Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Mariners Game?
By Sydney Brownstone, Apr 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm
Maaaaaybe it wasn’t the thrill he was looking for.
A spectator at Tuesday night’s Mariners game caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a crude-oil unit train moving past Safeco Field.
The attendee took video and photos while taking a walk behind the scoreboard, but didn’t want to be credited for them. David Perk, a friend of the photographer’s who was also at the game, passed along the images on that person’s behalf. Perk, a volunteer with the Washington Environmental Council, went to the game because of the ticket special to honor local volunteering efforts.
Perk says he first spotted the train while driving to the game from Renton. “I was wondering if it was going to roll north while having our tailgate party on the side of the tracks,” Perk said. Nearly 14,000 people attended the game, according to Seattle Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe wouldn’t confirm whether the train was carrying crude, but the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place said that the train was “almost certainly a unit train of crude.” Unit trains often contain a hundred or more tank cars, and can measure as long as a mile. The train was also heading north, which means that it was likely full and heading for refineries near Anacortes or Ferndale.
Unit trains moving crude from the shale oil fields of North Dakota (also known as “bomb trains”) carry a unique risk of derailing and exploding. The US Department of Transportation has estimated that an average of 10 crude-oil trains will derail a year over the next two decades. The DOT has thus far failed to finalize safety rules for crude-by-rail, but did order a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on unit trains through populated areas last week. On April 14, the Washington State House also passed an oil transportation safety bill sponsored by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle).
Much of downtown Seattle falls within the crude-oil route’s half-mile blast zone, including Safeco Field, which sits right next to the railroad. But railroads aren’t required to share crude-oil routes with the public. Earlier this month, Seattle’s new fire chief, Howard Scoggins, told reporters that a derailment in Seattle would “exhaust our resources and require assistance from communities around us.”
Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains
Many communities fight transport of crude oil through their towns; some find legal footing to succeed.
By Kindra McQuillan, April 16, 2015, Web Exclusive
To the Coastal Salish people living on Washington’s Swinomish Reservation, water remains an important aspect of daily life. Their ancestors fished for salmon at the mouths of Northwestern rivers and gathered shellfish on Pacific tidelands; modern Swinomish people still pursue these activities from their small reservation on the Puget Sound. Many fish for their own subsistence, and many work as employees of the Swinomish Fish Company, which serves international markets.
Even so, for more than 20 years, the Swinomish have consented to strictly regulated use of a railroad that crosses waters on either side of their island reservation. The track, operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, crosses a swing bridge over Puget Sound’s Swinomish Channel, passes several Swinomish businesses, and then crosses a trestle over Padilla Bay, originally on its way to Anacortes, where it historically delivered lumber. A legal agreement between the tribe and the company limited the amount of traffic that would cross the reservation and waterways to Anacortes and required the company to inform the tribe about its cargo.
In the 1990s, the last section of railroad to Anacortes was removed, and the tracks ended on March Point, which houses two oil refineries. Burlington Northern fell behind on their annual reports, and the tribe assumed the trains were carrying supplies to the refineries.
But in 2012, reservation residents began to see 100-car trains—four times as long as the agreed maximum length. Then an Anacortes newspaper reported that the trains were carrying Bakken crude, a volatile oil that has figured in numerous train explosions in recent years, some of them deadly.
Burlington Northern had not informed the tribe that the cars carried this new, dangerous cargo, and ignored tribal requests to desist. So last week, the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit asks the court to reinforce the original car limit and to prohibit the transport of Bakken crude via rail across the reservation.
“It’s not a matter of if another train will blow up; it’s a matter of when,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, recently told me. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen in our backyard.”
But while many Western communities are grasping for protection against dangerous shipments of crude oil, the Swinomish tribe has a unique instrument for getting it done.
The instrument has to do with the way tribal trust lands work. Tribal trust land, unlike much off-reservation land, requires consent from both the federal government and the tribe before utilities and railroad companies can build infrastructure. But for a century, Burlington Northern and its predecessor companies broke this law by maintaining a railway on the Swinomish reservation without consent from either. In the late 1970s, the tribe sued the company for a century of trespass, reaching a settlement in 1991 that gave the company an easement for continued use of the railway, albeit with a few restrictions: No more than one train could cross the reservation per day in each direction, none could have more than 25 cars, and Burlington Northern would have to inform the tribe of the trains’ cargo at least once per year.
Then came the Bakken boom, and with it a dramatic increase in traffic as trains rushed to carry oil from the Bakken to the West Coast, where ports could take the fuel to international markets. After seeing the traffic increase on their reservation, “the tribe had conversations with Burlington Northern,” says Stephen LeCuyer, director of the office of tribal attorney. “But in the meantime the tribe was seeing explosive derailments of Bakken oil trains, and reached the conclusion that they would not consent to an increase of over 25 cars per day.” After the tribe brought their concerns to Burlington Northern, the company said it wanted to negotiate. Meanwhile, the oil trains kept rolling. That led to last week’s suit.
Burlington Northern has yet to file their case, but in a statement, company spokesperson Gus Melonas argues that it has a legal obligation to carry the oil. “As a common carrier, we are obligated under federal law to move all regulated products, which ensures the flow of interstate commerce,” he said in a statement.
“The Easement Agreement includes a mechanism to address rail traffic volumes to meet shipper needs, and we have been working with the Swinomish Tribe for several years to resolve this issue.” The mechanism Melonas refers to is a stipulation in the agreement, wherein the tribe agrees not to “arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars when necessary to meet shipper needs.”
To the tribes, this mechanism is null. Given the dangerous nature of Bakken crude, the tribe is confident it’s not making an arbitrary decision “in any way,” LeCuyer says.
Their complaint was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and was formally served on April 10. Burlington Northern must now file a response within 21 days of the formal complaint. At that point, the court will issue a schedule for hearings, and the case will eventually be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group that has handled many cases related to oil transportation, said the Swinomish argument appears “airtight.”
“BNSF made an agreement with them, and it violated that agreement,” he said. But Hasselman added that the case wouldn’t likely set a precedent for other communities. “Their agreement is pretty unique,” he said. “But this is yet another example of communities all across the country in different ways rising up to the threat of crude oil transportation.”
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued urgent recommendations calling for the improvement of unsafe oil-tank train cars. Politicians like Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, D, are calling for greater oil train safety.
Earlier this year, Washington’s Quinault tribe was able to slow shipping of crude-by-rail near their reservation by challenging oil terminals that were being built without an environmental impact statement.
Meanwhile, the Swinomish Tribe is also testifying against a Canadian pipeline that would carry crude oil to ports in the Salish Sea, the body of water that encompasses the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound. Alternative forms of oil transportation, like pipelines and barges, may be safer to human communities, but they would still put fisheries at risk.
“We, of course, always have concern about tankers hitting our reefs,” Cladoosby says. “Thank God that has never happened. We live on an island surrounded by water. We’ve lived here since time immemorial, and the Creator has blessed us with every species of wild salmon. We work very hard to take care of it.”
More oil-train fixes: Feds order defective valves replaced on leaking cars
By Samantha Wohlfeil and Curtis Tate, March 13, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration on Friday ordered rail tank car owners to replace defective valves never approved for installation on thousands of tank cars, causing oil to spill from moving trains.
The directive applies to a 3-inch valve installed on roughly 6,000 tank cars, and their owners have 60 days to replace them. Within 90 days, tank car owners must also replace 37,000 1-inch and 2-inch valves manufactured by the same company. While the smaller valves were not found to be defective like the larger ones, they were not approved for the tank cars.
The affected cars can be used in the interim, but none can be loaded with hazardous materials if they are still equipped with those valves after the deadlines.
The enforcement action comes after a story last month in McClatchy’s Bellingham Herald about 14 tank cars that were discovered leaking en route from North Dakota’s Bakken region to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.
Friday’s enforcement action is the second to follow an investigation launched after McClatchy reported on leaking cars in Washington.
On Thursday, the agency said it had sanctioned the operator of a North Dakota loading facility for not properly closing a valve on another oil car after McClatchy reported in January that the car arrived at the BP Cherry Point refinery in northwest Washington state with 1,600 gallons missing.
The 1-inch, 2-inch and 3-inch valves were all manufactured and sold by McKenzie Valve and Machining, a company in Tennessee. The Bellingham Herald could not immediately reach anyone at McKenzie, but left messages with the company Friday.
The Federal Railroad Administration also announced Friday that it was launching a full audit of the approval process for tank car components to determine why the unapproved valves were installed.
The Federal Railroad Administration said it would begin working immediately with the association, which is the rail industry’s principal trade group in the nation’s capital.
Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting chief, said Friday that removal of the valves will help reduce the number of non-derailment releases of hazardous materials.
“Any type of hazardous materials release, no matter how small, is completely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the railroad association, said Friday that it supported the order. Railroads don’t own most of the tank cars used to transport oil.
“Officials from our association will be working closely with the administration in reviewing the tank car valve approval process to ensure the agency is fully satisfied with the current approval requirements that are in place,” he said in a statement.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s order came about a month after crews discovered tank cars leaking oil from their top fittings on a handful of trains hauling different types of crude oil through Washington state.
In mid-January, a train loaded with Bakken crude needed to have more than a dozen leaking cars removed at three separate stops as it traveled through Idaho and crossed Washington state.
The train was headed from Tioga, N.D., to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.
In a report to the U.S. Department of Transportation, BNSF reported a total of 26 gallons of oil leaking from 14 cars. Tesoro reported two more leaking cars. The oil was found only on the tops and sides of tank cars, and no oil was found on the ground.
Crews had first noticed oil on the side of a tank car while the train was in northern Idaho, and after checking the rest of the train, removed that car, which had leaked about two gallons, according to BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.
After the train had crossed through the state, following the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash., crews found that crude oil had leaked onto the top of seven more cars, which were removed from the train on Jan. 12. BNSF reported the incident to the state Department of Ecology on Jan. 23.
BNSF also reported that about 10 gallons total had leaked from six more cars removed in Auburn on Jan. 13.
Wallace said the railroad would work with customers and shippers to take the required actions.
“Although BNSF does not own the tank cars, nothing is more important to us than safely operating through the communities that we serve,” she said in a statement.
The state Utilities and Transportation Commission and the FRA investigated the cars that were pulled from the train in Vancouver, which led to the discovery that closure plugs on the valves caused damage to the valve’s seal, and when tightened, would press down on and damage the ball.
The cars involved were CPC-1232 model cars built after 2011, which some oil companies have started using after several fiery derailments caused concerns about older DOT-111 rail cars, which have been found more likely to puncture or burst.
However, newer CPC-1232-standard cars that lack features that reduce damage from punctures and fire exposure have performed no better in four recent oil train derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario.
The White House Office of Management and budget is reviewing a new tank car standard proposed by the Department of Transportation. It is scheduled for publication on May 12.
Wohlfeil, of The Bellingham Herald, reported from Washington state. Tate reported from Washington, D.C.
Repost from KPLU 88.5, Seattle WA [Editor: Does this sound familiar? …EXACTLY the same story here in Benicia. Significant quote: “Skagit County has extended the public comment period on the proposal and is accepting written testimony via its website through Feb. 5.” – RS]
Proposed Oil-By-Rail Expansion At Shell’s Anacortes Refinery Drawing Crowds
The company says it needs to be able to receive Bakken crude by rail to remain competitive.
Declining oil production in Alaska means more is coming from the American Midwest — by train instead of by boat.
And Tom Rizzo, general manager of Shell’s Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes, says his is now the only one in the Northwest that can’t take in crude by rail.
“The other four refineries all have these rail facilities and currently have the capability of bringing in Bakken crude,” Rizzo said. “So, having a rail facility at our site similar to what they all have at their sites is important to our long-term competitive position.”
He says the proposal to receive about one train a day of crude — or about 60,000 barrels — would not increase their production overall. Skagit County decided in April that the change wasn’t significant enough to require an environmental impact statement. After public outcry, the county added a series of conditions.
But Kristin Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, says that’s not enough. She filed an appeal with the county on behalf of several local community groups. The mile-long trains would cross Washington and head up the Interstate 5 corridor before passing through Mount Vernon and Burlington to get to Puget Sound. She says the entire area is exposed to the potential for train derailments and devastating fires, like the one in Quebec that killed 47 people.
“Washington is at the receiving end — and not in a good way — of a huge increase in fossil fuel transportation by rail. And if your town is on the rail line, you are staring at really monumental risks and impacts,” Boyle said.
According to permitting documents filed by Shell, the Anacortes proposal will move more than a million cubic yards of dirt and cost about a hundred million dollars, for the oil train terminal construction alone.
“And then factor on top of that public health risks, risks to marine life if there was a spill, risks to water quality and then ultimately the greenhouse gas emissions,” Boyle said. “It is certainly a project that demands full review.”
Nationally, Shell has pledged to use only modern rail cars and says the most explosive additives in Bakken crude are being phased out.
Locally, Rizzo says Shell will comply with whatever authorities decide. He says the company has worked on the permit for two years to ensure good outcomes.
“We have designed this facility with the highest standards of safety and environmental protection in mind,” Rizzo said.
For example, he says they worked with the Swinomish Tribe and other local agencies to add fish-friendly culverts to an area where the main rail tracks enter Shell’s property near I-5. He says this will allow juvenile salmon to migrate from Fidalgo Bay into nearby waterways, in an area where they are currently blocked.
The refinery provides jobs for about 750 people. A group that formed to support plans for a coal terminal in Bellingham, The Northwest Jobs Alliance, submitted a letter supporting Shell’s oil train proposal. It says requiring a full EIS every time there is a change to an existing operation is unreasonable and comes from people seeking to deindustrialize the economy.
Skagit County has extended the public comment period on the proposal and is accepting written testimony via its website through Feb. 5.