Explosive Crude By Rail Trains Roll Into Main Street America
Concerned communities fight back
Vice Mayor Linda Maio, joined by Mayor Tom Bates and Council member Darryl Moore, speaks out in support of resident opposition to a proposed crude by rail project. (Photo credit: Mauricio Castillo)
Is crude by rail coming to a town near me?
For weeks, I’ve been asking myself that question as I kept hearing about the skyrocketing number of trains that are transporting crude oil throughout the U.S. to east and west coast export facilities.
And I’m not alone.
This week, I attended a protest by my fellow neighbors in Berkeley, California, to stop crude by rail shipments coming through our town. The crude oil boom is brought on by fracking in North Dakota and drilling in Canada’s Alberta tar sands. Both forms of crude are hazardous—Bakken shale crude from North Dakota is highly flammable and tar sands oil is extremely corrosive and also difficult to clean up.
Not surprisingly, once people hear how explosive and dangerous this crude can be when spilled, they really don’t want it traveling through their main streets…or anywhere else. But travel it does. Hundreds of miles, in fact, through rural towns and along main streets, along densely populated areas like Chicago and Albany, and even inside windswept and vulnerable wild lands like Montana’s Glacier National Park.
I once drove a U-Haul along Yellowstone’s winding roads in my move from New York to California. The sun was bright and the wind was calm, but I was still gripping the steering wheel the whole time. Now imagine a 100-foot long train filled with millions of gallons of explosive crude oil traveling through that same area—in the dead of winter with the wind howling and the snow piling up on the tracks.
Residents rally outside Berkeley City Hall to show opposition to a proposed crude by rail project. .(Photo credit: Mauricio Castillo)
These and other sobering statistics are causing communities to think twice about allowing these exploding trains onto their tracks. This week, the City Council of Berkeley voted unanimously to oppose an oil company’s plans to transport crude oil through their town and other East Bay cities to a new refinery in nearby San Luis Obispo County. The council was backed by several people who showed up before the meeting to protest the crude by rail project.
East Bay resident Margaret Rossoff, who helps support communities in fighting refineries, compared crude by rail to “transporting dynamite.” Shoshanna Howard with the Center for Biological persity described the project as “preposterous,” adding that “We shouldn’t continue feeding into a fossil fuel system that has proven us wrong time and again.” Their concerns were echoed by many other local residents who felt strongly that we are going in the wrong direction by allowing more crude oil transport.
They are not alone.
During the same week, the city council of Richmond, another Bay Area community, also voted to oppose crude-by-rail plans that involved trains running through its city. In early February, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued energy company Kinder Morgan a permit to operate its crude-by-rail project, without any notice to the public or environmental and health review. Kinder Morgan is transporting volatile Bakken crude oil to Bay Area refineries using the same unsafe train cars involved in the explosion in Canada. Members of the Richmond community, perhaps even members of the air district’s Board of Directors, did not know that a permit to transport crude oil had been issued for over a month. The community’s opposition is backed by Earthjustice, which on behalf of environmental justice and conservation groups filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan and the air district and asked the court to halt operations immediately while the project undergoes a full and transparent review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
On the other side of the country, residents in the county of Albany, New York, feel similarly. Recently, the county halted plans to expand crude-by-rail operations at its port terminal. The news followed pressure by a broad coalition—including community and environmental groups like Earthjustice—against the state Department of Environmental Conservation for its dangerously lax approach to skyrocketing shipments of crude-by-rail into the Port of Albany.
To Big Oil, these communities may look like a place where it can transport millions of barrels of crude oil without drawing too much attention. But to people living near these tracks, like me and thousands of others, these communities are home. We have a right to know what hazards are moving in next door, a right to participate in decisions that impact our neighborhoods, and a right to health and environmental review of industrial activities before they happen.
Sacramento officials kept in dark about crude oil transfers at rail facility
By Curtis Tate and Tony Bizjak McClatchy Washington Bureau
Last modified: 2014-03-29T04:26:30Z
Published: Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 – 9:00 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 – 9:26 pm
Randall Benton / email@example.com
Tanker cars containing crude oil wait on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on March 19.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Since at least last September, trains carrying tank cars filled with crude oil have been rolling into the former McClellan Air Force Base, where the oil is transferred to tanker trucks that take it to Bay Area refineries.
Until this week, Sacramento’s InterState Oil ran the operation without a required permit. Local fire and emergency officials who would be called upon to respond in case of a spill or fire weren’t informed it was happening. The McClellan transfers include at least some Bakken crude, extracted from shale by hydraulic fracturing, which regulators say is particularly flammable.
Jorge DeGuzman, supervisor of permitting for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, said an inspector first discovered in the fall of 2012 that InterState Oil was unloading ethanol from rail cars at McClellan without a permit. The company then applied for a permit and received it in October 2012.
Last September, another inspection revealed that InterState was transferring crude oil from rail cars to trucks taking their loads to Bay Air refineries; again without a permit.
The company was not fined, and continued the ethanol and crude operations during the permitting process. The crude oil permit was approved this week.
Fuel transfer operations such as the one at McClellan have popped up in California and other states amid an energy boom driven by hydraulic fracturing of shale oil formations in North Dakota and elsewhere. While the oil furthers economic growth and energy independence, it’s also bringing unforeseen safety risks to communities, catching many state and local officials off guard.
“As long as it’s not stored, I don’t think it’s required for them to inform me,” said Steve Cantelme, Sacramento’s chief of emergency services. Still, he said, “I would like to know about it.”
State and local governments have scant jurisdiction over the movement of goods on rail lines, which is generally a matter for the federal government.
Federal regulators and the rail industry have taken voluntary steps to improve the safety of such shipments, including reduced speeds, more frequent inspections and using safer routes. They’re also working on a safer design for tank cars. But some state and local officials feel the response hasn’t matched the risk they face.
Fiery derailments in Alabama, North Dakota and Canada in the past several months have raised safety and environmental concerns about rail shipments of crude. On July 6, a 72-car train of crude oil from North Dakota broke loose, rolled down a hill and derailed in the lakeside village of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The unusually volatile oil fed a raging fire and powerful explosions that leveled the center of town. Of the 47 people who were killed, five vanished without a trace.
The issue has received limited attention in California because the state has continued to rely on its traditional petroleum supply, which arrives on marine tankers.
But that’s changing. In December 2012, the state received fewer than 100,000 barrels of oil by rail. A year later, it was receiving nearly 1.2 million, according to the California Energy Commission.
“It potentially could be a fatal issue here in Sacramento,” Cantelme said.
The state projects that within two years, California could receive a quarter of its petroleum supply by rail. That would mean at least six trains of 100 tank cars every day, or 500,000 barrels of oil, passing through the capital. The capacity of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is 830,000 barrels.
InterState officials declined a request by The Sacramento Bee to observe the McClellan operations. The company also declined to answer questions The Bee sent last week about the facility, including how frequently the transfers take place and what safety precautions are taken.
In an emailed statement, the company’s president, Brent Andrews, said InterState has “the highest regard for safety procedures” and is “very thorough in our education and training with our employees.”
InterState’s new permit allows it to transfer about 11 million gallons of crude oil and ethanol a month at McClellan.
“That’s a lot,” said Darren Taylor, assistant chief of operations at the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department.
Neither McClellan Business Park, where the operation takes place, nor Patriot Rail, the short line railroad that switches the cars there, were required to verify that InterState had the necessary permits.
Another company, Carson Oil, was unloading ethanol at McClellan without a permit, but has since received one. Carson, based in Portland, Ore., is also seeking a permit to unload crude oil at McClellan in hopes of securing a contract. Carson did not return phone messages and emails requesting comment.
“If we don’t see anything alarming, we don’t shut a business down just because they missed some paperwork,” DeGuzman said. “The inspector felt it was a paperwork procedure.”
The McClellan operation straddles the boundary between Metropolitan Fire’s jurisdiction and that of the Sacramento Fire Department. Both departments could be involved in an emergency response to the site.
After a reporter told him about the facility last week, Dan Haverty, the city fire department’s interim chief, sent his battalion chief and a hazardous materials inspector to McClellan, where they reported finding 22 tank cars loaded with crude oil.
Haverty said far more hazardous commodities move by rail through Sacramento, including toxic chemicals, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia, and that his department has planned and trained for emergencies involving those materials.
Taylor said he was “comfortable and confident” in his department’s capabilities.
But Niko King, Sacramento’s assistant fire chief, said he didn’t have a lot of information on what was coming through the region by rail and new risks his department might face.
“I don’t want to say we’re in front of the curve,” he said. “We’re definitely reacting.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation has required that petroleum producers test and properly label and package Bakken oil before it is transported. But once the oil reaches its destination, whether a refinery or a transfer facility, such as the one in Sacramento, it’s handled no differently than conventional crudes.
The McClellan operation falls outside of some agencies’ jurisdiction. The Sacramento County Environmental Management Department regulates crude oil storage facilities, but McClellan isn’t considered one.
“We regulate the stuff that’s there” for more than 30 days, said Elise Rothschild, chief of the department’s Environmental Compliance Division, “not the stuff in transit.”
The railroads bringing crude oil to Sacramento, meanwhile, are not required to tell local officials that they’re doing so. One of them, BNSF Railway, is the nation’s largest hauler of crude oil in trains, mostly from North Dakota.
Earlier this month, CSX, the largest railroad on the East Coast, reached an agreement with Pennsylvania’s emergency management agency to share information on the shipment of hazardous materials on its network, including crude oil.
But the agreement requires state officials not to make the information public. It is possible to determine where shipments are going, however. BNSF, for example, lists Sacramento as one of its crude-by-rail terminals on a marketing website. A Sacramento Bee photographer who visited the McClellan site recently found crude oil being transferred from rail cars to trucks, activity that was plainly visible.
Cantelme said he’s begun in recent weeks to organize a regional task force with other local officials and the state Office of Emergency Response in an effort to better understand the risks of such operations and develop a coordinated response plan.
“This is preliminary for us,” he said. “We’re just now getting into it.”
A McClatchy analysis of federal data showed that more than 1.2 million gallons of crude oil spilled from trains in 2013 alone. In contrast, fewer than 800,000 gallons had been spilled nationwide from 1975 to 2012.
“Nobody saw this incredible increase in volume,” said Tom Cullen, administrator of the oil spill prevention office in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In his January budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed increasing funding for the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response and shifting its focus from marine spill to inland spills.
Other states where crude oil shipments have increased are taking action.
In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed several state agencies to review safety procedures and emergency response plans. That state’s capital, Albany, has become a hub for rail shipments of North Dakota and Canadian oil for East Coast refineries. Earlier this month, Albany County placed a moratorium on the expansion of a train-to-barge facility blocks from state offices until the completion of a health study.
Washington lawmakers considered several measures to address increased oil shipments, including a 5-cents a barrel tax on crude oil shipped by rail into the state, but the efforts died before the session adjourned last week.
Activists in the Bay Area cities of Benicia, Richmond and Martinez are fighting the expansion of crude oil deliveries to local refineries. Earlier this month, Elizabeth Patterson, the mayor of Benicia, called on Brown to sign an executive order similar to Cuomo’s.
Tate reported from Washington. Bizjak of the Sacramento Bee reported from Sacramento.
Repost from The Contra Costa Times
[Editor: These fines are for violations in 2010. In October of 2013, Valero agreed to pay $300,300 in fines for violations occurring in 2011 and 2012 (see SFGate story, Benicia Herald story). At that time, Mayor Patterson and I asked the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (independently) to consider making the fines available to the local setting where the violations occurred, a practice not without precedent. I never a definitive answer on my request from Eric Stevenson, the District’s Director of Technical Serevices. He did inform me in November 2013 that the District had scheduled a meeting with Mayor Patterson to discuss this request. I wonder what happened? It makes sense to me that the City of Benicia could finance better air monitoring using these funds. – RS]
Benicia refinery hit with $183,000 fine for air quality violations
(Vallejo) Times-Herald 03/28/2014 04:56:30 PM PDT
BENICIA — Valero has agreed to pay $183,000 to settle air quality violations at its Benicia refinery, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced Friday.
The civil penalty covers seven notices of violation that the air district issued to Valero in 2011 for incidents that occurred in 2010, according to an air district news release.
The violations were related to a December 2010 upset of Valero’s fluid catalytic cracking unit, which converts heavy gas oils into gasoline and other lighter compounds. The upset resulted in intermittent violations of opacity and particulate standards at Valero’s main stack over a 10-day period, as well as violations of carbon monoxide and sulfur standards at other affected equipment, the district said.
All settlement funds will be used to fund air district activities such as the inspection and enforcement activities that led to the settlement.