Tag Archives: Antonia Juhasz

Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

Repost from teleSUR

Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013.
Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.

Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.

Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.

Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.

This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise.  But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.

Buffett’s Bomb Trains

The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.

Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers).  Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.

Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.

Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.

Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”

A Contested Permit

CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented

In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”

Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s.  Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.

Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet

In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists.  They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.

“As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”

One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.

Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.

RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”

Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.
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    Benicia Community Forum & Update, January 18, 1-4pm, Benicia Library

    ANNOUNCING . . .
    Community Forum & Update, Sunday, January 18, 1-4pm, Benicia Library

    FacebookStopCrudeByOil_cover(267)Learn more about Valero’s crude by rail project and how it might affect Benicia residents at a Community Informational Forum on Sunday, January 18, 2015, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm at the Benicia Public Library, 150 East L Street, Doña Benicia Room. The Forum is sponsored by Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC), a grassroots organization advocating responsible environmental action and currently working to STOP crude by rail in Benicia.

    You’ll hear from guest speakers:

    • Antonia Juhasz, oil and energy analyst, award-winning author and investigative journalist, and
    • Diane Bailey, Senior Scientist in the Health and Environment Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Members of BSHC will also provide an update on our work.

    • Marilyn Bardet will discuss the history and status of the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR).
    • Andrés Soto will discuss the local, regional and cumulative impacts of transporting crude oil by rail. There will be plenty of time for questions, discussion and brainstorming.

    For more information about the Community Forum or BSHC, please call (707) 742-3597, or email info@SafeBenicia.  For more information about Valero Crude by Rail check out  SafeBenicia.orgOf course, you can find lots of info here on BeniciaIndependent.org.

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      FOX40 News: Crude Oil Rail Meeting Sparks Questions in Fairfield

      Repost from FOX40 NEWS Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto
      [Editor – The 2 minute video is MUCH better than the online text below.  Two excellent on camera comments by Antonia Juhasz.  Significant closing statement by Fox40 reporter Ben Deci, “The process in Benicia is moving along pretty quickly.  Valero says it expects to be in front of that [Benicia] City Council before the end of the year.”   (…apologies for the video advertisement.)  – RS]

      Crude Oil Rail Meeting Sparks Questions in Fairfield

      September 29, 2014, by Ben Deci

      FAIRFIELD – Oil is coming out of Middle America and needs to get to refineries somehow. Lots more of it, orders of magnitude more, is moving by rail.

      But that means more accidents.

      “In 2013 alone, we had more crude oil spills by rail than in every year since 1975 combined — 1.1 million gallons. But thus far in 2014 we’ve already surpassed that,” said Antonia Juhasz, an author and investigative reporter sitting on a panel about oil transport through Solano County.

      If Valero gets plans approved for a new refinery complex in Benicia, a lot more oil will be loaded on trains, coming this way.

      “Our business is dealing with flammable liquids. We deal with it every day. I’m confident in our preparations,” said Chris Howe, with Valero in Benicia.

      For those gathered at today meeting in Solano county who don’t want the crude rolling through their backyards, it’s not clear how much choice they have.

      “Freight railroads in the United States are actually required to accept any commodity that is delivered to us by our customers, so long as it’s packaged according to U.S. Department of Transportation regulations,” said Liisa Stark, spokesperson for Union Pacific.

      The federal government right now is considering stricter standards for the kinds of train cars the crude can be transported in.

      But can the wheels of government keep pace with the wheels on the rail?

      “It must. If it’s not going to happen at the federal level, it has to happen at the state level. If it’s not going to happen at the state level it has to happen at the community level. There are communities all across the country that are banning crude by rail,” Juhasz said.

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        Solano County focuses on rail safety

        Repost from the Fairfield Daily Republic

        Solano focuses on rail safety

        By Barry Eberling,  September 30, 2014

        FAIRFIELD – Solano County wants to let people know about its rail emergency plans and to identify weaknesses, even as a Valero pursues a controversial proposal to ship crude oil by rail through the region.

        The county held a rail safety workshop on Monday billed as a “community conversation.” About 60 people attended the evening meeting in the county Board of Supervisors chamber.

        This meeting came against the backdrop of a proposal by Valero to transport crude oil by rail on the Union Pacific tracks to its Benicia refinery. The tracks passed through the heart of Fairfield, Suisun City and Dixon, as well as the wetlands of Suisun Marsh. Crude rail derailments in other areas have caused explosions.

        County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Linda Seifert said there are already various hazardous materials that pass through Solano County by rail on the way to factories and other destinations. Local governments cannot regulate these freight rail trips because of interstate commerce laws, she said.

        County Emergency Services Manager Don Ryan and Dixon Fire Chief Aaron McAlister talked about the local response system for emergencies. They talked about how local emergency responders work together, with a mutual aid system in place. Various fire departments and other emergency responders train together on possible disasters ranging from hazardous materials spills to shooter situations.

        “The fire rescue system in California, the mutual aid system, is one of the finest in the country,” McAlister said.

        Chris Howe of Valero Refinery talked about the crude-by-rail proposal and stressed the safety measures that Valero takes and the emergency resources that it has. He noted that Vallejo called on Valero to help respond to a major asphalt spill within that city.

        “Preventing accidents is a top priority of ours and it’s something we focus on constantly in our business,” Howe said. “We handle flammable materials every day. That’s our business.”

        Union Pacific spokeswoman Liisa Stark talked about the inspections done by her company by running equipment with computers and sonar over the tracks. She talked of detection boxes along tracks that can tell if a train has a hot wheel bearing or other problems.

        “I just can’t say enough about how much we invest in time and energy to ensure we continue to run safely,” she said.

        Investigative journalist Antonia Juhasz said that crude-by-rail trips have increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 last year. Bakken crude oil coming from North Dakota is more flammable, volatile and dangerous than other crude, she said.

        “This is a new phenomena,” she said. “This is a new problem.”

        She showed a photo of a fireball in the sky from a crude oil derailment on Jan. 1 in Casselton, North Dakota. She showed a photo of a April 30 crude oil derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia that left an oil slick 17 miles long in the James River. Altogether, she showed photos of 10 derailments in the United States and Canada, all during 2013 or this year.

        “We don’t know how to regulate it yet,” Juhasz said.

        Danny Bernardini spoke on behalf of state Sen. Lois Wolk. Wolk has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation containing suggestions and recommendations for crude-by-rail shipments. Among other things, she recommended the speed of these trains within all cities be set at 30 mph and that shippers and carriers have sufficient insurance or financial means to cover the costs of crashes and spills.

        Also speaking were Paul Hensleigh of the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District, Brandon Thomson representing Rep. John Garamendi and Solano County Resource Management Director Bill Emlen.

        Then the gathering broke into three groups and members of the public talked about their concerns.

        Karen Schlumpp of Benicia expressed concern about the time it might take for regulations to be passed and implemented to deal with the new crude-by-rail issues.

        “After tonight, I’m feeling like we’re on a huge catchup on a train that’s already rolling,” Schlumpp said.

        Katherine Black of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community expressed skepticism that crude-by-rail shipments can be done safely.

        “This is too dangerous,” she said. “It’s like preparing for an atomic bomb.”

        The meeting lasted for two-and-a-half hours. Participants wrote down their concerns and ideas and turned them into the county.

        “This is an essential conversation that needs to happen,” Emlen told the gathering.

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