NY Times report on Lynchburg explosion and long-delayed federal safety rules

Repost from The New York Times

As New Shipping Rules Are Studied, Another Oil Train Derails

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS and TRIP GABRIEL  |  APRIL 30, 2014

A CSX oil train derailed on Wednesday in Lynchburg, Va.                         Credit: Luann Hunt/City of Lynchburg, via Associated Press

In the latest accident involving rail cars carrying crude oil, a CSX train derailed and erupted into black, smoky flames on Wednesday in downtown Lynchburg, Va., forcing scores of people to evacuate and causing a spill in the James River.

Hours later, the Transportation Department said that a long-awaited package of rules aimed at improving the safety of oil transport by rail had been sent Wednesday night to the White House for review.

The proposed regulations were not made public, but they follow Canada’s announcement of stiffer regulations last week and are expected to include measures requiring transport companies to replace old tank cars with more robust models that are resistant to puncture.

It was the second train accident involving crude oil for CSX this year.

As smoke billowed into the air, frightened shoppers, office workers and residents evacuated a 20-block area of Lynchburg, a city of 77,000. There were no reported injuries.

Images from the scene uploaded to social media and broadcast by local television showed mangled tracks along the river and three black tankers that slid down the bank into the water.

nyt-lynchburg-mapsThe Transportation Department said that the agency’s Federal Railroad Administration last inspected track in the area where the train derailed on Jan. 8 and did not find any violations or significant defects.

Leaking oil briefly ignited. An eyewitness told WSET-TV in Lynchburg that the flames leapt as high as the 19th floor of the office building where he watched the accident.

Within an hour of the derailment, the smoke and flames had largely subsided. City officials said 13 to 14 cars derailed and three to four cars had ruptured. They were unsure how much oil drained into the river.

The city of Richmond, about 120 miles downstream, was preparing to switch to an alternative water supply in case oil reached it, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The Lynchburg water supply’s intake is upstream of the wreck.

“An initial assessment indicates that three of the cars were on fire,” CSX said in a brief statement. The company did not say what caused the accident.

The train was traveling from Chicago to Virginia when the derailment occurred at 2:30 p.m.

The company said it sent emergency personnel, environmental workers and community support teams. Federal rail inspectors were also at the scene of the derailment.

Train traffic carrying crude was relatively rare until four years ago, when oil companies in North Dakota began shipping large quantities of Bakken shale crude out of the state by rail because there was insufficient pipeline capacity to do the job.

Some cars of the CSX train that derailed Wednesday in Lynchburg, Va., fell into the James River.  Credit: WSET/Reuters       

Now, much of the production of the Bakken region is sent by rail on trains that can stretch up to a mile long and carry roughly 85,000 barrels of oil.

When a runaway train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded last July in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people, the safety issues surrounding the transportation of crude through populated areas rose in importance for both American and Canadian regulators.

Then, in December, an oil train passing through Casselton, N.D., derailed and exploded, sending flames high into the air and forcing some residents to evacuate. That followed an accident in November, when another oil train derailed in Alabama, spilling crude oil.

Many of the trains are destined for refineries on the East Coast, which have a strong desire to replace expensive imported crude from the Middle East and Africa with the high-quality, and less expensive, crude from North Dakota.

In response to the rising concerns, federal regulators and railroads agreed in February to a series of voluntary measures to improve safety, including lower speed limits for oil trains in urban areas, increasing the frequency of track inspections and adding more brakes on trains.

And last week, Canada issued tough new rules requiring emergency plans from railroads on responding to catastrophic accidents and requiring companies to retire older models of tank cars within three years. The new model of tank car, developed in 2011, would effectively set a new standard of safety for rail companies in the United States since many lines cross the United States-Canadian border.

But despite years of discussion, American regulators have lagged on requiring stronger tank cars, which are generally owned by oil companies and private investors, not by railroad companies.

Safety experts have warned for more than 20 years that the older tank cars, called DOT-111s, are prone to rupture in a derailment.

Environmentalists quickly made the case on Wednesday that the accident was another sign of the dangers of oil drilling, even though they are also critical of alternative pipeline transport.

“The accident is a potent reminder of the dangers that come with our dependence on dirty fuels,” the Sierra Club said in a statement, “and the need for better safety measures and increased emergency preparedness.”

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    Valero Draft EIR to be released June 10, 2014; Planning Commission hearing on July 10

    May 1, 2014  | by Roger Straw, BenIndy Editor

    The City of Benicia announced today that the Draft Environmental Impact Report on Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal will be released for public review and comment on June 10, 2014.

    The Report, originally scheduled for release in January, 2014, was pushed back to sometime in March, and then sometime in April 2014.  This is the first time the City has announced a specific date.

    Planning Commission hearing: July 10

    Asked about how the Report would be handled by the City’s Planning Commission, Benicia Principal Planner Amy Million wrote in an email today,

    “The Planning Commission meeting for May 8 has been cancelled. There will be no action on the DEIR for the Planning Commission during the June 12 meeting.
    “The City’s CEQA guidelines require a public hearing before the Planning Commission to receive comment on the Draft EIR. This will be scheduled for July 10 to allow time for the public and the Commission to review the document before the meeting. There is no action for the Commission to take at that time, as it is simply to hear public comment.”
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      NY Governor Cuomo sends letter to President Obama an hour before Lynchburg explosion

      Repost from The Auburn Citizen, Auburn, NY
      [Editor: See below for copy of Governor Cuomo’s letter and the New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report.  – RS]

      Cuomo to President Obama: Better federal safety standards needed for rail transport of crude oil

      April 30, 2014 • Robert Harding
      Train Derailment
      Firefighters and rescue workers work along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown in Lynchburg, Va.., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Police said that 13 or 14 tanker cars were involved in the derailment. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

      Shortly before a train carrying tankers filled with crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va., Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to establish better safety regulations for the rail transport of crude oil to help prevent major accidents from occurring that could pose a threat to New York communities located along rail lines.

      Cuomo sent a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama calling for tougher federal regulations. In the letter, Cuomo included recommendations for the federal government, including new tank car regulations and updated environmental and contingency response plans. He also called for the removal of DOT-111 tank cars, a type of car that has been labeled “dangerous” because of the high risk of explosion if it derails carrying crude oil.

      “As a result of the recent boom in domestic petroleum production, New York state is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of crude oil trains passing through the state from production areas in the upper Midwest to refineries in the mid-Atlantic and Canada,” Cuomo wrote to President Obama. “This type of crude oil, known as Bakken crude, is highly volatile and is being transported in significant volume across the country by inadequate rail tank cars.

      “New York and all the states subject to this crude oil boom are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of a derailment, spill, fire or explosion, as demonstrated by three catastrophic incidents in the last nine months involving such trains. I urge your immediate attention to this issue.”

      The recommendations for the federal government were included in a report released Wednesday. The report, Transporting Crude Oil in New York State: A Review of Incident Prevention and Response Capacity, was prepared by a handful of state agencies after Cuomo issued an executive order in January.

      While the report makes recommendations to the federal government for improving rail transportation safety, emergency preparedness and strengthening environmental protections, the agencies also recommended the state take action in these three areas.

      The report also recommends industry changes, including implementation of a web-based information access system by rail companies to provide real-time information on hazardous materials. The agencies also called for an expedited risk analysis for crude oil to determine the safest and most secure rail routes for trains with at least 20 cars of crude oil.

      While Cuomo said the state can take steps to be better prepared, he said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to regulate the industry.

      “New York will continue to aggressively pursue measures that ensure its safety,” Cuomo wrote. “However, the fundamental responsibility for the safe transportation of crude oil across the country resides with federal agencies.”

      Cuomo’s office distributed the governor’s letter to President Obama and the state report about an hour before reports of the train accident in Lynchburg, Va. The News & Advance in Lynchburg reports that an estimated 50,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in the incident.

      After learning of the train derailment, Cuomo issued a statement repeating his call for the federal government to take action.

      “Earlier today, I wrote a letter to President Obama urging the federal government take immediate steps to bring much needed and overdue safety regulations to the crude oil transportation system. Just hours later, news comes of yet another serious oil train derailment, this time in Lynchburg, Virginia. Our thoughts and prayers are with any possible victims of this accident,” Cuomo said.

      “This is the latest in a series of accidents involving trains transporting crude oil, a startling pattern that underscores the need for action. In addition to steps that states like New York are taking, the federal government must overhaul the safety regulations, starting with taking DOT-111 trains off the rails now. These trains travel through populated communities in upstate New York and we cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act.”

      Here is the letter from Cuomo to President Obama:

      Gov. Cuomo’s letter to President Obama

      Here is the state report on transporting crude oil:

      New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report

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