Tag Archives: Emergency Readiness & Response

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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Three derailments are three too many

Repost from the Winona Post

Three derailments are three too many

By Kat Eng, Honor the Earth volunteer, 11/23/2015

Train derailment, Alma, Wisconsin << CBS Minnesota

It’s hard to believe Andy Cummings, spokesperson for Canadian Pacific Railway, when he says CP Rail feels it is “absolutely” safe to resume the transportation of oil in the wake of the three derailments last week in Wisconsin.

The first derailed (BNSF) train hurled 32 cars off the tracks outside of Alma, Wis., pouring more than 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River upstream of Winona. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report notes that ethanol (denatured alcohol) is flammable and toxic to aquatic organisms and human life — and it’s water soluble. Though the EPA and Wisconsin DNR admitted they could not remove the toxic product from the water; site coordinator Andy Maguire claims that since they cannot detect concentrated areas of ethanol, it is not negatively impacting the surrounding aquatic life. This was the third derailment on the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge in the last nine months, according to the community advocacy group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS).

The next day, 13 DOT-111 tankers with upgraded safety features derailed in Watertown, Wis., spilling crude oil and forcing residents to evacuate from properties along the CP tracks. Four days later, another train derailed a mere 400 feet from that spill site.

Train derailment, Watertown, Wisconsin << fox6now.com

How can we possibly feel safe with ever-greater amounts of toxic products hurtling down inadequately maintained infrastructure every single day? A report released last week by the Waterkeeper Alliance found that “[s]ince 2008, oil train traffic has increased over 5,000 percent along rail routes … There has also been a surge in the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions. More oil was spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.”

Emergency management has become routine rather than remedial. Teams show up, “contain” the spills, replace some track, and the trains roll on. With forecasts that Canadian oil production will expand by 60,000 barrels per day this year, and an additional 90,000 barrels per day in 2016, toxic rail traffic shows no signs of decreasing.

Energy giant Enbridge has taken this as its cue to size up northern Minnesota and plot pipeline (through Ojibwe tribal lands and the largest wild rice bed in the world) between the North Dakota Bakken oil fields and refineries in Wisconsin and Illinois. Its momentum depends on us puzzling over the false dichotomy of choosing to move oil by pipeline or by rail. At the June 3 Public Utilities Commission hearing, it admitted the proposed Sandpiper/Line 3 pipeline corridor will not alleviate railway congestion but rather potentially reduce “future traffic.” It uses this assumption of unregulated growth to make people today think they have no choice but to sell out the generations of tomorrow.

Proponents of the line want us to choose our poison: will it be more explosive trains or more explosive trains and leaky pipelines? What if an oil tanker derailed on Huff Street in the middle of rush-hour traffic and we became the next Lac-Mégantic (where an oil train exploded downtown killing 47 people)? What if a hard-to-access pipeline spewed fracked crude oil into the headwaters of the Mississippi River?

The real harm is in the delusion that we should accept and live with these risks. It is delusional that despite repeated derailments and toxic spills, business should continue as usual. It is delusional to think the oil and rail industry have our communities’ best interests at heart.

We have the vision, the intelligence, and the technology to choose a way forward that does not compromise our resources for the generations to come. As Winona Laduke says, “I want an elegant transition. I want to walk out of my tepee, an elegant indigenous design, into a Tesla, into an electric car, an elegant western design.” Fossil fuels are history. We need to keep them in the ground and pursue sustainable energy alternatives or risk destroying the water and habitat on which all our lives depend.

 

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