SF Chron: flood of oil tank cars “potential environmental disasters on wheels”

Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com

Lots of oil in rail tank cars about to be coming to Bay Area

Phillip Matier And Andrew Ross
Sunday, March 23, 2014

FILE - In this Aug. 8, 2012 file photo, DOT-111 and AAR-211 class rail tankers pass by on the background as a man works at the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File) Photo: Nati Harnik, Associated Press

FILE – In this Aug. 8, 2012 file photo, DOT-111 and AAR-211 class rail tankers pass by on the background as a man works at the Union Pacific rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region are an “unacceptable public risk,” and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014.  The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing.  (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)  Photo: Nati Harnik, Associated Press.

Oil is flooding into the Bay Area – in rail tank cars that amount to potential environmental disasters on wheels.

In 2011, about 9,000 tank cars filled with crude oil were shipped into California by rail. In the next two years, thanks to the oil boom in North Dakota and Canada, the number is expected to jump to more than 200,000, according to the California Energy Commission.

About 10 percent of the oil will be headed to the five Bay Area refineries, which means traveling through Contra Costa and Solano counties. The question is, are we prepared to handle the spills or fires if there is a derailment?

“No,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to 2 1/2 hours of testimony from emergency responders the other day at a hearing in Sacramento.

In a nutshell, the state has plenty of money for responding to waterborne accidents like the Cosco Busan oil spill in the bay in 2007 – but virtually nothing for handling spills on land.

“It’s not that crude oil is any more dangerous than ethanol or other products that we currently see on the rails,” said Chief Jeff Carman of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “It’s just that with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.”

First on the scene of any accident is likely to be the local fire department – but in Contra Costa and Solano, some agencies have closed fire stations in recent years or reduced the number of personnel per shift to deal with budget cuts.

Contra Costa Fire, for example, is down to 75 on-duty firefighters a day to cover 400 square miles and 600,000 people, compared with the 90 firefighters a day just two years ago.

To give an idea of the potential scale of an accident, the amount of oil that spilled from the Cosco Busan equals about 1 1/2 tank cars of crude. A full train could carry 60 times that amount.

“There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems,” Hill said.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Matier can be seen on the KPIX TV morning and evening news. He can also be heard on KCBS radio Monday through Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call (415) 777-8815, or e-mail matierandross@sfchronicle.com.

    CCTimes editorial: Officials must oversee dangerous crude oil trains

    Repost from a  Contra Costa Times Editorial

    Despite unknown risks, highly volatile crude shipments suddenly routing through the East Bay

    Contra Costa Times editorial © 2014 Bay Area News Group
    Posted:   03/21/2014

    Crude oil is not normally considered explosive. But lighter crude from the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota, suddenly being shipped through the East Bay, is entirely different.

    It contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis. Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s hazardous materials chief, considers it as explosive as gasoline.

    In Quebec last summer, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, exploded and killed 47 people. Subsequently, derailed trains in Alabama and North Dakota exploded.

    “Given the recent derailments and subsequent reaction of the Bakken crude in those incidents, not enough is known about this crude,” Sarah Feinberg, chief of staff at the U.S. Transportation Department, told the Journal.

    Yet, long trains carrying the volatile cargo started traveling through the East Bay last year. This calls for aggressive oversight from Martinez to Sacramento to Washington — before we have a disaster on our hands.

    According to the governor’s office, rail shipments of oil into the state, including Bakken crude, are expected to increase from 3 million barrels to approximately 150 million barrels per year by 2016.

    Kinder Morgan is unloading some of that cargo in Richmond, just blocks from an elementary school and the Point Richmond and Atchison Village neighborhoods, and transferring it to tanker trucks.

    At least some of it is going to Tesoro Refinery near Martinez, according to Sawyer and a report by KPIX Channel 5. Tesoro — which recently demonstrated its lack of candor after two acid spills that sent four workers to hospitals — refuses to say whether it’s processing Bakken crude.

    The implications are profound. The notion of transporting massive quantities of highly combustible crude through local neighborhoods should alarm the federal Department of Transportation, which regulates rail shipping.

    The long trains are going right through the districts of Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa. They must demand answers from the administration about why it allows this to proceed when so little is known.

    At the local level, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors must examine the adequacy of the county’s Industrial Safety Ordinance to make sure it can ensure that Tesoro and any other refinery that uses Bakken crude has taken adequate precautions.

    Sawyer, the county’s environmental hazards chief, didn’t even know Bakken fuel was coming into the county until he saw recent press reports. Clearly the system is broken.

     

      For safe and healthy communities…