Tag Archives: Cuesta Grade

Mayor of San Luis Obispo: Safety is not a partisan issue

Repost from The Tribune, San Luis Obispo, California

Put politics aside and think safety first when it comes to oil trains

Risks associated with increased oil train activity are too great; supervisors must act to protect our communities from disaster
VIEWPOINT, By Jan Marx, July 17, 2015
Jan Marx | Photo by Joe Johnston

Like other residents of the city of San Luis Obispo, I am proud of our beautiful 165-year-old city, dubbed the “Happiest City in North America.” Residents may be happy about our city, but we are not happy about the risks proposed by the Phillips 66 rail spur expansion project.

Why? As we’ve all seen on the news, when trains carrying this oil derail, they don’t just spill — they explode, and burn for days. Those derailments and resulting hazardous air and soil contamination have increased as oil-by-rail transport has increased. The Phillips 66 project would result in five or more additional trains a week bearing highly volatile crude from far away oil fields, traveling through our communities to Nipomo, each train approximately a mile in length. Residents, to put it mildly, do not want these oil trains traveling through our city.

In response to concerned city residents , the San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously to write a letter to the county Board of Supervisors opposing this project and asking them to protect the safety, health and economic well-being of our city. The city of San Luis Obispo is honored to lead the way in our county and stand alongside a growing number of cities, counties and public agencies throughout the state, allied in opposition to this project.

The increased risk posed by this project is a major statewide issue and is a threat to every community with a railroad running through it. However, this project poses a uniquely extreme risk to the city of San Luis Obispo, made even more extreme by our unique topography.

Just to our north, in the open space immediately behind Cal Poly, is the mountainous Cuesta Grade area, which Union Pacific Railroad has rated as one of the state’s highest risk areas for derailments.

This unspoiled and beautiful part of our greenbelt, full of sensitive species and habitat, with the railroad tracks and Highway 101 snaking through it, is also rated by Cal Fire as being at extreme risk for wildfire. The current extreme drought has created a tinder-dry situation, and when under Santa Ana-downdraft conditions, our city is often downwind from Cuesta Grade.

Were there to be an oil car derailment in the Cuesta Grade or Cal Poly area, the campus — with its 20,000 students and 10,000 staff members — as well as the densely populated downtown and northern part of our city would be extremely difficult to defend from the ensuing oil fire.

However, that is not the only area of our city that would be threatened, because the railroad tracks go right through the heart of our city, putting most of our residents, visitors, businesses and structures at risk.

Our emergency responders are simply not funded, trained or equipped to deal with a disaster of the magnitude threatened by this project. If there were an oil disaster in our community, we taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for firefighting, hazardous material cleanup and repair of infrastructure. The damage to our lives, our environment and our economy would be devastating.

Like all businesses, Union Pacific and Phillips 66 desire to increase profits for their shareholders. But the problem is that these businesses wish to do so by vastly increasing our community’s risk of exposure to an oil-train disaster. Are we going to be forced to bear that risk? Is there no way to protect ourselves?

The answer to that question is up to the Board of Supervisors. As the permitting agency, the county Board of Supervisors is in a uniquely crucial position. It is the only entity in the county with the land use authority to deny the permits, which are needed for the project to proceed.

County residents have the opportunity to urge the Board of Supervisors to reject this project. They should do so for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of everyone who lives or works within the “oil car blast zone,” approximately a half-mile on each side of the railroad tracks.

The supervisors have the opportunity to put political differences aside and make the safety and wellbeing of their constituents their first priority by rejecting this project. Hopefully, they will rise to the challenge.

Safety, after all, is not a partisan issue.

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    San Luis Obispo Refinery Wants Oil by Train

    Repost from The Santa Barbara Independent

    SLO Refinery Wants Oil by Train

    Phillips 66 Runs into Public Resistance over Proposal to Lay New Tracks and Unload More Canadian Crude

    By Natalie Cherot, January 23, 2015

    Courtesy PhotoA slow-moving pipeline moves a haul of crude oil to a refinery just north of the Santa Barbara County border. Stand on the nearby coast’s 18,000-year-old sand dunes and look away from the sea, and a perfect view emerges of the expansive Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery. The name is a misnomer. The San Luis Obispo facility on the Nipomo Mesa is 17 miles northwest from the City of Santa Maria. Directly south is the Santa Maria River.

    Golden Sierra Madre mountains shimmer in the distance, and hearty sage scrub surrounds its perimeter alongside grazing cattle. The night sky around the facility is never dark; its aquarium lights border on festive. The illumination is necessary because the refinery is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It begins the process of turning crude into a finished product like gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel, and pumps the semi-refined batches 200 miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area plants for finishing.

    With oil prices dropping and California supplies both dwindling and facing harsh competition from North Dakota, much speculation swirls on the question of what kind of oil will arrive to the refinery on the dunes in the coming years. Right now it is “mostly used for California-produced oil,” said Phillips 66 spokesperson Rich Johnson.

    But as of 2013, Phillips 66’s newest product is Canadian tar sands, a thick, gooey combination of clay, sand, water, and viscous bitumen. It’s hard to control and expensive to process. The Kearl Lake tar sands field cuts through Alberta’s boreal forest and wetlands, and has been turned into a mined landscape. An estimated 170 billion more barrels are still available for the taking.

    In the summer of 2013, Phillips 66 submitted permit applications to San Luis Obispo County’s Planning Commission to add 1.3 miles of train track to its Santa Maria Refinery’s existing rail spur so crude can be delivered by train rather than by pipe. The proposed upgrades, which include five parallel tracks, an unloading facility, and new on-site pipelines, wouldn’t increase the amount of crude processed at the facility — volume is capped by the county’s Air Pollution Control District — but they reflect an increasing amount of oil train traffic across the country. BusinessWeek.com reported that it’s tripled in the last four years.

    According to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the facility would be able to handle five train unloads a week for a maximum of 250 a year. Each train with about 80 tanks on board would carry between 1.8 million and 2.1 million gallons of crude.

    A first draft of the EIR — which indicated that both Canadian tar sands and North Dakota Bakken formation crude would be carried on the trains — was published that fall and received 800 public comments. The massive amount of feedback, much of it negative, prompted the Planning Commission to delay a final decision on the project. The commission issued a second 889-page draft EIR in October 2014, and a few weeks from now, a public comment period will take place. The date has not been finalized.

    The biggest contention in the first draft was about Bakken crude. “The bottom line is Bakken Crude likes to burn and it will not take much to get it going,” wrote Paul Lee, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning and Building Department. For preparation of the second draft EIR, Phillips 66 requested the county “delete statements suggesting that the Bakken oilfield as the most likely source of crude oil.” The new draft EIR states no Bakken will arrive by rail. Phillips’s spokesperson Rich Johnson said the refinery can’t handle the sweeter, lighter Bakken crude, as it specializes in the ultra-heavy tar sands.

    Four accidents involving Bakken crude are mentioned in the latest report. A 30,000-barrel spill occurred in April 2014 in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a transport train derailed and erupted into flames. In November 2013, a train jumped the tracks in Aliceville, Alabama. Twelve tanker cars of Bakken spilled and caught fire. The next month, another oil train crashed in Casselton, North Dakota, where 20 cars of Bakken exploded and burned for 24 hours. Forty-seven people died when a train carrying the crude derailed and exploded in Quebec on July 2013.

    The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a warning to move transportation of Bakken oil away from highly populated areas because of explosion risks. “Most think that Crude will not get going unless it gets warmed up first and in some cases that is correct, [but] Bakken Crude does not need to be aggravated to burn or even explode,” wrote Lee. “The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is concerned about its ability to explode so much in fact that there is a recommendation to have rail avoid populated areas.”

    Phillips 66’s rail expansion plan is part of larger national strategy to better accommodate tar sands coming out of the ground quicker than the current system of pipelines can handle. “Our real challenge that we have, or opportunity that we have, is to get advantaged crudes to the East Coast and West Coast,” said Greg Garland, chairman and CEO of Phillips 66, at the Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference last year. “So we’re working that in terms of moving Canadian crudes down into California or building rail facilities.”

    Two thousands miles north in Alberta, Canada, the contentious Keystone XL pipeline would transport tar sands through Montana, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Houston. The pipeline’s foes claim the fuel is too emission-intensive and corrosive to pipelines. Supporters say if the Keystone XL is blocked, tar sands will come by the more dangerous transportation methods of boat or rail. Recent Philips 66 literature states: “Until new pipeline projects come online, rail is in many cases the easiest and most cost efficient way to get advantaged crude to some of our refineries.”

    Trains coming and going from Santa Maria Refinery would travel the path of the Union Pacific Rail, on tracks shared by Amtrak. They would make the journey north through the Nipomo Mesa, up the precarious Cuesta Grade through Paso Robles, Salinas, and San Jose. Then they head through Richmond, then Berkeley. Richmond and Berkeley city councils recently passed resolutions calling for stricter regulations on crude oil trains.

    The paths of the trains coming from the south — and carrying crude from any number of sources — are unclear and not ironed out in the draft EIR, but they would likely go through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A potential path indicated in the report heads through downtown Moorpark at the eastern edge of Ventura County after it passes through Simi Valley, but that potential route may have hit a glitch.

    On December 17, the Moorpark City Council voted to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission opposing Phillip 66’s proposal because of its potentially hazardous risks. “I feel strongly that we need to show a little bit of leadership here as a city to formally object to this,” said one councilmember. “Hopefully other cities along this track will as well.” According to the report, once the trains leave Moorpark they could head through Camarillo to Ventura and along the coast to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Goleta.

    Johnson does not see much long-term job growth — or even stability — at the refinery given its current pipeline setup and a recent dip in statewide supplies. To stay competitive, company officials have argued, the refinery needs to revamp its intake methods so it can accept crude from other sources. “We are trying to keep the jobs we have,” Johnson said of the 200 people working at the plant. “Oil production in California is on the decline.” Rumors of a too-twisted and warped Monterey Shale formation from years of tectonic activity became a public reality in May when the government agency, Energy Information Administration, downgraded a predicted 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil to 600 million.

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      Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee
      [Editor: See video of reporter Tony Bizjak’s ride on the inspection car here.  – RS]

      Union Pacific boosts rail inspections in high-hazard mountain passes

      By Tony Bizjak, 10/19/2014
      Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order.
      Mike Stoddard oversees the operation of Union Pacific Railroad’s EC-4 as it makes its way out of the Roseville yard on Oct. 6 in Roseville. The EC-4 is a 96-ton, 82-foot-long rolling track inspection car which travels 800-1500 miles a week making sure that heavily used railroad tracks are in good working order. Randy Pench

      Faced with public concern about the risks of crude oil shipments, the Union Pacific railroad last month boosted its rail inspection program on mountain passes in California and the West, dispatching high-tech vehicles with lasers to check tracks for imperfections.

      UP officials say they have leased two rail inspection vehicles, called geometry cars, doubling the number of computer-based safety cars in use on the company’s tracks. The move comes amid mounting public concern about hazardous-material shipments, including a growing quantity of highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota being shipped to West Coast refineries.

      The inspection cars will supplement similar geometry cars UP owns that it uses to inspect hundreds of miles of tracks daily on the company’s main lines west of the Mississippi River. Running at regular train speeds, the inspection vehicles can detect tiny deviations and wear on rail lines that could cause a derailment if allowed to grow, UP officials said.

      The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, UP officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.

      In Southern California, the inspection vehicles will patrol UP’s looping line over the Tehachapi Mountains, as well as the line on the Cuesta grade in San Luis Obispo County. The trains also will check mountain rails in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

      “We’re ensuring we keep crude oil trains on the track,” said David Wickersham, UP’s chief maintenance engineer in the West. “We are going to time it so we are hitting California every three months.”

      State rail safety chief Paul King of the California Public Utilities Commission applauded the move. “It’s easy to maintain a straight (flat) railroad, but it’s not as easy to maintain a curved rail like you find in the mountains,” King said.

      Grady Cothen, a retired Federal Railroad Administration safety official, said the type of high-tech inspections cars UP is using have become a must for major railroad companies. With more freight moving through limited rail corridors, especially mountains, the financial and political implications of a major derailment that causes damage are huge for railroads.

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        New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

        Repost from The Sacramento Bee
        [Editor: This interactive OES map, “Rail Risk and Response” is an incredibly detailed resource – as you zoom in, additional features appear.  Hazards shown on the map include geologically unstable areas, proximity to dense population centers, proximity to waterways, schools and hospitals, pipelines, sensitive species or habitat, etc.  The story in the Sacramento Bee does not contain a link to the map.   Here’s the intro page for the interactive map.   And here’s the map itself.  – RS]

        New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

        By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers, Jul. 4, 2014

        A map put together by multiple state agencies in California shows that the location and capability of emergency response teams don’t always align with the biggest risks presented by an expected increase in crude oil shipments by rail in the coming years.

        The map shows that the state’s largest population centers, including Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, have the most robust emergency response capabilities.

        But rural stretches of California’s rail network, including locations with a history of derailments, have the least equipped and least trained emergency response teams, according to the map produced by the Interagency Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety.

        The map shows large concentrations of hospitals, schools and neighborhoods around many rail lines through California cities. Additionally, it shows that the state’s rail network frequently intersects with fault lines, rivers and streams and sensitive wildlife habitats.

        California has some of the best-trained and best-equipped emergency response teams in the country, according to some experts, but they’re not always where they’re needed.

        “Proximity matters,” said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

        Since Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a shift in state oil spill and prevention resources in his budget in January, members of the California Legislature have held hearings and offered legislation to improve the state’s preparedness.

        “Everyone recognizes this is a critical need throughout the state,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills.

        Starting next year, California will begin imposing a 6.5-cent-a-barrel fee on oil transported to the state by rail to fund oil spill response and prevention efforts. State lawmakers have introduced another bill to levy an additional fee to train and equip firefighters who may be called to respond to a rail incident.

        California officials soon expect the state to receive as much as a quarter of its oil supply by rail, which means more frequent train movements through the state’s highest-risk areas.

        “It makes what we’re doing that much more important,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

        The map was presented last week by the state Environmental Protection Agency at a workshop on crude oil trends at Berkeley City College. It shows a dearth of response capability in locations where derailments have occurred more frequently, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

        These include the Cantara Loop on the upper Sacramento River, the site of a 1991 train derailment that released thousands of gallons of pesticide, killing fish along a 40-mile stretch of the river.

        They also include the Feather River Canyon, which according to documents released last week by OES, is the route of a twice-monthly train of Bakken crude oil. The trains, operated by BNSF, pass through Sacramento on their way to a rail terminal in Richmond.

        “A spill into these sources of water makes it even more problematic,” Pavley said.

        Another vulnerable site: Cuesta Grade, a steep, serpentine stretch of track north of San Luis Obispo. A proposed crude-by-rail terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria, south of San Luis Obispo, would bring five 80-car oil trains a week over the line, operated by Union Pacific.

        Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said that the railroad had reached out to fire departments across California in the communities where it operates and has offered “comprehensive” hazardous materials training to first responders around the state.

        “We annually train local, state and federal first-responders on protocols to minimize the impact of a derailment in their communities,” he said.

        BNSF, the railroad that hauls more crude oil than any in North America, is offering hazardous materials training for hundreds of firefighters, including some in Sacramento, according to spokeswoman Lena Kent.

        Trains transporting crude oil are not new in California. From 1983 to 1997, Southern Pacific Railroad operated one such train every day between Bakersfield and South Los Angeles over the Tehachapi Pass.

        But that oil was thicker California crude that doesn’t ignite easily, and it was also transported in specially designed tank cars. Much of the crude oil coming into the state today is lighter and more flammable, and it’s loaded into a fleet of tank cars with a long record of failure in derailments.

        “In light of new risks, it’s essential for first responders to have the right training and equipment to prepare for and respond to accidents,” said Curtis Brundage, a hazardous materials specialist with the San Bernardino Fire Department, in a state Senate hearing last month.

        The worst accident occurred a year ago, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. An unmanned Bakken crude oil train broke loose and derailed in the center of town. Massive fires and explosions killed 47 people and leveled entire blocks of buildings.

        More derailments followed, though none fatal, as the railroads and the federal government initiated a series of safety improvements. Emergency response officials from all over the country have testified in Washington in the past few months that local fire departments lack the resources to confront large fires from trains carrying 3 million gallons of oil.

        In a report last month, OES made a dozen recommendations to improve the safety of California communities, including increased track inspections, stronger tank cars, more funding for emergency response and better notification of hazardous shipments from the railroads.

        Hill gives the railroads credit for taking the issue seriously with stepped-up track inspections, new operating procedures, orders for stronger tank cars and offers to train emergency personnel. But he added that state lawmakers and agencies were right to push for more before a trickle of oil shipments by rail to California turned into a steady stream.

        “We saw what happened elsewhere,” he said. “This is just to make sure California is prepared.”

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