Tag Archives: California Senator Barbara Boxer

Firefighter battalion chief: Russian roulette on the railways

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
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Russ Fowler says the Department of Transportation’s new rules regarding traincar safety are insufficient. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL FIRE

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.”

 

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    California bridge inspectors getting started – will visit only 30 of 5,000 bridges in 2015

    Repost from The Sacramento Bee

    Editorial: California makes progress on train safety by inspecting railroad bridges

    By the Editorial Board, Oct. 9, 2014
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    Emergency responders learn about the different types of railroad tank cars in a safety class last week at a CSX yard in Richmond, Va. CSX uses its “safety train” to train first responders in communities where it hauls large volumes of crude oil. Curtis Tate / McClatchy-Tribune

    It’s encouraging that important steps are being taken to make sure oil trains rumbling through California don’t derail, but the job isn’t nearly done yet.

    For the first time, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to check behind safety inspections by private railroad companies of rail bridges across the state, focusing on those traversed by trains carrying crude oil.

    The commission is deploying two new bridge inspectors – among seven new rail inspectors hired with money allocated by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in response to rising concerns about more oil trains in California. The two inspectors will likely work as a team, visiting four bridges a week. They won’t be doing full inspections, but rather reviewing that the railroads’ safety checks are in proper order.

    At that rate, it would take 50 years to check all 5,000 rail bridges, as The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak reported this week. That obviously isn’t fast enough.

    So the commission is compiling a priority list of the first 30 bridges for visits in 2015. Here are two possible ones that should be strongly considered: the heavily used, 103-year-old I Street Bridge in downtown Sacramento and the Clear Creek Trestle in Feather River Canyon. Both are expected to be on primary routes for oil trains.

    It’s also significant that state and local officials are pushing for a more complete risk assessment of Valero’s proposal to run oil trains through Northern California to its Benicia refinery.

    Late last month, the utilities commission and the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response joined the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the cities of Davis and Sacramento in raising concerns that the city of Benicia’s draft environmental impact report underestimated the potential of explosion and fire from two 50-car trains going daily through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis and other cities. Attorney General Kamala Harris has jumped on the bandwagon, too.

    For one thing, state officials say they want more detail on how Benicia officials came up with a projection that a train derailment would spill 100 gallons or more of oil only once every 111 years along the 69 miles of track between Roseville and Benicia.

    At the same time, California’s two U.S. senators are pressing federal transportation officials to expand their requirements for railroads to notify first responders of oil shipments. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s emergency order, issued in May, covers only shipments of at least 1 million gallons (about 35 rail cars) of crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

    Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein say that notification ought to be required for any quantity of Bakken, or any kind of crude oil or other flammable liquid, for that matter.

    They’re right. If safety is the goal, there’s no logical reason that smaller shipments and other kinds of crude aren’t covered. The notification mandate is among proposed rules on oil trains that federal officials plan to impose by year’s end. They also include phasing out older rail cars, lower speed limits and more comprehensive response plans for spills.

    Those federal regulations will become even more crucial if California’s two major railroad companies – BNSF and Union Pacific – win their federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenges a new state law requiring them to come up with oil spill prevention and response plans. The companies argue that federal law prevents states from imposing such safety rules.

    This is often how important safety improvements get made – step by step, at different levels of government, with advocates having to keep pushing for stronger protections against industry resistance. Everyone involved should have one priority – putting public safety first and foremost.

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      Oregon & California Senators ask for more oil train notifications

      Repost from The Seattle Times
      [Editor: Significant quote: “The four senators are…asking Foxx to lower the threshold for reporting to no higher than 20 carloads. They say most of the accidents with the exception of the Lac-Magentic disaster were caused by smaller and non-Bakken shipments and resulted in explosions, fires or environmental contamination. In one case, the train carried 14 carloads of flammable liquids; in another, 18 carloads.”  – RS]

      Senators ask for more oil train notifications

      By Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press, September 30, 2014

      PORTLAND, Ore. — Four West Coast senators are asking the federal government to expand a recent order for railroads to notify state emergency responders of crude oil shipments.

      The letter, sent Monday to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, says railroads should supply states with advanced notification of all high-hazard flammable liquid transports — including crude from outside the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, as well as ethanol and 71 other liquids.

      The letter was signed by Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

      In May, Foxx ordered railroads operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil — or about 35 tank cars — to inform states that the trains traverse. The order came in the wake of repeated oil train derailments, including in Lac-Magentic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed.

      The West Coast has received unprecedented amounts of crude oil by rail shipments in recent years. More than a dozen oil-by-rail refining or loading facilities and terminals have been built in California, Oregon and Washington, with another two dozen new projects or expansions in the works in the three states.

      But according to the California Energy Commission, oil from the Bakken region accounted just for a fourth of crude-by-rail deliveries to California since 2012. Canadian oil — which travels to California through Washington and Oregon, as well as through Idaho and Montana — accounted for as much as 76 percent of California oil deliveries, the senators wrote.

      Non-Bakken oil is also delivered to refineries and loading facilities in Oregon and Washington — including a terminal in Portland. A controversial proposed terminal in Vancouver, Washington, would also receive some non-Bakken crude.

      Wyden and Merkley in June similarly urged Foxx to expand his order to cover crude from all parts of the U.S. and Canada. Transportation Safety Board Chairman Chris Hart wrote the two senators that month saying all crude shipments are flammable and a risk to communities and the environment — not just the Bakken oil.

      The four senators are now repeating the same demand and are also asking Foxx to lower the threshold for reporting to no higher than 20 carloads. They say most of the accidents with the exception of the Lac-Magentic disaster were caused by smaller and non-Bakken shipments and resulted in explosions, fires or environmental contamination. In one case, the train carried 14 carloads of flammable liquids; in another, 18 carloads.

      The Association of American Railroads has said the rail industry is complying with Foxx’s original order and the group would have to see the specifics of any proposed changes before commenting further.

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