Tag Archives: Aliceville Alabama

Oil Trains: The Industry Speaks for Itself – a record of denial and deceit, in photos

Repost from Sightline Daily
[Editor: These images would be great for posters  (see below) – and the author speaks for me when he writes, “Government regulators have been slow to act, their responses painfully milquetoast. As a result, much of what I do involves research into the often-complex details of federal rulemaking procedures, rail car design standards, insurance policies, and the like—all the issues that Sightline is shining a light on….Yet on some level it’s not about any of that. It’s about a reckless and unaccountable oil industry that—in the most literal and obvious way—profits by putting our lives at risk. Every time I hear one of their accountability-shirking lines, I can’t help recalling images from those tragedies and near-tragedies.”  – RS]

Oil Trains: The Industry Speaks for Itself – a record of denial and deceit, in photos

By Eric de Place and Keiko Budech, December 30, 2014

A year and a half after an oil train inferno ended 47 lives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the crude-by-rail industry rolls on, virtually unimpeded. It’s hard not to feel horrified when, one after another, we register the place names of oil train explosions—Aliceville, Alabama; Casselton, View PostNorth Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia—as grim warnings of what could happen in so many other North American communities.

Government regulators have been slow to act, their responses painfully milquetoast. As a result, much of what I do involves research into the often-complex details of federal rulemaking procedures, rail car design standards, insurance policies, and the like—all the issues that Sightline is shining a light on.

Yet on some level it’s not about any of that. It’s about a reckless and unaccountable oil industry that—in the most literal and obvious way—profits by putting our lives at risk. Every time I hear one of their accountability-shirking lines, I can’t help recalling images from those tragedies and near-tragedies. The juxtaposition is startling that we decided to undertake a small photo project to capture it. We hope that you’ll find the following useful in your own work, and if so, that you’ll share the images with your own networks.

It’s a practically a given that we’ll hear more empty reassurances and lies from oil and rail executives in the new year, and as growing numbers of oil trains crisscross the continent, there’s every likelihood we’ll have another catastrophe to catalog. To grasp the magnitude of the oil industry’s cynicism, it’s best to hear them in their own words.

Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by LuAnn Hunt
Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by LuAnn Hunt
Aliceville, AL, Derailment, by John Wathen
Aliceville, AL, Derailment, by John Wathen
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by David Charron
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by David Charron
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lac-Mégantic Derailment by TSB Canada
Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by Michael Cover
Lynchburg, VA, Derailment by Michael Cover

    Trains plus crude oil equals trouble down the track

    Repost from McClatchy News
    [Editor: Once again Curtis Tate has produced an incredible wide-ranging and deep analysis of current issues and developments around crude by rail in the US.  This article can serve as a must-read primer on crude by rail.  Note that the presentation below is only a rough copy – much better viewing on McClatchy’s website.  – RS]

    TrainsPlusCrudeOilEqualsTroubleDownTheTracks

    By Curtis Tate, December 31, 2014 

    — Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River.

    Decaying track and bridge conditions on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa, Ala., population 95,000. Above, video of trains crossing the bridge.Curtis Tate / McClatchyDecaying track and bridge conditions on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa, Ala., population 95,000. Above, video of trains crossing the bridge. 

    The 116-year-old span is a landmark in this city of 95,000 people, home to the University of Alabama. Residents have proposed and gotten married next to the bridge. Children play under it. During Alabama football season, die-hard Crimson Tide fans set up camp in its shadow.

    But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand right through them, and a “MacGyver”-esque combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge demonstrates the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

    And it shows why communities nationwide are in danger.

    “It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out,” said Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970 was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which authorized the government to regulate the safety of railroads.

    Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that included millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. The nation’s fleet of tens of thousands of tank cars, coupled with a 140,000-mile network of rail lines, had emerged as a viable way to move these economically essential commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job.

    It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out.

    Larry Mann, principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act

    In a series of stories, McClatchy has detailed how government and industry are playing catch-up to long-overdue safety improvements, from redesigning the tank cars that carry the oil to rebuilding the track and bridges over which the trains run.

    Those efforts in the past year and a half may have spared life and property in many communities. But they came too late for Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a Canadian lakeside resort town just across the border from Maine. A train derailment there on July 6, 2013, unleashed a torrent of burning crude oil into the town’s center. Forty-seven people were killed.

    “Sometimes it takes a disaster to get elected officials and agencies to address problems that were out there,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, who’s leaving Congress after six terms.

    Other subsequent but nonfatal derailments in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg, Va., followed a familiar pattern: massive fires and spills, large-scale evacuations and local officials furious that they hadn’t been informed beforehand of such shipments.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a set of new rules in January regarding the transportation of flammable liquids by rail.

    “Safety is our top priority,” said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration,“both in the rule-making and through other immediate actions we have taken over the last year and a half.”

    Nevertheless, McClatchy has identified other gaps in the oversight of crude by rail:

    • The Federal Railroad Administration entrusts bridge inspections to the railroads and doesn’t keep data on their condition, unlike its sister agency, the Federal Highway Administration, which does so for road bridges.
    • Most states don’t employ dedicated railroad bridge inspectors. Only California has begun developing a bridge inspection program.
    • The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region posed an elevated risk in rail transport, so regulators required railroads to notify state officials of large shipments of Bakken crude. However, the requirement excluded other kinds of oil increasingly transported by rail, including those from Canada, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
    • While railroads and refiners have taken steps to reserve the newest, sturdiest tank cars available for Bakken trains, they, too, have ruptured in derailments, and Bakken and other kinds of oil are likely to be moving around the country in a mix of older and newer cars for several more years.

    We anticipate that crude by rail is going to stay over the long term

    Kevin Birn, director of IHS Energy

    Staying power

    American railroads moved only 9,500 cars of crude oil in 2008 but more than 400,000 in 2013, according to industry figures. In the first seven months of 2014, trains carried 759,000 barrels a day – that’s more than 200,000 cars altogether – or 8 percent of the country’s oil production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

    The energy boom, centered on North Dakota’s Bakken region, was made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a horizontal drilling method that unlocks oil and gas trapped in rock formations. It was also made possible by the nation’s expansive rail system.

    Crude by rail has become a profitable business for some of the world’s richest men. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, bought BNSF Railway in 2009. It’s since become the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, is the largest shareholder in Canadian National, the only rail company that has a direct route from oil-rich western Canada to the refinery-rich Gulf Coast.

    Amid a worldwide slide in oil prices in recent weeks, crude by rail shows few signs of slowing down. The price per barrel of oil has dropped nearly 50 percent since last January. Still, the six largest North American railroads reported hauling a record 38,775 carloads of petroleum the second week of December.

    “We anticipate that crude by rail is going to stay over the long term,” said Kevin Birn, director at IHS Energy, an energy information and analysis firm, and a co-author of a recent analysis of the trend.

    Regulatory agencies and the rail industry may not have anticipated the sudden increase in crude oil moving by rail. However, government and industry had long known that most of the tank cars pressed into crude oil service had poor safety records. And after 180 years in business, U.S. railroads knew that track defects were a leading cause of derailments.

    To be sure, railroads are taking corrective steps, including increased track inspections and reduced train speeds. They’ve endorsed stronger tank cars and funded beefed-up training for first responders.

    Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal trade group, said railroads began a “top-to-bottom review” of their operations after the Quebec accident.

    “Every time there is an incident, the industry learns from what occurred and takes steps to address it through ongoing investments into rail infrastructure, as well as cutting-edge research and development,” he said. “The industry is committed to continuous improvement in actively moving forward at making rail transportation even safer.”

    But the industry continues to resist other changes, including calls for more transparency. The dominant Eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, sued Maryland to stop the state from releasing information to McClatchy about crude oil trains.

    The industry also seeks affirmation from the courts that only the federal government has the power to regulate railroads. The dominant Western carriers, BNSF and Union Pacific, joined by the Association of American Railroads, sued California over a state law that requires them to develop comprehensive oil spill-response plans.

      Ralph Nader: Unsafe and Unnecessary Oil Trains Threaten 25 Million Americans

      Repost from The Huffington Post
      [Editor: This is a must read, a comprehensive summary by a visionary and influential old-timer.  – RS]

      Unsafe and Unnecessary Oil Trains Threaten 25 Million Americans

      By Ralph Nader, 12/15/2014
      Ralph Nader Headshot
      Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, lawyer and author

      Back in 1991 the National Transportation Safety Board first identified oil trains as unsafe — the tank cars, specifically ones called DOT-111s, were too thin and punctured too easily, making transport of flammable liquids like oil unreasonably dangerous. As bad as this might sound, at the very least there was not a lot of oil being carried on the rails in 1991.

      Now, in the midst of a North American oil boom, oil companies are using fracking and tar sands mining to produce crude in remote areas of the U.S. and Canada. To get the crude to refineries on the coasts the oil industry is ramping up transport by oil trains. In 2008, 9,500 crude oil tank cars moved on US rails. In 2013 the number was more than 400,000! With this rapid growth comes a looming threat to public safety and the environment. No one — not federal regulators or local firefighters — are prepared for oil train derailments, spills and explosions.

      Unfortunately, the rapid increase in oil trains has already meant many more oil train disasters. Railroads spilled more oil in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.

      Trains are the most efficient way to move freight and people. This is why train tracks run through our cities and towns. Our rail system was never designed to move hazardous materials, however; if it was, train tracks would not run next to schools and under football stadiums.

      Last summer, environmental watchdog group ForestEthics released a map of North America that shows probable oil train routes. Using Google, anyone can check to see if their home or office is near an oil train route. (Try it out here.)

      ForestEthics used census data to calculate that more than 25 million Americans live in the oil train blast zone (that being the one-mile evacuation area in the case of a derailment and fire.) This is clearly a risk not worth taking — oil trains are the Pintos of the rails. Most of these trains are a mile long, pulling 100-plus tank cars carrying more than 3 million gallons of explosive crude. Two-thirds of the tank cars used to carry crude oil today were considered a “substantial danger to life, property, and the environment” by federal rail safety officials back in 1991.

      The remaining one-third of the tank cars are not much better — these more “modern” cars are tested at 14 to 15 mph, but the average derailment speed for heavy freight trains is 24 mph. And it was the most “modern” tank cars that infamously derailed, caught fire, exploded and poisoned the river in Lynchburg, Virginia last May. Other derailments and explosions in North Dakota and Alabama made national news in 2014.

      The most alarming demonstration of the threat posed by these trains happened in Quebec in July 2013 — an oil train derailed and exploded in the City of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people and burning a quarter of the city to the ground. The fire burned uncontrollably, flowing through the city, into and then out of sewers, and into the nearby river. Firefighters from across the region responded, but an oil fire cannot be fought with water, and exceptionally few fire departments have enough foam flame retardant to control a fire from even a single 30,000 gallon tank car, much less the millions of gallons on an oil train.

      Given the damage already done and the threat presented, Canada immediately banned the oldest of these rail cars and mandated a three-year phase-out of the DOT-111s. More needs to be done, but this is a solid first step. Of course, we share the North American rail network — right now those banned trains from Canada may very well be transporting oil through your home town while the Department of Transportation dallies.

      The immense public risk these oil trains pose is starting to gain the attention it deserves, but not yet the response. Last summer, the U.S. federal government began the process of writing new safety regulations. Industry has weighed in heavily to protect its interest in keeping these trains rolling. The Department of Transportation, disturbingly, seems to be catering to industry’s needs.

      The current draft rules are deeply flawed and would have little positive impact on safety. They leave the most dangerous cars in service for years. Worse yet, the oil industry would get to more than double its tank car fleet before being required to decommission any of the older, more dangerous DOT-111s.

      We need an immediate ban on the most dangerous tank cars. We also need to slow these trains down; slower trains mean fewer accidents, and fewer spills and explosions when they do derail. The public and local fire fighters must be notified about train routes and schedules, and every oil train needs a comprehensive emergency response plan for accidents involving explosive Bakken crude and toxic tar sands. In addition, regulations must require adequate insurance. This is the least we could expect from Secretary Anthony Foxx, who travels a lot around the country, and the Department of Transportation.

      So far, Secretary Foxx is protecting the oil industry, not ordinary Americans. In fact, Secretary Foxx is meeting with Canadian officials this Thursday, December 18, to discuss oil-by-rail. It is doubtful, considering Canada’s strong first step, that he will be trying to persuade them to adopt even stronger regulations. Will Secretary Foxx ask them to weaken what they have done and put more lives at risk? Time will tell. He has the power, and the mandate, to remove the most dangerous rail cars to protect public safety but he appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this month ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, represented by EarthJustice, filed a lawsuit against the DOT to require them to fulfill this duty.

      Secretary Foxx no doubt has a parade of corporate executives wooing him for lax or no oversight. But he certainly doesn’t want to have a Lac Megantic-type disaster in the U.S. on his watch. It is more possible now than ever before, given the massive increase in oil-by-rail traffic.

      Pipelines, such as the Keystone XL, are not the answer either. (Keystone oil would be routed for export to other countries from Gulf ports.) Pipelines can also leak and result in massive damage to the environment as we have seen in the Kalamazoo, MI spill by the Enbridge Corporation. Three years later, $1.2 billion spent, and the “clean up” is still ongoing.

      Here’s the reality — we don’t need new pipelines and we don’t need oil by rail. This is “extreme oil,” and if we can’t transport it safely, we can and must say no. Secretary Foxx needs to help make sure 25 million people living in the blastzone are safe and that means significant regulations and restrictions on potentially catastrophic oil rail cars.

      Rather than choosing either of these destructive options, we are fortunate to be able to choose safe, affordable cleaner energy and more efficient energy products, such as vehicles and furnaces, instead. That is the future and it is not a distant future — it’s happening right now.

      Follow Ralph Nader on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RalphNader