Bloomberg Businessweek: Trains That Go Boom

Repost from Bloomberg Businessweek

Trains That Go Boom


2:10 p.m., Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D.Photograph by Bruce Crummy/AP Photo2:10 p.m., Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D.

For most of the 14 years that Tinamarie Hatlee has lived in Ravena, N.Y., a small town south of Albany, she didn’t mind the trains that passed 50 feet from the back door of her house. They came only a few times a day and moved slowly, so the noise was bearable. But starting last summer, Hatlee says, the trains have been rumbling by every few hours, from early morning until well past midnight. And they go much quicker, as fast as 50 miles an hour, she estimates. Many are oil trains—hundreds of black tank cars filled with tens of thousands of barrels of crude, mainly from oil fields in North Dakota, on their way to refineries on the East Coast. “It’s terrifying to think of all that oil flying by so close to my house,” Hatlee says. “I don’t understand why they have to go so fast.”

They’re in such a hurry because there’s so much oil to move. Over the past three years, U.S. production has increased by more than 2 million barrels per day to 8 million, and railroads are hauling more fossil fuels than they have in a century. In the third quarter of 2013, trains carried 93,312 carloads of crude oil, or about 66 million barrels—about 900 percent more than in all of 2008. Almost all oil reaches its destination without incident. In recent months, however, an alarming number of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada have derailed, causing spectacular explosions that blackened the sky with burning crude. In July a 74-car train plowed into the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in the middle of the night, igniting an inferno that killed 47 people. In October a tank train derailed outside Edmonton, Alberta, forcing an evacuation. In November an oil train crashed in Alabama, spilling thousands of barrels into a marshland. In December two trains collided in Casselton, N.D., one carrying soybeans, the other crude. Eighteen tank cars ruptured and burst into flames, spilling about 400,000 gallons of oil.

Local, state, and federal officials, as well as the oil and railroad industries, are calling for tougher safeguards to prevent these kinds of accidents. Just what those protections will look like is anyone’s guess. The tangle of competing laws and regulations governing U.S. railroads allows everyone to claim that someone else is to blame.

Mayors and governors in states that oil trains travel through have been making the most forceful demands. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to double the number of state rail inspectors from 5 to 10. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pressing for a hazardous materials fee on oil companies and refiners to pay for upgraded railroad tracks, more first responders, and disaster insurance for towns along oil routes. Emanuel doesn’t have the power to make that happen, though. Overseeing railroads is primarily the federal government’s job, in part because the industry would be paralyzed if it had to comply with widely varying local regulations each time a train passed through a town.

Washington doesn’t appear to be in a rush to address the problem. On Jan. 23, investigators at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board made broad recommendations that would have big consequences: They said crude oil should meet the same restrictions as toxic chemicals, which must be routed on tracks away from population centers. In 2012 the NTSB said crude oil should travel only in upgraded tank cars with thicker, more puncture-resistant walls and sophisticated relief valves. This would require the industry to hasten upgrading its fleet of older, thinner-walled cars better suited to ferrying corn syrup than explosive fossil fuels. “The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said when she released the report. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

The government may require oil companies to upgrade aging oil tank cars to help prevent explosionsThe government may require oil companies to upgrade aging oil tank cars to help prevent explosions

But Hersman can’t require oil and rail companies to comply with her recommendations, and they haven’t. President Obama could urge federal regulators to act quickly to come up with new safety rules. Congress could pass legislation. Neither has happened. Obama has been mostly silent on the issue, and congressional leaders haven’t pushed bills to increase rail safety. Hearings on the matter are getting under way on Capitol Hill this month. The government should be “embarrassed by how unprepared they were for this,” says Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who’s worked for cities and environmental groups.


    Good information on the nature of Bakken crude

    Repost from DeSmogBlog

    Permit Shows Bakken Shale Oil in Casselton Train Explosion Contained High Levels of Volatile Chemicals

    On January 2, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a major safety alert, declaring oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale may be more chemically explosive than the agency or industry previously admitted publicly.

    This alert came three days after the massive Casselton, ND explosion of a freight rail train owned by Warren Buffett‘s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and was the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation agency ever made such a statement about Bakken crude. In July 2013, another freight train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac-Mégantic, vaporizing and killing 47 people.

    Yet, an exclusive DeSmogBlog investigation reveals the company receiving that oil downstream from BNSF — Marquis Missouri Terminal LLC, incorporated in April 2012 by Marquis Energy — already admitted as much in a September 2012 permit application to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

    The BNSF Direct “bomb train” that exploded in Casselton was destined for Marquis’ terminal in Hayti, Missouri, according to Reuters. Hayti is a city of 2,939 located along the Mississippi River. From there, Marquis barges the oil southward along the Mississippi, where Platts reported the oil may eventually be refined in a Memphis, Tennessee-based Valero refinery.

    According to Marquis’ website, its Hayti, Missouri terminal receives seven of BNSF Direct’s 118-unit cars per week, with an on-site holding terminal capacity of 550,000 barrels of oil.

    Marquis was one of many companies in attendance at a major industry conference in Houston, Texas in February 2013, called “Upgrading Crude By Rail Capacity.” Its September 2012 Missouri DNR permit application lends additional insight into how and why BNSF’s freight train erupted so intensely in Casselton.

    “Special Conditions”

    Rather than a normal permit, Marquis was given a “special conditions” permit because the Bakken oil it receives from BNSF contains high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the same threat PHMSA noted in its recent safety alert.

    Among the most crucial of the special conditions: Marquis must flare off the VOCs before barging the oil down the Mississippi River. (Flaring is already a highly controversial practice in the Bakken Shale region, where gas is flared off at rates comparable to Nigeria.)

    It’s a tacit admission that the Bakken Shale oil aboard the exploded BNSF train in Casselton, ND is prone to such an eruption.

    “Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.”

    Benzene is a carcinogen, while toluenexylene and hexane are dangerous volatiles that can cause severe illnesses or even death at high levels of exposure.

    Scientific Vindication

    In a December 31 Google Hangout conversation between actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of Water Defense, and the group’s chief scientist Scott Smith, Mr. Smith discussed the oil samples he collected on a previous visit to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

    “What I know from the testing I’ve done on my own — I went out to the Bakken oil fields and pumped oil from the well — I know there are unprecedented levels of these explosive volatiles: benzene, toluene, xylene,” said Smith.

    “And from the data that I’ve gotten from third parties and tested myself, 30 to 40 percent of what’s going into those rail cars are explosive volatiles, again that are not in typical oils.”

    In an interview with DeSmogBlog, Smith said Marquis Energy’s Missouri DNR permit application is in line with his own scientific findings, a vindication of sorts in the aftermath of the Casselton explosion.”We must work to better understand the risks involved with the transportation of unconventional crude oil, whether diluted bitumen or Bakken fracked oil,” Smith told DeSmogBlog.
    “It all starts with scientifically and transparently understanding exactly what is in these crude oils, and working to set new safety standards to protect human lives and all waterways, wetlands, marshes and sensitive ecosystems.”It may be the dead of winter in North Dakota, but the Casselton explosion has shined a bright light on the myriad serious threats of Bakken oil rolling down the tracks through the backyards of thousands of Americans. The industry’s secrecy about the explosiveness of this oil just went up in flames.
    But how will the public react to the news that industry knew this could happen all along? With the Dec. 30 explosion in Casselton, and the deadly Bakken oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec last July, all North Americans ought to question the wisdom of extracting and transporting this highly dangerous oil.

    Photo Credit: Kyle Potter | Forum of Fargo-Moorhead


      10 Days to change course: Earth Day to May Day

      Repost from Global Climate Convergence

      People, Planet, Peace over Profit!


      Mission Statement

      The Global Climate Convergence for People, Planet and Peace over Profit is an education and direct action campaign beginning this spring, with “10 days to change course,” running from Earth Day to May Day. It provides coordinated action and collaboration across fronts of struggle and national borders to harness the transformative power we already possess as a thousand separate movements. These grassroots justice movements are sweeping the globe, rising up against the global assault on our shared economy, ecology, peace and democracy. The accelerating climate disaster, which threatens to unravel civilization as soon as 2050, intensifies all of these struggles and creates new urgency for collaboration and unified action.

      The Convergence creates a unifying call for a solution as big as the crisis barreling down on us – an emergency Green Economic Transformation through a Global Green New Deal including universal jobs, health care, education, food and housing security, economic and political democracy, demilitarization, an end to deportations, and 100% clean renewable energy by 2030.  Clearly the time for action is NOW.

      Sign up here to begin organizing for the continuum of justice from Earth Day to May Day in your community.


        For safe and healthy communities…