Tag Archives: Deborah Hersman

NEW YORK TIMES: Dangerous Trains, Aging Rails

Repost from The New York Times
[Editor:  Another excellent investigative report by Marcus Stern.  New information here – another must-read for CBR opponents.  See his highly-acclaimed December report, Boom! North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem.  – RS]

Dangerous Trains, Aging Rails

By Marcus Stern, March 12, 2015

A CSX freight train ran off the rails last month in rural Mount Carbon, W.Va. One after another, exploding rail cars sent hellish fireballs hundreds of feet into the clear winter sky. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, and the fires burned for several days.

The Feb. 16 accident was one of a series of recent fiery derailments highlighting the danger of using freight trains to ship crude oil from wellheads in North Dakota to refineries in congested regions along America’s coastlines. The most recent was last week, when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train with roughly 100 cars derailed, causing at least two cars, each with about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, to explode, burn and leak near the Mississippi River, south of Galena, Ill.

These explosions have generally been attributed to the design of the rail cars — they’re notoriously puncture-prone — and the volatility of the oil; it tends to blow up. Less attention has been paid to questions surrounding the safety and regulation of the nation’s aging network of 140,000 miles of freight rails, which carry their explosive cargo through urban corridors, sensitive ecological zones and populous suburbs.

Case in point: The wooden trestles that flank the Mobile and Ohio railroad bridge, built in 1898, as it traverses Alabama’s Black Warrior River between the cities of Northport and Tuscaloosa. Oil trains rumble roughly 40 feet aloft, while joggers and baby strollers pass underneath. One of the trestles runs past the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. Yet when I visited last May, many of the trestles’ supports were rotted and some of its cross braces were dangling or missing.

The public has only one hope of finding out if such centenarian bridges are still sturdy enough to carry these oil trains. Ask the railroads. That’s because the federal government doesn’t routinely inspect rail bridges. In fact, the government lacks any engineering standards whatsoever for rail bridges. Nor does it have an inventory of them.

The only significant government intrusion into the railroads’ self-regulation of the nation’s 70,000 to 100,000 railroad bridges is a requirement that the companies inspect them each year. But the Federal Railroad Administration, which employed only 76 track inspectors as of last year, does not routinely review the inspection reports and allows each railroad to decide for itself whether or not to make repairs.

The railroad that operates the Tuscaloosa bridge, Watco Companies, and the Federal Railroad Administration assured me it was safe. But shortly after my reporting was published on the websites of InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel, Watco announced that it would make $2.5 million in repairs. And the Department of Transportation’s inspector general said it would begin a review of the F.R.A.’s oversight of rail bridges.

Even where federal engineering standards do exist, it’s unclear how much safety they provide. For instance, federal track safety standards allow 19 out of 24 crossties to be defective along any 39-foot stretch of the lowest grade of track, where the speed limit is 10 m.p.h. These crossties stabilize the rails. On the best of tracks, which have a speed limit of 80 m.p.h., the standards allow half of the crossties to be decayed or missing.

Five oil trains have exploded in the United States in the last 16 months. Miraculously, there have been no deaths. Canada, however, hasn’t been so lucky. In July 2013, an oil train carrying North Dakota oil burst into flames in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border, killing 47 people.

After that accident, federal officials promised to develop sweeping new regulations to make sure nothing like it happens in the United States. In the interim, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to get federal permission before leaving trains unattended with their engines running, a major factor in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. And the railroads agreed to a number of voluntary steps, including keeping oil trains under 50 m.p.h.

But more than a year and a half after Lac-Mégantic, new regulations have yet to be finalized as the railroad and oil industries argue about various proposed provisions. The emergency order didn’t end the practice of railroads’ leaving oil trains on tracks with their engines running; it simply required companies to have a written plan for doing so. And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit.

For trackside communities, the stakes are obviously high. New hydraulic fracturing technology has allowed oil developers to tap vast amounts of deeply buried oil in parts of North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Without significant new pipeline capacity, the only way to get the oil to refineries is by train. Rail car shipments of crude oil rose from 9,500 in 2008 to more than 400,000 last year.

To protect communities and the environment, the Transportation Department needs to act quickly to require more resilient rail cars, improve the safety of rail infrastructure and operations, and reduce the volatility of oil at the wellhead, before it is loaded onto trains.

Instead, the debate over regulations inches along as oil trains continue to roll through downtown Philadelphia, suburban Chicago and along the Hudson River in New York and the Schuylkill in eastern Pennsylvania, passing close to a nuclear power plant.

Before leaving office last year, Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned whether industry representatives and regulators had a tombstone mentality when it came to oil trains. If nobody dies, she suggested, there’s no pressure to act. So far, the tombstones have all been in Canada.

Marcus Stern has examined the hazards of shipping oil by rail for InsideClimate News, the Weather Channel and the Investigative Fund. He reports for a San Diego-based writers group, Hashtag30.
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    CBS News: Kansas derailment raises vital rail safety questions

    Repost from CBS News
    [Editor: Apologies for the commercial ad in the otherwise excellent video.  – RS]

    Kansas derailment raises vital rail safety questions

    January 3, 2015


    Rail safety is back in the spotlight after a new warning from federal regulators.

    The National Transportation Safety Board is urging railroads to take immediate action following its investigation of a derailment in Kansas. No one was hurt in the derailment, but it raised new questions about whether America’s rail network — carrying cargo and passengers — is as safe as it could be, CBS News’ Mark Albert reports.

    The collision in September between two Union Pacific freight trains in Galva, Kansas, may have come down, in part, to a light bulb.

    In a news release Friday, the NTSB said a green LED light was so bright it out-shined the old-fashioned, incandescent red stoplight nearby. The engineer accelerated, plowing into an oncoming train.

    The NTSB now wants all railroads to eliminate any lighting hazards nationwide. It’s the latest in a string of safety issues in the past 18 months on America’s 140,000 miles of rails.

    “What we know is the regulators are behind the curve,” said former NTSB chair Deborah Hersman, who sounded the alarm about crude oil shipments in April. “We’re losing cars. We’re losing millions of gallons of petroleum, and we aren’t prepared.”

    Eight days later, train cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River in Virginia.

    In December 2013, a derailment in North Dakota caused a huge fireball. And in July 2013, 47 people died after a derailment in Quebec, Canada. The train was carrying oil from North Dakota’s booming Bakken oil region.

    McClatchy correspondent Curtis Tate acknowledges that the government and the railroads are making strides to make rail travel safer.

    “Absolutely, they are,” he said. “The problem is it was too late for 47 people in Quebec.”

    Tate published an investigation this week that found gaps in rail oversight, including:

    The government lets railroads do their own bridge inspections.
    There is no federal database on those bridge conditions, like there is with roads.

    New rules that make railroads tell states when large oil shipments pass through only apply to higher-risk Bakken crude — not other types of oil.

    “I’d like to think that they’re doing the best they can,” Tate said. “But the question is, will that be enough?”

    In a statement to CBS News, the Association of American Railroads said the industry spends half a billion dollars per week on safety.

    The Department of Transportation is expected to issue new federal rules by spring that may include stronger tank cars, tighter speed restrictions and tougher braking requirements.

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      Examiner Op Ed: Our fight to stop the bomb trains traveling through our backyards

      Repost from The San Francisco Examiner

      Our fight to stop the bomb trains traveling through our backyards

      By Suma Peesapati, August 28, 2014
      Casselton, N.D.
      Bruce Crummy/2013 AP file photo | An oil train derailed on Dec. 30 in Casselton, N.D. It was one of a handful of recent incidents of rail cars carrying crude oil exploding and going up in flames.

      “This issue needs to be acted on very quickly. There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed. We don’t need a higher body count before they move forward.”

      It was a mark-my-words moment from National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman at her farewell appearance before stepping down from the position in April.

      She was speaking about the explosive growth of the use of unsafe tanker cars to haul crude oil extracted from the Bakken reserve in North Dakota and Montana to refineries across our nation. When involved in derailments, many of these cars carrying the highly volatile fossil fuel are vulnerable to puncture and explosion upon impact. They were the cars that were involved in explosions in Aliceville, Alaska, in November, Casselton, N.D., a month later and, of course, last summer’s horrific reckoning in Lac Megantic, Quebec.

      Not two weeks after Hersman made her remarks, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lynchburg, Va., igniting a roaring blaze and prompting the evacuation of the entire downtown. The tankers involved, however, weren’t the cars that the former chairwoman was warning about. They were a tougher, supposedly safer car tank car that the rail and oil industry is slowly moving toward adopting. It begs the question, though, are these newer cars going to be safe enough?

      This question recently hit home when a local news station exposed a clandestine crude by rail-loading operation in Richmond, here in the Bay Area, that had been flying under the radar for months. After making a backroom deal with the local air district, Kinder Morgan secured approval to introduce this highly explosive fracked crude through urban Bay Area neighborhoods without any public notice or environmental review.

      Within two weeks after the story broke, Earthjustice sued the air district and Kinder Morgan, demanding a full public airing of the project’s risks to public health and safety. A hearing on the merits of this case is scheduled for Sept. 5 in San Francisco Superior Court. While we await our day in court, Kinder Morgan is unloading its crude just a half-mile from Washington Elementary School, in a low-income community of color that the air district recognizes as already overburdened by the very same carcinogenic toxic air contaminants released by handling Bakken crude.

      Piling on to this environmental injustice, this crude is being loaded onto tanker trucks that are not certified by California. Those trucks then travel on Bay Area roadways until this dangerous commodity reaches its ultimate destination — the Tesoro refinery in Martinez.

      Tesoro Martinez is also accepting Bakken crude from similar rail-to-truck crude transfer operations in Sacramento, thereby compounding the risk of accident. With some of the most treacherous mountain passes in the country, and a dilapidated railway system that was never designed or upgraded to transport such dangerous cargo, these trains are ticking time bombs.

      The anemic response from state and federal regulators has been disappointing. Fortunately, our state and federal environmental laws gives private citizens a voice demand more than “business as usual.”

      Suma Peesapati is an attorney for San Francisco-based Earthjustice.
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        Ca-ching: Oil-by-rail surge to benefit three commercial sectors

        Repost from Benzinga
        [Editor: Quick & dirty on the 3 sectors: Freight Car Designers And Refitters, Insurance Providers, and Emergency Services And Safety Training.  UNLESS … if we stop crude by rail in its tracks, the only CA-CHING will be in the alternative energy fields.  – RS] 

        3 Sectors Expected To Benefit From The Oil-By-Rail Surge

        Bruce Kennedy, Benzinga Staff Writer, August 11, 2014

        It’s been just over a year since a freight train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota derailed and exploded in a Quebec town near the U.S.-Canadian border, killing 47 people.

        That accident, along with several others in its wake, drew attention to the enormous increase in shale oil now being transported from North Dakota and Canada by rail – and the vulnerabilities of that form of transport.

        “More crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before, with much of it being transported out of North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Formation,” Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox pointed out in a press conference last month. “In 2008, producers shipped 9,500 rail-carloads of oil in the U.S.; by just last year, that number skyrocketed to 415,000 rail-carloads — a jump of more than 4,300 percent.”

        At that same press conference, Fox announced a rule-making proposal to improve the safe transportation of large quantities of flammable materials by rail – crude oil and ethanol in particular.

        The increase in oil being transported by rail, as well as the new safety measures, might also be a windfall for companies in some related fields.

        Freight Car Designers And Refitters

        The proposed new safety rules for oil freight cars means a potential bonanza for firms like The Greenbrier Companies (NYSE: GBX). The Oregon-based group is a leading manufacturer and marketer of railroad freight car equipment in both North America and Europe.

        Along with retro-fitting existing oil rail cars, Greenbrier is also designing a new genreration “Tank Car of the Future,”  with a thicker tank and bigger welds to ensure greater safety.

        The new design, according to the Rigzone oil and gas industry web site, is “intended to meet anticipated new industry and government standards for tank cars transporting certain hazardous material.”

        Insurance Providers

        The Wall Street Journal reports that most, big North American railroads usually carry about $1.5 billion in liability insurance – but notes that accidents like last year’s deadly derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, can end up costing billions of dollars more in cost, especially if that accident happens in a populated area.

        “Even if it happens outside of town, the massive damage to property and the environment — you’re stymied when you have these kind of crude oil fires burning hot and big for days,” Karen Darch, president of Barrington, Illinois, told the newspaper.

        This could lead to an increase in the need for insurance.

        “With experts predicting that oil spill derailments may increase in frequency over the next decade, the insurance industry must be prepared to address this new coverage threat,” says the law industry tracker web site Law360 earlier this year, “including the coverage issues and potential exposure which may arise from these disasters.”

        Emergency Services And Safety Training

        Earlier this year, Minnesota’s state legislature passed an oil transport law. The measure, reportedly worth more than $6 million, took fees generated in part from oil and railroad companies and put that funding towards tanker and pipeline disaster training, as well as more state transportation safety inspectors.

        As former National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman pointed out in a letter written this past January to the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, there is no mandate for the railroads to come up with comprehensive disaster response plans for oil train derailments

        This means the rail carriers “have effectively placed the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes,” the letter said.

        According to the Association of American Railroads, the industry is providing $5 million to develop and fund specialized training for first responders handling a crude-by-rail accident, as well as developing “an inventory of emergency response resources and equipment for responding to the release of large amounts of crude oil along routes over which trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil operate.”

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