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SACRAMENTO BEE: Northern California towns lack resources to handle oil train fires, spills

Repost from the Sacramento Bee

Northern California towns lack resources to handle oil train fires, spills

By Jane Braxton Little, April 23, 2016 7:49 AM

HIGHLIGHTS
• Lassen County town has no reliable water supply for firefighting
• Crude oil transport by rail grew 1,700 percent in 2015
• Federal government providing hands-on response training

A BNSF train carrying dozens of tank cars crosses an 80-year-old trestle heading south to Union Pacific Railroad tracks through the Feather River Canyon.
A BNSF train carrying dozens of tank cars crosses an 80-year-old trestle heading south to Union Pacific Railroad tracks through the Feather River Canyon. Jane Braxton Little

WESTWOOD – BNSF Railway trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials rumble through this Lassen County community every day – past homes, churches and a scant block from the downtown commercial center.

If a tank car were to derail and explode, Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen would take the only action he’s equipped for: Evacuation. Of all 1,000 residents.

Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen CQ stands next to the BNSF Railway tracks, a stone’s throw from the fire station in this Lassen County community.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen CQ stands next to the BNSF Railway tracks, a stone’s throw from the fire station in this Lassen County community. Jane Braxton Little

Westwood has no consistent source of water, and the closest trailers with enough foam to extinguish a large blaze are a full four hours away, he said: “We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.”

Rural officials like Duerksen have been worried for decades about the chlorine, ammonia, propane and crude oil transported through their northern California communities by BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad. But a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported a 1,700 percent increase in crude oil transportation by rail.

That’s slowed significantly in the last year, a change generally attributed to a drop in the price of oil. But emergency responders worry that the volume will swell again when crude oil prices rise. In recent weeks, many have observed an increase in the number of tank cars on trains running south toward Sacramento and San Francisco.

That could be a precursor to the half-mile long oil trains planned for travel through Northern California to Benicia. Valero Refining Co. has proposed building a rail loading station that would allow importing oil on two 50-car trains a day to the city 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas.

WE’D JUST HAVE TO GET EVERYBODY OUT AND GO FROM THERE.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen

On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council postponed until September a decision on Valero’s appeal of a February planning commission recommendation that unanimously rejected the proposal.

Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.

No one was hurt in 2014, when 11 cars derailed on Union Pacific tracks in the Feather River Canyon, spilling corn down a hillside above the river that supplies drinking water to millions of people as far south as Los Angeles. The cars could easily have been carrying crude oil, with substantial environmental consequences far beyond the Feather River, said Jerry Sipe, director of Plumas County’s Office of Emergency Services.

“We were lucky,” he said.

In 2015 there were 574 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Of these, 114 were in California, and three in Roseville, site of a large rail yard. Most were minor, and none involved fatalities.

Officials in California’s up-rail cities, including Sacramento, have raised objections to plans to expand oil train traffic, saying not enough attention is being given to safety concerns. But these large urban jurisdictions are far better equipped to respond to incidents than their counterparts in rural Northern California, where train tracks pass through some of the state’s roughest terrain.

In these rural areas, the people responding first to oil spills and accidents are generally local fire departments like Duerksen’s, one of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire organizations. Among the small rural communities along BNSF’s tracks through Northern California, the Westwood Fire Department is one of the better equipped for a hazardous materials accident.

Duerksen took advantage of a BNSF program at the railroad industry’s training and research center in Pueblo, Colo. That gave him hands-on experience in using water and foam on a burning railcar, and taught him advanced techniques for containing spills.

1,700 percent
Increase in crude oil transportation by rail in 2015

Since then, several volunteer firefighters from Westwood and communities along the BNSF line have attended the training. Quincy and other fire departments along the Union Pacific line have also sent volunteers to Pueblo.

Plumas County was recently awarded a grant to acquire an oil spill trailer with firefighting foam and 1,200 feet of “hard booms,” which can contain large quantities of hazardous materials. Sipe said it will be positioned along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon, where aging trestles and sharp curves make it among the most accident-prone rail lines in the state.

“We’re better protected now than a year ago,” Sipe said.

Despite the improvements, many fire departments remain untrained and poorly equipped. In Greenville, where the BNSF line passes directly through residential and commercial areas, none of the 25 volunteers has been to the oil-spill training in Pueblo, said Chris Gallagher, general manager of the Indian Valley Community Services District, which oversees the fire department. Four of the department’s 10 pieces of equipment have been deemed inoperable by the California Highway Patrol, he said.

“We definitely need some help,” said Gallagher.

That could come through an innovative program taking the Pueblo emergency response training on the road. Rail safety experts will travel to communities around the country providing hands-on accident preparedness to firefighters. Funded by a $2.4 million award from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the mobile training program is expected to train about 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities in 2016.

The award is part of a $5.9 million grant to provide hazardous materials training for volunteer or remote emergency responders. Plumas County has already requested the mobile training, Sipe said.

BNSF strongly supports these programs, said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. Last year alone it trained 10,000 first responders, 1,500 of them in California.

Duerksen, the Westwood fire chief, said he feels much safer than he did two years ago, when the increase in oil-train traffic had emergency responders on edge. “We’re better trained and better prepared now,” he said.

But not everyone is content with the increased training and beefed-up emergency response equipment. Larry Bradshaw, a retired therapist and community activist in Westwood, is advocating for additional safety requirements for BNSF. He wants to see a high-risk rail designation extended from Greenville to Westwood, imposing a 45 mph maximum speed and increasing the number of inspections.

“We’re not prepared at all. There’s no way we can respond to a spill. The only thing we can do is evacuate,” Bradshaw said.

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SACRAMENTO BEE – critical review of Benicia Valero RDEIR

Repost from the Sacramento Bee

Sacramento oil spills would be risky but rare, new report says

By Tony Bizjak, August 31, 2015

HIGHLIGHTS
• Valero Refining Co. wants to send two 50-car oil trains daily through central Sacramento
• A report says project presents risks to humans and the environment, but says spills are rare
• Sacramento and NorCal leaders have called for more safety steps to reduce the spill and fire risks

A train travels near the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley.
A train travels near the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley. Jake Miille Special to The Bee/Jake Miille

Benicia city officials have concluded a proposal to transport large amounts of crude oil daily on trains through Sacramento and Northern California would create a “potentially significant” hazard to the public, but say a spill is probably only a once every few decades occurrence.

In a revised environmental impact report issued Monday, officials in the Bay Area city contend spill risks are unavoidable and there is nothing that the city or the Valero Refining Co. can do to mitigate them, given that the federal government controls how rail shipments are handled. The report makes a point of saying that federal and state governments have taken recent steps to make crude oil rail transports safer.

Valero, which operates a major oil refinery in Benicia, is asking for city approval to ship two 50-car crude oil trains daily from north American fields through California to the Bay Area, replacing marine oil shipments.

Oil train shipments have come under the spotlight nationally after a handful of crashes that caused spectacular explosions and fires. One crash two years ago resulted in the deaths of 47 people in a Canadian town; others have forced evacuations and spilled oil into waterways.

Benicia officials conducted the latest analysis after critics, including Sacramento regional leaders, complained earlier risk assessments were inadequate. They have called on Benicia and Valero to take more safety steps.

Cities on the rail line include Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Davis, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield and Suisun City. The oil train route through rural Northern California remains uncertain. Trains could enter the state from Oregon and pass through the Dunsmuir area, or through the Feather River Canyon, or via Donner Summit.

Benicia’s initial environmental report, published last year, had said spill damage hazards are “less than significant.” The new report is based on a deeper analysis of an expanded geographic area.

The Benicia report cites federal data showing that less than 1 percent of train accidents cause releases of hazardous materials. But it also notes that trains to Benicia would have to travel through mountainous areas that have higher derailment rates. It projects that an oil spill of more than 100 gallons – described in the report as a small spill – might be expected to happen once every 20 to 27 years. A larger spill of 30,000 gallons is listed as a once-every-38-to-80-years event, but could cause injuries and deaths.

The release of the new report sets in place a 45-day public comment period. Benicia officials said they will respond to those comments, then set a Planning Commission review and vote on the project. The date for that hearing has not been set.

Valero officials, who have complained that Benicia’s vetting process has gone on too long, said in a brief email statement Monday that they are looking forward to participating in the Planning Commission discussion of their project. Officials with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional entity that has been monitoring the project, could not be reached for comment Monday.

A copy of the report can be found under “Revised Draft EIR” on the city of Benicia’s website.

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Sacramento Bee – Report minimizes risk from oil trains through Roseville, Sacramento

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Report minimizes risk from oil trains through Roseville, Sacramento

By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate The Sacramento Bee   |  Jun. 17, 2014
A crude oil train operated by BNSF travels just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley. Jake Miille / Special to The Bee

A much-anticipated report released Tuesday offered new details and some controversial safety conclusions about a Bay Area oil company’s plan to run crude-oil trains daily through Roseville and Sacramento to Benicia.

Valero Refining Co., which operates a sweeping plant on a hillside overlooking Suisun Bay, plans to transport crude oil from undisclosed North American oil fields on two 50-car trains every 24 hours through the Sacramento region to the Benicia site. One would run at night and the other in the middle of the day to minimize conflicts with Capitol Corridor passenger trains, which share the same line.

If the project is approved, Valero would begin shipments later this year or early next year. The trains would cut through downtown Roseville, Sacramento and Davis, and pass within a quarter-mile of 27 schools, 11 of them in Sacramento, according to the draft environmental impact report, which was commissioned by the city of Benicia, lead agency on the project.

In findings that already are provoking debate, authors of the draft report concluded that the shipments would not constitute a significant safety risk for communities along the rail route because those trains are very unlikely to crash or spill their oil.

“Although the consequences of a release are potentially severe, the likelihood of such a release is very low,” wrote the report’s author, Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco. The report notes that safety steps by federal officials and railroad associations, such as slower train speeds through some urban areas and more track inspections, already are reducing the chance of crashes.

A spill risk assessment included in the report calculates the probability of a spill of 100 gallons or more in the 69 miles between Roseville and Benicia as occurring only once every 111 years. The key report section regarding impact on up-rail cities, including Sacramento, Davis, West Sacramento and Roseville, concludes: “Mitigation: None required.”

Several local Sacramento leaders on Tuesday said they had not yet read the Benicia report, which runs hundreds of pages, but that they weren’t soothed by a declaration that oil spills are unlikely.

Mike Webb, director of community development and sustainability in Davis, said the assessment misses a frightening reality for people living along the rail line: “It only needs to happen once to be a real problem.”

Across North America, six major crude-oil train crashes in the last year resulted in 2.8 million gallons of oil spilled, some of it causing explosions and forcing evacuations. The worst of those occurred last July in Lac-Megantic, Canada, where a runaway Bakken train crashed, spilling 1.6 million gallons of crude and fueling an explosion that killed 47 people and leveled part of that city’s downtown.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, introduced a bill last week to charge the oil industry a rail-related fee to pay for safety measures. In an interview earlier this week, he said he believes “it is not a matter of will (a spill) happen, it’s when. We have to be prepared.”

The debate over the Valero project is part of a growing discussion nationally about crude oil safety, prompted by increased pumping in recent years of less-expensive crude oil from Canada and the Bakken fields of North Dakota.

The surge in extracting North American oil is enabling some companies, such as Valero, to reduce reliance on overseas shipments of foreign oil. At the same time, it has caused a dramatic increase in the number of trains crisscrossing the country, pulling 100 cars or more of flammable crude through downtowns, with almost no notice to the public and minimal warning to local fire departments.

The debate was heightened by a federal warning earlier this year that Bakken crude may be more volatile than other crudes, and by federal concerns that the fleet of train tanker cars in use nationally is inadequate to safely transport crude oils. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration issued a report saying California is behind in taking steps to protect cities and habitat from potential oil spills given the increase in crude oil shipments.

The draft environmental impact report released Tuesday does not state whether Valero will be transporting Bakken crude to Benicia. Valero has declined to disclose publicly exactly which crude oils it will ship. But the report lists Bakken as one of the lighter crudes Valero could ship.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering amending tank car design standards in light of concerns raised by recent fiery spills. Valero officials say they already have purchased some tank cars that have more safety features than most rail cars in use nationally. Valero spokesman Chris Howe said his company would expect to phase in retrofits of those cars, depending on what the federal government ultimately requires.

In California, the Valero crude-by-rail project is one of a handful planned by refineries. Another by Phillips 66 in Santa Maria likely will involve crude oil shipments through Sacramento. Several Kern County refineries also are adjusting or planning to retrofit their sites to receive crude shipments by rail. Trains last year began delivering crude oil to a transfer station at McClellan Park in Sacramento.

Rail companies are insisting that details of those shipments not be disclosed to the public, saying they are worried about security issues and don’t want to divulge “trade secrets” to competitors.

Local officials, including fire chiefs, recently have said they want to know more about the Valero project in particular. The Davis City Council has passed a resolution saying it does not want the shipments to come through the existing UP line in downtown.

Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui, responding to questions by email Tuesday, expressed concern as well. “As the number of cars coming through Sacramento increases, it is clear that our risk also increases,” she wrote.

Webb, the Davis community development director, said representatives from Sacramento area cities will meet in two weeks to discuss the Benicia environmental report. Several local officials have said they would like Valero and UP to work with them on safety measures, including more communication about train movements and hazardous materials training.

The Benicia report declines to specify the routes trains may take to get from oil fields to Roseville, saying that any potential routes beyond Roseville are speculative. The most likely routes, according to people knowledgeable about rail movements, are through the Sacramento Valley via Dunsmuir and Redding, as well as over Donner Summit or through the Feather River Canyon.

The conclusion that an oil spill between Roseville and Benicia is a once-in-111-years event was made by Christopher Barkan, an expert on hazardous rail transport at the University of Illinois who did a risk assessment attached to the draft environmental impact report. Barkan previously worked for the American Association of Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association, according to his institute’s website.

Barkan, in an email, said his work for Benicia was not influenced by his relationships with the railroad association.

“The AAR had nothing to do with this project,” he wrote. “Whenever I am approached about conducting projects such as this, I discuss any potential conflicts of interest with other sponsors, as I did in this case, and it was mutually agreed that there was none … My role is to apply the best data and analytical methods possible to assess risk, irrespective of the sponsor.”

Benicia city officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The draft EIR will be circulated for public comment this summer. Those comments will be incorporated into a final environmental document, to be voted on by the Benicia City Council. The council has the authority to approve changes at Valero’s plant to allow the oil company to begin rail shipments.

Howe, the Valero spokesman, complimented the city of Benicia on “the thoroughness and detail” of the report.

“We are reviewing the material published today and will be developing comments as part of the process. We look forward to working with the community and the city of Benicia toward completion of this important project.”

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