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NPR: Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

Repost from National Public Radio (NPR)

Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

By David Schaper, June 19, 2015 3:30 AM ET

A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Steven Wayne Rotsch/Office of the Gov. of West Virginia/AP

The federal government’s new rules aimed at preventing explosive oil train derailments are sparking a backlash from all sides.

The railroads, oil producers and shippers say some of the new safety requirements are unproven and too costly, yet some safety advocates and environmental groups say the regulations aren’t strict enough and still leave too many people at risk.

Since February, five trains carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil have derailed and exploded into flames in the U.S. and Canada. No one was hurt in the incidents in Mount Carbon, W.Va., and Northern Ontario in February; in Galena, Ill., and Northern Ontario in March, and in Heimdal, N.D., in May.

Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains.
Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains. David Schaper

But each of those fiery train wrecks occurred in lightly populated areas. Scores of oil trains also travel through dense cities, particularly Chicago, the nation’s railroad hub.

According to state records and published reports, about 40 or more trains carrying Bakken crude roll through the city each week on just the BNSF Railway’s tracks alone. Those trains pass right by apartment buildings, homes, businesses and even schools.

“Well just imagine the carnage,” said Christina Martinez. She was standing alongside the BNSF tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a long train of black tank cars slowly rolled by, right across the street from St. Procopius, the Catholic elementary school her six-year-old attends.

“Just the other day they were playing soccer at my son’s school on Saturday and I saw the train go by and it had the ‘1267’, the red marking,” Martinez said, referring to the red, diamond-shaped placards on railroad tank cars that indicates their contents. The number 1267 signifies crude oil. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Can you imagine if it would derail and explode right here while these kids are playing soccer and all the people around there?”

New federal rules require stronger tank cars, with thicker shells and higher front and back safety shields for shipping crude oil and other flammable liquids. Older, weaker models that more easily rupture will have to be retrofitted or replaced within three to five years. But Martinez and others wanted rules limiting the volatility of what’s going into those tank cars, too.

Oil from North Dakota has a highly combustible mix of natural gases including butane, methane and propane. The state requires the conditioning of the gas and oil at the wellhead so the vapor pressure is below 13.7 pounds per square inch before it’s shipped. But even at that level, oil from derailed tank cars has exploded into flames.

And many safety advocates had hoped federal regulators would require conditioning to lower the vapor pressure even more.

“We don’t want these bomb trains going through our neighborhood,” said Lora Chamberlain of the group Chicagoland Oil by Rail. “Degasify the stuff. And so we’re really, really upset at the feds, the Department of Transportation, for not addressing this in these new rules.”

Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway's tracks in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway’s tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. David Schaper/NPR

Others criticize the rules for giving shippers three to five years to either strengthen or replace the weakest tank cars.

“The rules won’t take effect for many years,” said Paul Berland, who lives near busy railroad tracks in suburban Elgin. “They’re still playing Russian roulette with our communities.”

A coalition of environmental groups — including Earthjustice, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club — sued, alleging that loopholes could allow some dangerous tank cars to remain on the tracks for up to a decade.

“I don’t think our federal regulators did the job that they needed to do here; I think they wimped out, as it were,” said Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Ill., a city of 200,000 about 40 miles west of Chicago that has seen a dramatic increase in oil trains rumbling through it.

Weisner is upset the new rules provide exemptions to trains with fewer than 20 contiguous tank cars of a flammable liquid, such as oil, and for trains with fewer than 35 such tank cars in total.

“They’ve left a hole in the regulations that you could drive a freight train through,” Weisner said.

At the same time, an oil industry group is challenging the new regulations in court, too, arguing that manufacturers won’t be able to build and retrofit tank cars fast enough to meet the requirements.

The railroad industry is also taking action against the new crude-by-rail rules, filing an appeal of the new rules with the Department of Transportation.

In a statement, Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said: “It is the AAR’s position the rule, while a good start, does not sufficiently advance safety and fails to fully address ongoing concerns of the freight rail industry and the general public. The AAR is urging the DOT to close the gap in the rule that allows shippers to continue using tank cars not meeting new design specifications, to remove the ECP brake requirement, and to enhance thermal protection by requiring a thermal blanket as part of new tank car safety design standards.”

AAR’s President Ed Hamberger discussed the problems the railroads have with the new rules in an interview with NPR prior to filing the appeal. “The one that we have real problems with is requiring something called ECP brakes — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” he said, adding the new braking system that the federal government is mandating is unproven.

“[DOT does] not claim that ECP brakes would prevent one accident,” Hamberger said. “Their entire safety case is based on the fact that ECP brakes are applied a little bit more quickly than the current system.”

Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg disagreed. “It’s not unproven at all,” she said, noting that the railroads say ECP brakes could cost nearly $10,000 per tank car.

“I do understand that the railroad industry views it as costly,” Feinberg adds. “I don’t think it’s particularly costly, especially when you compare it to the cost of a really significant incident with a train carrying this product.”

“We’re talking about unit trains, 70 or more cars, that are transporting an incredibly volatile and flammable substance through towns like Chicago, Philadelphia,” Feinberg continues. “I want those trains to have a really good braking system. I don’t want to get into an argument with the rail industry that it’s too expensive. I want people along rail lines to be protected.”

Feinberg said her agency is still studying whether to regulate the volatility of crude, but some in Congress don’t think this safety matter can wait.

“The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to address the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”

Cantwell is sponsoring legislation to force oil producers to reduce the crude’s volatility to make it less explosive, before shipping it on the nation’s rails.

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    With fracking boom and oil trains, big cities fear explosive safety risks

    Repost from The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
    [Editor:  Significant quote by Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago: “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America…. Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest…. These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.

    RISKY CARGO ON MIDWEST OIL TRAINS

    Amid fracking boom, cities fear explosive safety risk it can carry

    BY TOM HENRY , BLADE STAFF WRITER, June 1, 2015

    CHICAGO — While the global fracking boom has stabilized North America’s energy prices, Chicago — America’s third largest city and the busiest crossroads of the nation’s railroad network — has become ground zero for the debate over heavy crude moved by oil trains.

    With the Windy City experiencing a 4,000 percent increase in oil-train traffic since 2008, Chicago and its many densely populated suburbs have become a focal point as Congress considers a number of safety reforms this year.

    Many oil trains are 100 or more cars long, carrying hydraulically fracked crude and its highly explosive, associated vapors from the Bakken region of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

    A majority of those trains also cross northwest Ohio on their way to refineries and barge terminals along the East Coast.

    Derailments can lead to massive explosions, such as the one on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que., just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine. The resulting explosions and fire killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.

    “For me to assure my community there’s no risk, I would be lying,” Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner told reporters on the Halsted Station’s elevated platform near downtown Chicago last week. The discussion was arranged by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a group that promotes better environmental reporting.

    Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular.
    Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular. THE BLADE/BRIAN BUCKEY

    “A derailment in or around our downtown would be absolutely disastrous,” he said.

    One of Chicago’s distant western suburbs, Aurora, with 200,000 people, is the second-largest city in Illinois. Though it has fewer than one resident for every 10 in Chicago (population: 2.7 million), Aurora is somewhat smaller than Toledo, which has 281,000 residents.

    Mr. Weisner, whose mayoral office overlooks tracks where many of the oil trains pass going toward Chicago, shrugged when asked about emergency planning.

    “That always helps, of course. But you could have a major catastrophe before they could arrive on the scene, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Weisner said, noting the Lac-Megantic explosion on at least three occasions.

    Closer to home, he said, are memories of a train explosion on June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, Ill., just outside Rockford.

    Although that derailment involved a train carrying flammable ethanol — not an oil train — its fire killed a motorist stopped at a railroad crossing, injured seven people in cars plus two firefighters, and forced the evacuation of 600 homes.

    Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area.
    Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

    On March 5, 21 cars of a 105-car BNSF Railway train hauling oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed in a heavily wooded, rural area outside Galena, Ill.

    The train erupted into a massive fireball 3 miles from a town of 3,000 people in the northwest corner of Illinois, near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.

    No deaths were reported from that incident and, like several other derailments that have resulted in explosions and fires in recent years, it occurred in a rural area.

    Mr. Weisner and others fear it is a matter of time before a much higher-profile incident occurs in Chicago or some other big city where the death toll could be significant.

    Shortly after he finished, an oil train moved past Halsted Station, whose tracks are flanked by high-rise apartment buildings.

    Oil trains move throughout the Great Lakes region after getting filled with Bakken crude, often ending up on the East Coast.

    Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes region is “the heart of the country,” Mr. Weisner said.

    “We’re always going to be at one of the highest levels of exposure,” the Aurora mayor said. “There’s no doubt about it.

    This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.
    This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district. ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Environmental activists such as Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago, put the risk in more graphic terms.

    “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America,” he told reporters outside a coffee shop at West Maxwell and Halsted streets, three blocks north of the train station where Mr. Weisner would speak moments later.

    “Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest,” Mr. Mogerman said. “These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.”

    Tony Phillips is an artist who lives in a condominium adjacent to Chicago’s Halsted Station.

    He said he can hear “the rip of noise” and feel his building shudder as oil trains come by, often in the wee hours of the morning. He said he feels a “slosh effect” in the flooring from the oscillating weight of crude if he gets up in the middle of the night.

    “That’s a little spooky,” Mr. Phillips said.

    He and others want reforms, tighter rules, and more robust train cars, if nothing else. Some efforts are being made through tighter regulations, but critics claim they’re either not enough or being phased in too slowly.

    Fracking boom

    Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by.
    Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

    Lora Chamberlain, spokesman for Frack Free Illinois and a new coalition called Chicagoland Oil By Rail, said vapor removal should be on the list of priorities to help mitigate the risk.

    In a May 7, 2014, order, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for state emergency responders to receive more information about railroad routes handling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil per week because the number and type of railroad accidents “is startling.”

    In 2013, America moved 8.3 billion barrels (348.6 billion gallons) of crude oil via pipeline — nearly 29 times the 291 million barrels (12.2 billion gallons) moved by rail, according to data from the Association of Oil Pipelines and the Association of American Railroads.

    Safety experts see North America at a turning point because of the oil and gas industry’s rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, a process commonly known as “fracking” that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts will remain strong for at least the next 30 years.

    Fracking has occurred commercially since the 1950s. The game-changer occurred less than a decade ago, when a technique developed to combine horizontal drilling with fracking made it economical to go after vast reserves of previously trapped oil and natural gas worldwide — including in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where the Utica and Marcellus shale regions meet.

    Rail traffic

    Railroads moved 493,126 tank-car loads of oil in 2014, a nearly 5,200 percent increase over the 9,500 tank cars that hauled oil before the fracking boom began to hit its stride in many parts of North America in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Before the fracking boom, rail shipment of crude was rare and generally confined to a few isolated corridors where pipelines hadn’t been built.

    Overall domestic crude production has risen 70 percent during that same period. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show domestic oil produced at a rate of 8.5 million barrels a day in 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008.

    Mogerman
    Mogerman | THE BLADE/ BRIAN BUCKEY

    This year, crude is expected to be produced at a rate of 9 million barrels a day, just shy of its peak rate of 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration.

    “While pipelines transport the majority of oil and gas in the United States, recent development of crude oil in parts of the country under-served by pipeline has led shippers to use other modes, with rail seeing the largest percentage increase,” a Government Accountability Office report said. “Although pipeline operators and railroads have generally good safety records, the increased transportation of these flammable hazardous materials creates the potential for serious accidents.”

    The agency cited a need for better U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flammability of products shipped by rail and a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness, “especially in rural areas where there might be fewer resources to respond to a serious incident.”

    In its 2015 forecast, the Association of American Railroads contends railroads “are making Herculean efforts” to improve “an already safe nationwide rail network” now crisscrossing some 140,000 miles of the country.

    The trade association said freight railroads plan to spend a record $29 billion in 2015 — a staggering $3 million an hour or about $79 million a day — to rebuild, maintain, and expand America’s rail network. Much of the money will go toward new equipment and locomotives, new track and bridges, higher tunnels, and newer technology.

    Freight railroads are expected to hire 15,000 more people this year, continuing its upward hiring trend for an industry that employs 180,000 people, the association said.

    While considering safety reforms, Congress must ensure that “any changes to public policy still allow railroads to continue private infrastructure spending and other network investments needed to meet customer demand,​” the industry group said.

     

     

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      Suburban Chicago mayors criticize crude oil tanker policy making

      Repost from ABC7 Chicago Eyewitness News
      [Editor: Be sure to read the mayors’ letter to the Obama Administration.  – RS]

      Suburban mayors criticize crude oil tanker policy making

      By Chuck Goudie, Friday, June 20, 2014

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