in a number of horrific incidents involving toxic and flammable gases.

      The deaths of numerous railroad workers and emergency responders in the 1970s spurred regulators and the industry to improve the safety of the pressurized tank cars used to transport “all kinds of exotic materials that cause battlefield-like damage,” NTSB official Edward Slattery told The Associated Press in 1978.

      Six weeks after 16 people were killed in Waverly, Tenn., including the town’s police and fire chiefs, when a tank car filled with propane exploded following a train derailment, the NTSB convened an emergency hearing in Washington. Nearly 50 witnesses testified, including mayors, emergency responders, railroad executives, private citizens and a young state attorney general from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.

      “Every month in which unprotected tank cars ride the rails increases the chances of another catastrophic hazardous-materials accident,” said James King, then the NTSB’s chairman, in opening the hearing on April 4, 1978.

      By the early 1980s, pressurized cars were equipped with puncture-resistant shields, fire-resistant thermal insulation and devices to help the cars stay coupled in derailments, reducing the risk that they could strike and puncture each other.

      An industry study found that the retrofits made a big difference within six years. Punctures of the car’s heads – the round shields at each end of the car – fell by 94 percent. Punctures in the car’s shell – its cylindrical body – fell 67 percent. Ruptures due to fire exposure fell by 93 percent.

      Additional changes in railroad operating practices, track maintenance and training for emergency response personnel reduced the frequency and severity of accidents.

      The non-pressurized DOT-111A, however, was left mostly unaltered. Upgrades probably weren’t necessary when the cars were carrying benign products such as corn syrup or vegetable oils, but regulators also allowed the cars to transport flammable and corrosive materials.

      In accident after accident over the next three decades, the NTSB repeatedly referred to the cars’ shortcomings.

      “The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years,” the NTSB wrote the Federal Railroad Administration in a letter dated July 1, 1991.

      Two weeks later, a Southern Pacific train came off the tracks in a sharp curve at Cantara Loop, near Dunsmuir, Calif. A DOT-111A tank car leaked 19,000 gallons of metam sodium into the Sacramento River from a relatively small puncture. That outcome could possibly been improved by installing a half-inch-thick shield over each car’s end, or head, a location vulnerable to punctures.

      In 1994, the railroad paid a $38 million settlement for a spill from just one tank car.

      A decade later, the DOT-111A fleet began hauling vast quantities of ethanol as a federal renewable-fuel standard, mandated in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, began to take effect.

      The cars’ vulnerability became evident more once, this time with a highly flammable liquid. The 2006 derailment of a Norfolk Southern ethanol train in New Brighton, Pa., about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, got the attention of the NTSB again on tank car safety.

      The ethanol boom took its toll in several other derailments, including a 2009 accident in Cherry Valley, Ill., near Rockford, that took the life of a motorist who was waiting for a train at a road crossing. Nine other people, including two firefighters, were injured. The NTSB, in its 2012 report on the accident, again cited the deficiencies of the DOT-111A.

      “If enhanced tank head and shell puncture-resistance systems such as head shields, tank jackets and increased shell thicknesses had been features of the DOT-111 tank cars involved in this accident,” the agency wrote, “the release of hazardous materials likely would have been significantly reduced, mitigating the severity of the accident.”

      Now Bakken crude oil, extracted from shale rock through hydraulic fracturing, has factored in at least three catastrophic derailments since July, including one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

      Another large crude-oil fire erupted near Aliceville, Ala., in November, when a train left the tracks in an unpopulated wetland area. Nearly 750,000 gallons were spilled in that incident, according to federal data.

      In a preliminary report from its investigation of the December derailment of a BNSF crude oil train in Casselton, N.D., the NTSB said 18 of the 20 DOT-111A tank cars that derailed sustained punctures. The crash ignited a fire that billowed hundreds of feet into the frigid air, keeping two-thirds of the town’s 2,400 residents away from their homes for a day. The NTSB estimates that more than 400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled.

      “When it starts to become a pattern, it becomes a problem,” said Larry Kaufman, a retired railroad-industry public relations official who worked for BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern, as well as Southern Pacific, which has since merged into Union Pacific.

      In his budget plan this month, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown modified the state’s oil-spill response plan to anticipate the increased risk of an inland incident involving crude oil transported by train, including any near rivers and streams that supply the state with water.

      Steve Evans, who coordinates the wild and scenic rivers program at Friends of the River, a group in Sacramento, Calif., was involved in settlement talks after the 1991 California spill.

      “We’re bound to have a disaster sooner or later,” he said.

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