Tag Archives: Columbia River

Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh…this sounds SO familiar….  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  – RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

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    Tesoro Savage Port of Vancouver report: 28 more oil trains each week; salmon, earthquake, derailment risks, etc.

    Repost from the Seattle Times
    [Editor:  The press is full of revealing information taken from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) analyzing the proposed Tesoro Savage Vancouver Energy Project.  The document was released yesterday.  Several media links are provided below.  – RS]

    28 more oil trains across state each week if big terminal built, study says

    By Hal Bernton,  November 24, 2015, Updated 11/25/15 9:25 am

    A major oil terminal proposed for Vancouver, Wash., would bring an additional 28 oil trains per week across the state and launch a new era of oil-tanker traffic down the Columbia River, according to a draft state study released Tuesday.
    …but concerns about the risks of oil-train derailments … the study noted that trains also may deliver bitumen — a heavier crude …  [FULL STORY]

    Also see:

     

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      Portland City Council passes resolution to prevent more crude oil trains

      Repost from the Portland Business Journal
      [Editor:  See also this excellent report from EcoReport (by Roy Hales).  – RS]

      City Council passes resolution to prevent more crude oil-carrying trains in Portland

      By James Cronin, Nov 5, 2015, 7:04am PST

      Portland City Council on Wednesday passed one of two resolutions on banning fossil fuel expansion in Portland while tabling the other until next week.

      Commissioners, facing a standing-room only crowd at City Hall, passed a resolution opposing the increase of crude oil-carrying trains in and around the city. The second resolution, which opposes expansion of infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting or storing fossil fuels in or through Portland or adjacent waterways, was tabled until Nov. 12.

      The Portland City Council debate on resolutions banning the expansion of fossil fuel projects in Portland drew dozens of supporters to City Hall Wednesday.
      The Portland City Council debate on resolutions banning the expansion of fossil fuel projects in Portland drew dozens of supporters to City Hall Wednesday. Cathy Cheney | Portland Business Journal

      The contentious topic has pitted environmentalists who want dirty fuels to be a thing of the past against economic development hawks that see sizable financial investments and job creation in things like propane pipelines and natural gas terminals.

      The battle landed in City Hall Wednesday, where sign-carrying activists gathered outside as Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed their joint resolutions. The hearing garnered so much interest that city officials needed to open an overflow room to accommodate the crowd.

      Scores of residents, activists and industry types filled the hall. Some carried small dowels with red and yellow ribbons attached. When speakers extolled Portland’s curbing of greenhouse gases or other perceived environmental wins, attendees shook their ribbons in rustling applause.

      “Communities along the Columbia River are faced with an unprecedented and new threat — the idea of moving vast quantities of fossil fuels in oil trains down the Columbia River in trains that are known to derail, spill and ignite,” Dan Serres, conservation director for environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, told the council. “The oil train resolution you are considering is both timely and appropriate because there are over a hundred trains per week that could be headed down the Columbia River. A spill in the Columbia River would decimate salmon habitat, disrupt river traffic and threaten drinking water supplies downstream.”

      The resolutions resulted from Mayor Charlie Hales’ about-face on Pembina Pipeline Corp.’s planned $500 million propane terminal at the Port of Portland this summer, which he helped to stall after initially supporting the project.

      Hales refused to bring a necessary environmental amendment for the project to the full city council for a hearing and potentially a vote, and went on to create the resolutions to ban future fossil fuel expansion.

      The scene should be just as robust next week when council resumes its discussion on the second resolution, a broader measure that expands the city’s opposition to fossil fuel developments to projects beyond those that rely on rail cars.

      That’s an issue that’s critical to the Port of Portland, which pursued the propane deal with Pembina. Curtis Robinhold, the port’s deputy executive director, said the language in the resolution is so vague that it become unclear exactly what types of energy projects the port could pursue for its property.

      “There are no real definitions in the resolutions,” Robinhold said. “They clearly would apply to coal and heavy hydrocarbons like in an oil export terminal, but we don’t have any of those planned anyway. We already said we wouldn’t do coal or crude right now. What about natural gas infrastructure? What about propane? What about LNG (liquefied natural gas) used for ships The shipping industry is shifting to LNG to power vessels, reducing emissions for steaming across the Pacific. We’re not sure what it does or doesn’t apply to. The language is very vague.”

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