Tag Archives: Contra Costa Times

Dangerous Oil-by-Rail Is Here, but Railroad Bridge Inspectors Are Not

Repost from ALLGOV.com

Dangerous Oil-by-Rail Is Here, but Railroad Bridge Inspectors Are Not

By Ken Broder, September 18, 2014

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimates there are about 5,000 railroad bridges in California, but doesn’t really know for sure. They are privately owned and inspected and were off the public radar until oil companies started shipping dangerous crude by rail to California refineries in increasingly large quantities.

Governments are not ready to have volatile loads of cargo rolling through sensitive habitats across the state, much less through heavily-populated metropolitan areas. But help is on the way. In March, the CPUC requested funding (pdf) for seven inspectors to specifically handle oil-by-rail, and two of them would focus on bridges.

The Contra Costa Times reported last week that the two inspectors have not yet been hired, but when they are, they will be the only two inspectors checking out the bridges. They will be assisted in their task by the sole federal inspector assigned to the area―an area that includes 11 states.

One of their first jobs will be to find the bridges. There is no comprehensive list. Judging by some industry comments, there may be some reluctance on the part of rail owners to provide all the information the government might ask. Bridge consultant and former American Society of Civil Engineers President Andy Hermann told the Times that the companies kept bridge data secret for competitive reasons.

But not to worry. The owners already do a good job of maintaining the bridges because, in Hermann’s words, “There’s a very strong profit motive to keep the bridges open. Detours will cost them a fortune.” In other words, this would be a situation where a company does not make a risky decision based on short-term, bottom-line considerations that could adversely affect the well-being of people and the environment.

In a report (pdf) to lawmakers on rail safety last December, the CPUC called California’s rail bridges “a potential significant safety risk.” It said most of them “are old steel and timber structures, some over a hundred years old.” Big rail companies tout their safety programs but the report points out often these bridges are owned by small short line railroads “that may not be willing or able to acquire the amount of capital needed to repair or replace degrading bridges.”

That’s bad, but not AS bad when the rail shipments aren’t volatile oil fracked from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, loaded on old rail cars ill-equipped to handle their modern cargo. Federal regulations to upgrade the unsafe cars will probably take at least a few years to complete.

When safety advocates talk about the dangers of crude-by-rail, they invariably cite the derailment last July in Quebec that killed 47 people, burned down 50 buildings and unleashed a “river of burning oil” through sewers and basements. But the Times reached back to 1991 for arguably California’s worst train derailment, albeit sans crude oil.

A train in Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, fell off a bridge and dumped 19,000 gallons of a concentrated herbicide into the Sacramento River. Fish and vegetation died 45 miles away. Some invertebrate species went extinct. Hundreds of people required medical treatment from exposure to the contamination.

Railroads are carrying 25 times more crude oil nationally than they were five years ago. Most oil in California is moved via pipeline or ship. In 2012, only 0.2% of the 598 million barrels of oil arrived by rail in California. But the California Energy Commission (CEC) has said it expects rail to account for a quarter of imports by 2016.

Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, does not want safety measures to amble down the track years after the crude roars through. Its lawyers joined with the Sierra Club and ForestEthics to file a lawsuit in federal court last week to force a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) response to a July legal petition seeking a ban on the type of rail cars that derailed and exploded in Quebec.

A week ago, a San Francisco County Superior Court judge told Earthjustice and other environmental groups they couldn’t sue to halt deliveries of crude oil to a rail terminal in Richmond because the deliveries had been legally permitted by the state―without public notification―and the 180-day deadline to appeal had quietly passed.

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    Martinez Gazette: Background on lawsuit against BAAQMD and Kinder Morgan

    Repost from The Martinez Gazette

    Environmental groups look to halt shipment of crude by rail

    Rick Jones | April 1, 2014

    Environmental groups filed suit Thursday against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and energy company Kinder Morg­an to halt the shipment of highly explosive and toxic crude oil into Richmond.

    Kinder Morgan receives crude oil by rail at its Richmond terminal, where it is transferred to trucks, under a Feb. 3 permit from the BAAQMD, of which Martinez City Councilman Mark Ross is a member.

    A KPIX-CBS report found the oil is loaded onto trucks, some of which travel through Martinez to the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery.

    A spokeswoman for the Tesoro refinery confirmed to the Contra Costa Times its facility receives between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude. That is about two to four trains per month, and is received through a third-party facility, the spokeswoman, Tina Barbee, told the Times.

    The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court Thursday by Communities for a Better Environment, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, asks for a preliminary injunction against further crude oil operations at Kinder Morgan and suspension of the air district permit, pending a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

    According the Earth First website, “the Air District (BAAQMD) issued Kinder Morgan a permit to operate its crude-by-rail project in early February, without any notice to the public or environmental and health review. The case asks the court to halt operations immediately while the project undergoes a full and transparent review under the CEQA.”

    “If the BAAQMD board knew nothing about the permit, it should be embarrassed, and it should actually exercise its authority and hold its staff accountable to the community,” Communities for a Better Environment organizer Andres Soto told Earth First. “The BAAQMD’s hush-hush permitting process for the Kinder Morgan permit reinforces the high level of distrust that the community has towards the BAAQMD staff. They lied to us during the Chevron fire, and now we are seeing them make backroom deals with industry in their permitting.”

    Bakken crude, a light, flammable variety named after oil fields in North Dakota and an adjacent part of Canada,  is extremely explosive and toxic. In January, the U.S. federal agency that regulates hazardous materials on the rails issued an alert, stating that Bakken crude may be more flammable than other types of crude. In both the U.S. and Canada, as the number of train cars carrying crude oil has quadrupled over the past six years, accidents, explosions and derailments have dramatically increased. Last July, a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a town in Quebec, Canada, killing 47 local residents and destroying most of the downtown area.

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