A looming disaster – Crude oil running on Butte County’s railways poses a threat to local, state watersheds
By Dave Garcia, 03.10.16
Scientists have found unprecedented levels of fish deformities in Canada’s Chaudière River following the Lac-Mégantic Bakken crude oil spill in 2013. This catastrophic train derailment, which killed 47 people and ravaged parts of the small town in Quebec, underscores the danger of spilled toxic crude oil getting into our waterways and affecting living organisms.
I find the Canadian government’s report very distressing—even for Butte County. That’s because, just last week, I observed a train of 97 railcars loaded with crude oil traveling through the Feather River Canyon and downtown Oroville.
The California Public Utilities Commission has designated this rail route as high risk because of its sharp curves and steep grade; it travels next to the Feather River, which feeds into Lake Oroville, an integral part of California’s domestic water supply.
If you think that railway shipping is safe, think back to 2014. That’s the year 14 railcars derailed, falling down into the canyon and spilling their loads of grain into the Feather River. The last thing we need, especially in a time of drought, is crude oil poisoning the water of our second-largest reservoir.
In 2010, it took over $1 billion to clean up the Kalamazoo River crude oil spill. But you can never really clean up a crude oil spill in pristine freshwater, as the deformed fish from the Chaudière River reveal.
Keeping crude-oil-carrying railcars on the state’s tracks is simply not worth it. Less than 1 percent of California’s imported oil is transported by railway. Californians receive little benefit, but bear the risks to their communities and watersheds from this practice.
Since Lac-Mégantic, there have been nine more crude oil derailments, explosions and spills into waterways. We need to learn a lesson from those catastrophes. We must convey to our politicians—local, state and federal—our priority of protecting our communities, fisheries and waterways. Let’s not let what happened in Quebec happen in Butte County.
Repost from Chico News & Review [Editor: This article is well-written and documents gutsy analyses by a regional firefighter and County officials who understand that local safety is at the mercy of federal regulators. Three years of Russian roulette – and more. A “must read.” – RS]
Russian roulette on the railways
Butte County train tracks are Bakken-free for now, but emergency responders fear a return of the volatile fuel
By Evan Tuchinsky, 05.21.15
What is ‘Bakken’?
The light crude oil known as Bakken comes from fracking a geologic formation of that name under North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Less dense and with less carbon, light crudes yield more gasoline than heavier crudes, but also are more volatile.
Trains crash. That fact hit home last week when a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia and also last year, on Nov. 26, when a cargo train derailed in the Feather River Canyon.
The risk of devastation multiplies when the derailed train carries volatile crude oil. A recent spate of those accidents has garnered national attention, too, prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to release new regulations governing the conveyance of flammable liquids. The measures have drawn near-unanimous opposition, though, and done little to assuage lingering local fears.
“My constituents have raised concerns and the Board [of Supervisors] is concerned,” said Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who represents Chico. “We’re hoping that some of the legislation and some of the discussion that comes forward will make even stiffer requirements on the transport of this Bakken oil.”
The DoT regulations came out May 1. Five days later, another oil train crashed, in North Dakota. By last Friday (May 15), both the petroleum industry and environmentalists had filed legal challenges to the DoT’s so-called “final rule.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters also has voiced objections. Representing more than 300,000 firefighters in North America, the IAFF protested a provision that allows railroads to keep the contents of their trains confidential—under the banner of national security.
Russ Fowler, battalion chief with Cal Fire Butte County and coordinator of the local Interagency Hazardous Materials Team, has additional concerns. DoT regulations phase out tank cars that are not up to the current safety standard, rather than pull them off the rails for retrofitting or retirement. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has argued that the alternative would result in increased oil-tanker traffic on highways.
Fowler says one particular railcar commonly used to carry volatile Bakken crude oil, the DOT-111, “just [wasn’t] designed for that product.” Since railroads have until 2018 to get those cars up to standard, “we have three years of potential Russian roulette on our hands if light crude oil is transported down the Feather River Canyon like it was done last fall.”
Cal Fire has communicated with BNSF Railway, Fowler said, and has been told no crude oil deliveries have come through Butte County this year. “I have no reason not to believe them,” he added, though he’s seen DOT-111s riding on Chico tracks.
Lena Kent, BNSF’s spokeswoman for California, confirmed by email that “we are not currently transporting Bakken crude in your county.” She also wrote: “We do provide information to the Office of Emergency Services in California.”
That’s in contrast with last year, when train cars carrying millions of gallons of the explosive oil, reportedly around one shipment per week, did make their way way along the Feather River Canyon. Experts tie the reduction of imports to a reduced demand for the fuel, a lighter type that’s similar to gasoline and thus extremely volatile.
While Cal Fire dreads the prospect of an urban crash, the Feather River Canyon presents a distinct set of frets.
Train tracks head into remote areas that are difficult for emergency responders to reach. Access roads don’t always run adjacent to the rail route—not even parallel in certain spots. Depending on where a crash occurred, spilled oil could contaminate the Feather River and Lake Oroville—a major source of water for California—or could start a forest fire should it ignite.
Even without a blaze or river release, “it would make an ugly, oily mess in the canyon,” Fowler said. “It would be a terrible environmental disaster.”
Butte County supervisors articulated such concerns to the California Public Utility Commission and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, before the DoT released its regulations. OES responded by saying the state is investing in “purchasing new Type II hazardous material emergency response units” and in “local training specific to … rail safety incidents.”
For Supervisor Doug Teeter, the board chair who represents the Ridge, that’s little assurance. He has a powerless feeling—believing “it’s just a matter of time” before an accident happens locally, yet knowing “as a county we have no control” over the rails.
“We’re at the mercy of the federal regulators,” he continued. “All we’re really getting is a little response on improved training and equipment. That is not nearly enough to handle a 100-car spill.”
Either in populated or unpopulated areas.
“We as a hazmat team plan for worst-case scenarios,” Fowler said. “Just because you plan for a worst-case scenario doesn’t mean you can mitigate the worst-case scenario, because there are things that can happen that are so catastrophic that it would overwhelm local resources until more regional or statewide resources could come in to help.”
Should legal challenges fail, and in the absence of local authority, a remedy to the DoT regulations remains: Congress. Teeter recently met with a representative of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Meanwhile, North State Congressman John Garamendi has introduced legislation to make light crude safer for rail transport.
Teeter encourages constituents to write congressional representatives and senators. He finds encouragement even in the controversial DoT regulations, which arose amid an uproar.
“Maybe now we’ll have a voice,” Teeter said. “Maybe something can happen.”
November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail
By Ashley Gebb, 04/13/15, 5:11 PM PDT
Belden >> A November train derailment in the Feather River Canyon was caused by a broken rail, the Enterprise-Record has learned.
As Union Pacific Railroad prepares to replace more than 36 miles of track between Keddie and Lake Oroville, spokesman Francisco Castillo has confirmed a detail fracture caused by cracks led to the derailment of 12 train cars that tumbled into the canyon Nov. 25. The repairs are unrelated and were planned before the accident, Castillo said, part of a greater effort to improve rail safety as transport of crude oil continues to rise.
“Though serious accidents are rare, we recognize that there are still risks associated with rail transportation, just as there are risks with any other mode of transportation. That’s why we follow strict safety practices and work tirelessly to achieve our goal of zero derailments,” he said in an email.
In the early morning of Nov. 25, a westbound train derailed near Virgilia, upstream of Belden, causing 12 loaded hoppers to slide down an embankment toward the North Fork Feather River below, stopping just before the water. No one was injured but the carloads of corn were spread across the hillside and into the river, causing $640,049 in equipment damage and $85,786 in damage to the track.
At the time, emergency officials said the incident underscored the risks associated with train transport in the canyon.
“It’s a concern for us because it shows there is still a history of derailments in the county, especially in the canyon,” Butte County Emergency Services Officer John Gulserian said Monday of the November derailment.
Though the incident occurred in Plumas County, the same railroad lines continue into Butte County, along with whatever the trains are hauling — be it corn or crude oil. The derailment of any such materials can have devastating implications for the water, the environment and wildlife, as well as create a fire danger, Gulserian said.
Because of the remote area and the nature of the spills, the county is not always equipped to deal with the accident and has to wait for other resources, he said.
The canyon area as a whole tends to see a derailment every three to five years, with most similar to the November incident, where only a few cars go off the tracks, he said. The last derailment Gulserian could remember spilled a load of neutralized alcohol near Storrie.
Track failures are linked to 31 percent of all train accidents, and even though such incidents are becoming less common, prevention remains critical, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike Booth. It’s especially important with a 400 percent increase in more volatile Bakken crude oil being shipped out of the North Dakota region.
“It travels to nearly every state and it travels long distances,” he said. “To prevent accidents due to increased traffic going longer distances, we have increased inspection on crude oil routes. … Since the Lac-Mégantic accident two years ago in Canada, it was a bit of a wake-up call for everyone.”
The 2013 incident occurred when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in a fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-seven people were killed, and dozens of buildings were destroyed or critically contaminated.
Railroads are required by law to inspect and maintain their equipment in good repair, and the Federal Railroad Administration ensures that by auditing records and doing spot inspections, Booth said. It also works with the Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which has taken more than two dozen actions to increase the safety of crude oil transport.
“And we are looking for more ways to make it even safer,” Booth said. “We don’t want to have a single derailment …”
In the past 10 years, Castillo said derailments have decreased 38 percent, largely in part to a derailment and risk reduction process, which includes using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections, tracking acoustic vibration on wheels to anticipate failures before they happen, and performing real-time analysis of every rail car via trackside sensors. Employees also participate in rigorous, regular safety training programs that include the identification and prevention of derailments, and Union Pacific trains first responders on ways to minimize the impact of derailment in their communities.
Track maintenance projects are part of Union Pacific’s annual maintenance work and scheduled three to five years in advance, Castillo said. From 2005-14, the railroad invested more than $31 billion in its network and operations to support the transportation infrastructure, and it is in the middle of $26.1 million in improvements in the Feather River Canyon area.
The first project is complete and included replacement of 15.2 miles of rail just east of Oroville. The second project, scheduled to begin next month and be complete in August, will replace 36.3 miles of rail at various locations between Keddie and Lake Oroville.
“The Feather River Canyon upgrades will enhance the safe transport of commodities we transport through the canyon,” Castillo said.
Union Pacific and other entities have been working with Butte County recently to improve safety, Gulserian said. That effort included an exercise March 11 with a simulated train derailment near Chico that provided the opportunity to practice alert notifications, areas of authority, staging materials and alerting the public. Another simulation has been scheduled.
Gulserian said it’s encouraging to hear news of rail replacement, as safety and security of hazardous materials is as much a priority for the county as it is for the railroad.