Tag Archives: Dr. Fred Millar

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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First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
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Expert letters pouring in, critical of Valero Crude by Rail

The following hugely significant letters were sent to the City of Benicia today, just ahead of its 5pm deadline for public comments on Valero’s Revised Draft EIR.

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