Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill
By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
The mammoth five-year federal transportation bill that lawmakers hope to send to President Barack Obama early next week includes provisions, championed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), that would require railroads to share critical safety information with local communities.
“This legislation provides the transparency we’ve been begging and asking Canadian Pacific railroad for,” Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy said during a news conference Wednesday outside a fire station at 100 W. Virginia St.
“It isn’t too much to ask a company that is using our public right of way to let us know if their bridges are safe and secure,” he said.
As if to illustrate Murphy’s point, a Canadian Pacific train pulling oil tankers rumbled across the bridge over S. 1st St. a few blocks to the north.
Milwaukee is in a rail corridor that ferries crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in metropolitan Chicago and beyond.
Since spring, Murphy and other city officials have been sparring with Canadian Pacific over its refusal to share with city engineers the results of its inspection of a rusty-looking bridge crossing W. Oregon St. at S. 1st St.
Canadian Pacific officials have insisted the bridge is safe, but they announced in August that the railroad plans to encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns in concrete to protect them from further corrosion.
“Five to six months ago, the Milwaukee Common Council asked for information on bridges,” Ald. Terry Witkowski said. “We were greeted with silence.”
“With the stroke of a pen, the ball game has changed,” he said.
Concern over trains hauling potentially explosive fuel tankers through the heart of Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward increased last month when two petroleum-filled trains derailed in Wisconsin in a single week.
“Wisconsin first-responders should be applauded for their reaction to these derailments,” Baldwin said. “But railroad companies need to do more.”
According to Baldwin’s office, the bipartisan transportation bill contains several provisions pushed by the senator:
Transparency: A provision would require railroads to provide local officials with a public version of the most recent bridge inspection report
Real-time reporting: Currently, information about hazardous materials being carried through communities is available to first-responders only after an incident has occurred. A provision would require that information to be shared before a train carrying hazardous materials arrives in their jurisdiction.
“The thing we need is information,” Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said. “So the more transparent our haulers become, the more prepared we can be.”
“Having the city have this information gives the Department of Public Works, our city engineer, access to information so that we can make an evaluation, so we can work with railroads to make sure we have safe rail crossings,” Mayor Tom Barrett said.
The roughly $300 billion transportation bill would also require the Department of Transportation to initiate a study on the appropriate level of insurance railroads hauling hazardous insurance should have, and it would ask the DOT to require that railroads improve their plans for responding to catastrophic oil discharges.
House bill could shield oil train spill response plans from disclosure
By Curtis Tate, October 16, 2015
Oil burns at the site of a March 5, 2015, train derailment near Galena, Ill. A bill in Congress would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans, but would also give the Secretary of Transportation the ability to exempt the details from disclosure. EPA
Six-year transportation bill includes section on oil trains
Obama administration supports public notifications of oil spills, etc.
Future transportation secretary could be empowered to protect data
WASHINGTON – A House of Representatives bill unveiled Friday could make it more difficult for the public to know how prepared railroads are for responding to oil spills from trains, their worst-case scenarios and how much oil is being transported by rail through communities.
The language appears in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s six-year transportation legislation, which primarily addresses federal programs that support state road, bridge and transit projects. But the legislation also includes a section on oil trains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on a rule to require railroads shipping oil to develop comprehensive spill response plans along the lines of those required for pipelines and waterborne vessels. It would also require them to assess their worst-case scenarios for oil spills, including quantity and location.
The House bill would give the secretary of transportation the power to decide what information would not be disclosed to the public.
The secretary would have discretion to withhold anything proprietary or security sensitive, as well as “specific response resources and tactical resource deployment plans” and “the specific amount and location of worst-case discharges, including the process by which a railroad carrier determines the worst-case discharge.”
The House bill defines “worst-case discharge” as the largest foreseeable release of oil in an accident or incident, as determined by the rail carrier.
Four major oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, resulting in the release of more than 600,000 gallons, according to federal spill data.
Numerous states have released information on crude by rail shipments to McClatchy and other news organizations. DOT began requiring railroads to notify state officials of such shipments last year after a train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va.
The disclosures were opposed by railroads and their trade associations, which asked the department to drop the requirement. The department tried to accommodate the industry’s concerns in its May final rule on oil train safety by making the reports exempt from disclosure. But facing backlash from lawmakers and emergency response groups, the department reversed itself.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the department would continue the disclosure requirement and make it permanent. But a new administration could take a different approach.
“We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” Feinberg said in July.
In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that would require railroads operating in the state to plan for their worst-case spills.
In April, BNSF Railway told state emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil, enough to fill five rail tank cars, its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. A typical 100-car oil train carries about 3 million gallons.
Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a mock derailment in New Jersey in March in which 450,000 gallons of oil was released.
California passed a similar bill last year, but two railroads and a major trade association challenged it in court, claiming the federal laws regulating railroads preempted state laws. A judge sided with the state in June, but without addressing the preemption question.
The House Transportation Committee will consider the six-year bill when lawmakers return from recess next week. The current legislation expires on Oct. 29, and the timing makes a short-term extension likely.
After the committee and the full House vote on the bill, House and Senate leaders will have to work out their differences before the bill goes to the president’s desk.
Samantha Wohlfeil of the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed.
Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones
By Justin Mikulka, September 7, 2015 – 04:58
A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.
“Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”
Current safety regulations for first responders dealing with oil trains recommend evacuating everyone within a half-mile of any incident with an oil train. This wasn’t much of a problem for the most recent oil train accident in July in Culbertson, Montana because there were only 30 people within the half-mile radius area. However, in populated areas like California, potential scenarios could involve large-scale evacuations and casualties.
In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released earlier this year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods.
As more communities across the country become aware of the very real risks these oil trains pose, opposition is mounting to new oil-by-rail projects as well as challenges to existing facilities.
In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held a hearing on the subject and heard from concerned residents like Catherine Dorr, as reported by the local CBS station.
“We’re in the 100 foot blast zone,” Dorr said. “My house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there’s an explosion.”
In Albany, New York which is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East coast, this week a coalition of groups announced their intentions to sue the oil company transporting Bakken crude through Albany and challenge the validity of the air quality permit the company received in 2012.
And even in remote places like North Dakota, where much of the oil originates, the U.S. military is concerned about the proximity of the oil train tracks to nuclear missile facilities.
With all of this concern about the dangers of oil trains, a new report by the Associated Press (AP) paints a troubling picture about the preparedness of populated areas to respond to an oil-by-rail incident. The report was based on interviews with emergency management professionals in 12 large cities across the U.S.
It concludes, “The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail.”
The reality is that unless there are drastic changes made, anyone living within a half mile of these tracks will be at risk for years to come.
And while oil production isn’t increasing in the U.S. right now due to the low price of oil, industry efforts to lift the current ban on exporting crude oil could result in a huge increase in fracked oil production. In turn, that oil will be put on trains that will head to coastal facilities and be loaded on tankers and sent to Asia.
Despite all of the opposition and the years-long process to complete new regulations, as the Associated Press notes, it isn’t like the emergency first responders are comfortable with the current situation.
“There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”
And even the federal regulators expect there are going to be catastrophic accidents. As reported by the AP earlier this year, the Department of Transportation expects oil and ethanol trains “will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.”
With the known risks and the number of accidents, so far communities in the U.S have avoided disaster. But as Senator Franken pointed out, that has just been a matter of luck.
“We’ve been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we’ve not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don’t want this to be all about luck,” Sen. Franken said.
As over 1,000,000 students in California start a new school year in schools where they can easily hear the train whistles from the oil trains passing through their communities, let’s all hope we keep this lucky streak going.
New rules on oil trains draw flak from firefighters, too
By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 11, 2015
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and environmental and industry groups criticized the federal government’s new safety measures for oil trains when they were announced earlier this month. Now another group has expressed disappointment in the new rules:
Emergency responders. They’re among the first in danger when a fiery derailment happens.
After another oil train derailed and caught fire last week, this time in North Dakota and the fifth in North America this year, firefighters renewed their call for more training and information about hazardous rail shipments.
The International Association of Fire Fighters’ primary objection to the new rules is about their information-sharing requirements. But Elizabeth Harman, an assistant to the general president of the group, also said firefighters needed more training on responding to hazardous materials incidents. The rule didn’t directly address that issue, though some lawmakers have sought additional funding.
“The training that’s needed has been developed,” she said. “This is the first step that needs to be funded and expanded for all first responders.”
Tens of thousands of rail tank cars haul flammable liquids, such as crude oil and ethanol, across North America, and most have weak spots that make them vulnerable to puncture and fire in an accident. A new tank car design has been approved, but is not widely available yet. There have been five serious oil train derailments so far this year.
Feb. 14, Gogama, Ontario, 29 cars of a Canadian National oil train derail and a fire engulfs seven cars. No injuries are reported.
Feb. 16, Mount Carbon, W.V., 28 cars of a CSX oil train derail along the banks of the Kanawha River. One injury reported.
March 5, Galena, Ill., 21 cars of a BNSF crude oil train derail and a fire erupts.
March 7, Gogama, Ont., 39 cars of a Canadian National oil train derail and a fire engulfs multiple cars. A bridge is destroyed by the heat. No injuries are reported.
May 6, Heimdal, N.D., six cars of a BNSF crude oil train derail and a fire erupts, forcing temporary evacuation of Heimdal.
*In addition to the 2015 accidents, the map locates selected derailments from 1981 through 2014 involving DOT-111A tank cars that polluted waterways and threatened cities with flammable or toxic chemicals. Sources: McClatchy Washington Bureau, National Transportation Safety Board, Department of Transportation, Surface Transportation Board, Association of American Railroads, Railway Supply Institute
Since 2010, an exponentially larger volume of flammable liquids, especially crude oil and ethanol, has been moving by rail, and with it has come an increase in risk to communities.
“We need to be prepared for it, and we’re willing to be prepared for it,” Harman said.
The rail industry and the government have funded new training for emergency responders as a result of the increased risk. Railroads train 20,000 firefighters a year in communities across the country, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.
Since last summer, the rail industry has paid to send hundreds more to an advanced firefighting academy in Pueblo, Colo., designed for responding to oil train fires.
While firefighter groups have praised the industry’s efforts, 65 percent of fire departments involved in responding to hazardous materials incidents still have no formal training in that area, according to a 2010 survey by the National Fire Protection Association.
While no first responders have been injured in multiple oil train derailments and fires in the past year and a half, they’ve faced numerous challenges:
– When an oil train derailed and caught fire near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013, a BNSF student engineer became an ad-hoc first responder. According to interview transcripts published last month by the National Transportation Safety Board, the student donned firefighting gear and equipment as he uncoupled cars that were still on the track to move them away from the fire.
– When an oil train derailed and caught fire in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30, 2014, first responders didn’t know right away which railroad to call, since two companies operate tracks through the city. According to a presentation at a conference of transportation professionals in Washington in January, it also took 45 minutes for first responders to obtain documents showing them what the train was carrying.
– After an oil train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., on March 5 this year, volunteer firefighters could reach the remote site only via a bike path. Once there, they attempted to extinguish the fire, but had to retreat when they realized they couldn’t, leaving their equipment behind. According to local news reports, their radios didn’t work, either.
Harman said the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new regulations for trains carrying crude oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids didn’t go far enough with respect to information that railroads provided to communities.
Under an emergency order the department issued last May, railroads were required to report large shipments of Bakken crude oil to state emergency-response commissions, which then disseminated that information to local fire departments.
But under the department’s new rules, starting next year, railroads will no longer report the information to the states, and fire departments that want the information will have to go directly to the railroads. It also will be shielded from public disclosure.
“These new rules fall short of requiring rail operators to provide the information fire departments need to respond effectively when the call arrives,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the firefighters group.
Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said Friday that the department was reviewing feedback from emergency responders and lawmakers to address their concerns.
She said the new rule would expand the amount of information available to first responders and noted that for now, last year’s emergency order remains in place.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, said the industry was reviewing the new regulations. He said it had shared information with first responders for years and would continue to do so.
Greenberg said the industry was developing a mobile application called AskRail that would give emergency responders immediate access to information about a train’s cargo.
“Freight railroads have ongoing dialogue with first responders, residents and local civic officials on rail operations and emergency planning,” he said.
Emergency planners in Washington state sought more information about oil trains from BNSF, including routing information, worst-case derailment scenarios, response planning and insurance coverage. On April 30, the railroad met with state fire chiefs in Olympia.
“I think both sides learned a little bit about the other group’s point of view,” said Wayne Senter, the executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs. “I was pretty positive by the end of the meeting the information we asked for in our letter was either available or will soon be available either directly or indirectly.”
Samantha Wohlfeil of The Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed to this article.