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Wall Street Journal: Federal Worst Case Urban Disaster Planning for Oil Trains

Repost from The Wall Street Journal

Disaster Plans for Oil Trains

Federal officials devise scenario involving a train explosion to prepare officials for the worst

By Russell Gold,  April 13, 2015 7:54 p.m. ET
Oil trains traverse Jersey City, N.J., where officials are concerned about the potential for a spill. Photo: Joe Jackson/The Wall Street Journal

Imagine a mile-long train transporting crude oil derailing on an elevated track in Jersey City, N.J., across the street from senior citizen housing and 2 miles from the mouth of the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan.

The oil ignites, creating an intense explosion and a 300-foot fireball. The blast kills 87 people right away, and sends 500 more to the hospital with serious injuries. More than a dozen buildings are destroyed. A plume of thick black smoke spreads north to New York’s Westchester County.

This fictional—but, experts say, plausible—scenario was developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in one of the first efforts by the U.S. government to map out what an oil-train accident might look like in an urban area. Agency officials unveiled it as part of an exercise last month to help local firefighters and emergency workers prepare for the kind of crude-by-rail accident that until now has occurred mostly in rural locations.

“Our job is to design scenarios that push us to the limit, and very often push us to the point of failure so that we can identify where we need to improve,” said FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre. He said a second planning exercise is scheduled in June in a suburban area of Wisconsin.

WSJ-Widespread_Damage

Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, said the drill showed participants that they need to improve regional communication to cope with an oil-train accident.

“It would be a catastrophic situation for any urban area and Jersey City is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country,” he said.

Railroad records show that about 20 oil trains a week pass through the county that contains Jersey City, and Mr. Fulop said the trains use the elevated track studied in the FEMA exercise. Even more trains hauling crude pass through other cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

Rail shipments of oil have expanded to almost 374 million barrels last year from 20 million barrels in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although low crude prices and safety issues have recently led to small declines in such traffic, trains carrying volatile oil from North Dakota and the Rocky Mountains continue to rumble toward refiners on the East, West and Gulf Coasts.

Edgardo Correa, of Jersey City, N.J., beneath railroad tracks that pass by his home. Photo: Joe Jackson/The Wall Street Journal

Several oil-train derailments have produced huge fireballs, including two in March in rural Illinois and Ontario. In 2013, a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed late at night in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

Regulators worry more about a serious accident in a densely populated area. “The derailment scenario FEMA developed is a very real possibility and a very real concern,” said Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said her agency was considering emergency orders to address such risks.

Firefighters at the FEMA workshop in Jersey City discussed the difficulty of battling a crude-oil fire, which can be explosive and hard to extinguish. One problem: limited supplies of the special foam required to smother the flames.

Jordan Zaretsky, a fire battalion chief in nearby Teaneck, N.J., who attended the presentation, said the scale of such an accident was sobering. “This isn’t a structural fire that we can knock down in an hour or two,” he said. “This is something we’d be dealing with for days.”

Ideas discussed at the workshop included devising a system to allow local officials to know when an oil train was passing through, developing public-service messages to tell residents what to do in case of a derailment and providing more firefighters with specialized training.

There have been many calls for changes to how crude oil is handled on the railroads, including new speed limits for trains and requirements to treat the crude oil to make it less volatile.

Earlier this month, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board urged the rail industry and federal regulators to move more swiftly to replace existing tank cars with ones that would better resist rupturing and fire.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for oil producers, said the companies are committed to “greater efforts to prevent derailments through track maintenance and repair, upgrades to the tank car fleet, and giving first responders the knowledge and tools they need.”

The Association of American Railroads recognizes that “more has to be done to further advance the safe movement of this product,” a spokesman said.

FEMA chose for the location of the derailment scenario a stretch of track adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike and about a mile from downtown Jersey City. One side of the track is industrial and includes an electric substation. The other side is residential.

Edgardo Correa, a 59-year-old retired sanitation worker, lives in a house close to the tracks in Jersey City. He said he was aware that trains full of crude pass by his home. “It’s an alarming thing,” he said.

—Joe Jackson contributed to this article.
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Sen. Cantwell: Act now on oil trains

Repost from The Columbian
[Editor:  Significant quotes: 1) “BNSF Railway…has offered training to local responders. But that training “just scratches the surface,” said Nick Swinhart, chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Dept.”  And  2) “About 88 percent of the cars now hauling crude oil in Washington are the CPC-1232 design, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The railroad plans to phase out all of its older DOT-111 cars from moving crude within the next year, he said. It also plans to retrofit its CPC-1232 cars with internal liners during the next three years, he added.”  – RS]

Cantwell: Act now on oil trains

Senator pushes for changes to improve safety of hauling crude by rail

By Eric Florip, April 8, 2015, 9:20 PM
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., walks past a firefighting rig with Vancouver Fire Department Division Chief Steve Eldred during a visit to Vancouver on Wednesday. Cantwell and local leaders highlighted the risks of crude oil being transported by rail. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

Now is the time to act to reduce the continued risk of crude oil moving through the region by rail, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said during a visit to Vancouver on Wednesday.

The Washington Democrat and local leaders repeatedly stressed the volatility of the oil itself. Speaking inside Pacific Park Fire Station No. 10 in east Vancouver, the group noted that responders are ill-equipped to handle the kind of fiery derailments and huge explosions that have characterized a string of oil-train incidents across the country recently. In some cases, the fires burned for days after the actual derailment, Cantwell said.

“No amount of foam or fire equipment can put them out,” she said. “The best protection we can offer is prevention.”

Cantwell last month introduced legislation that would immediately ban the use of rail cars considered unsafe for hauling crude oil, and create new volatility standards for the oil itself. The bill would require federal regulators to develop new rules limiting the volatile gas contained in crude that is transported by rail — an important and somewhat overlooked facet of the larger debate over oil train safety, Cantwell said.

Much of the oil that now rolls through Clark County comes from the Bakken shale of North Dakota. Regulators there this month imposed new rules on the volatility of that oil, but critics argue they don’t go far enough. North Dakota, currently in the midst of a historic oil boom, lacks the infrastructure and facilities for more thorough oil stabilization that are commonplace elsewhere.

About two or three oil trains per day now travel through Vancouver on the way to other facilities. A proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver would more than double that number. The project, now under review, has fixed a spotlight firmly on Vancouver.

“Although crude-by-rail is a national issue, we firmly believe that Vancouver is the epicenter of the conversation,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

Wednesday’s gathering also included two local fire chiefs, who said their crews don’t have the resources to respond to a major disaster involving an oil train. BNSF Railway, which carries crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge and Southwest Washington, has offered training to local responders. But that training “just scratches the surface,” said Nick Swinhart, chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

“No first responder is fully prepared for the threat posed by crude oil trains carrying highly volatile oil from North Dakota,” Swinhart said, noting his agency has 54 paid personnel. “The fire resulting from just one exploded oil train car, as you can imagine, would overwhelm our resources very rapidly.”

Concerns about oil train safety go far beyond the oil. Much of the discussion has centered around the tank cars carrying it. Cantwell’s bill would prohibit all DOT-111 and some CPC-1232 model tank cars from hauling crude oil. The move would affect tens of thousands of rail cars currently in use, phasing out older models many believe are inadequate for carrying crude.

About 88 percent of the cars now hauling crude oil in Washington are the CPC-1232 design, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The railroad plans to phase out all of its older DOT-111 cars from moving crude within the next year, he said. It also plans to retrofit its CPC-1232 cars with internal liners during the next three years, he added.

BNSF expects tank cars to improve as designs evolve and federal rules change, Melonas said, and the company welcomes that trend.

“We are in favor of a stronger-designed tank car to move this product,” Melonas said. “In the meantime, we’re taking steps to make sure we’re moving it safely.”

As for whether BNSF supports Cantwell’s bill, Melonas said the company is still evaluating it.

Near the end of Wednesday’s event at the fire station, officials showed Cantwell a large rig equipped with foam tanks and other features. The Vancouver Fire Department acquired the vehicle as mitigation several years ago when Valero, a company operating at the Port of Vancouver, began handling methanol, said Division Chief Steve Eldred.

The Valero site later became NuStar Energy. NuStar has since applied for permits to handle crude oil at the same facility.

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Top 10 Questions About Oil Trains: Industry Lobbies for Weak Rules While Derailment Fire Rages

Repost from The Huffington Post

Top 10 Questions About Oil Trains: Industry Lobbies for Weak Rules While Derailment Fire Rages

By Todd Paglia, ForestEthics, 03/19/2015 1:59 pm EDT
DERAILMENT
DERAILMENT Marvin Beatty via Getty Images

On Friday, March 6, while an oil train explosion in Illinois was still sending flames and black smoke into the air, railroad agents were in Washington, DC lobbying to weaken new train safety standards. Safer brakes are “extremely costly…” they told White House officials, and explained in great detail why speed limits are impractical. Like the auto industry resisting seatbelts, the rail industry is on the wrong track when it comes to safety.

In the last month, there have been six derailments of crude oil trains in the U.S. and Canada — three of them ignited, sending flames and mushroom clouds hundreds of feet into the air. Luckily, these were in relatively remote locations and no one was killed.

These disasters are not an aberration — oil train traffic is skyrocketing, which means more derailments and more explosions. The oil and rail industries hope to increase further the amount of crude oil barreling down the tracks in the coming years. Before that happens, ForestEthics has some questions we’d like to see the Obama administration ask the army of lobbyists who are trying to push the bar on safety even lower than it already is:

When did trains start exploding?
Rail transportation of crude oil is growing rapidly and dangerously — from fewer than 10,000 carloads in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014 — for two reasons: Bakken oil from North Dakota and Canadian tar sands. The North American boom means oil companies are trying to tails and mine more of this extreme oil, crude that is high in carbon, difficult and expensive to produce, and dangerous to transport.

Are cities and towns with rail lines safe?
With the exception of Capitol Hill (the rail industry seems to be sparing Washington, DC) most routing is done specifically throughout cities and towns. No, the oil and rail industries are probably not purposely targeting us, it’s just that the rails in populated places tend to be better maintained and rated for heavier cargoes. The sane thing to do would be to stop hauling crude oil if it can’t be transported safely. A far distant next best is to make these trains as safe as possible and require rerouting around cities and water supplies.

What is the government doing?
Not nearly enough. While 100-plus car trains full of an explosive crude roll through our towns, the U.S. government is barely moving, bogged down by nearly 100 of Washington’s most expensive K-Street lobbyists. In fall 2014, ForestEthics, Earthjustice, and the Sierra Club sued the Department of Transportation to speed up new safety standards on oil trains. We called the trains an imminent danger to public safety. The federal government responded by once again delaying their decision on new rules that have been in the works for years.

What is the slowest speed at which an oil explosion could happen?
An oil tank car can catch fire and explode in an accident at zero miles per hour. Assuming a slightly raised rail bed, an oil car that tips over while standing still (this can and has happened on poorly maintained rails) will strike the ground going approximately 16 miles per hour — more than fast enough to breach the tank, spark, and ignite if it hits a rock, a curb, any hard protrusion.

Do firefighters know when and where oil trains are moving?
First responders do not know when, where, how much oil, and what kind is coming through their town. The US Department of Transportation ordered that railroads and oil companies make this information public. But only for trains carrying more than a million gallons of Bakken crude, and even this information is not being made public on a consistent basis.

How do you extinguish oil train fire?
You don’t put out an oil train fire; nobody does. Oil fires require specialized foam, which fire departments do not have in nearly sufficient supply to fight the fire from even a single 30,000 gallon tank car. All firefighters can do is evacuate those in danger, move outside the one mile blast zone and let the fire burn out, which can take days. In Illinois, firefighters unloaded their equipment to fight an oil train fire, realized the danger and left behind $10,000 in equipment getting out of harm’s way. You can prevent these fires by banning oil trains — but you can’t fight these fires once they happen.

The older oil cars are definitely unsafe, what about the newer ones?
The antiquated DOT-111 tank cars make up 80 percent of the fleet in the U.S. — U.S. rail safety officials first called them “inadequate” to haul crude oil more than 20 years ago. The jury is now in on the newer CPC-1232 tank cars and they are not much safer. The derailments and explosions in West Virginia and Illinois were 1232s traveling at or below the speed limit. In fact, the former head of the federal rail safety agency said in a radio interview that the recent derailments and fires were “the last nail in the coffin” for the CPC-1232 as an alternative to DOT-111 for oil transport.

We know that Bakken crude explodes; does tar sands explode?
Ordinarily it might not, but to move tar sands by rail (or pipeline for that matter) you have to mix in highly flammable, toxic diluents (light petroleum products like propane.) So if it’s on a train or in a pipeline the flashpoint for tar sands crude is lower than for Bakken oil. The oil train explosion on February 16, 2015 in Ontario, Canada occurred in -40 degrees F weather — proving that this stuff can ignite even in arctic cold. So not only is tar sands the dirtiest oil on Earth, but also it may well be the most dangerous too.

Do I live in the Blast Zone?
ForestEthics used oil rail routes from industry, Google maps, and census data to calculate that 25 million Americans live in the oil train blast zone — the dangerous evacuation zone in the case of an oil train derailment and fire. You can use the map to see if your home, office, school, or favorite natural area, landmark or sports stadium is in danger. Visit www.blast-zone.org.

What’s the solution?
The solution is to ban oil trains. If you can’t do something safely, you shouldn’t do it at all. This cargo is too dangerous to our families, our cities, our drinking water, our wildlife and our climate. The extreme crude carried on trains is only a tiny fraction of the oil we use each day as a nation. So while we transition our economy to clean energy and get beyond all oil, we should leave this extreme oil from Alberta and North Dakota in the ground.

See original post on ForestEthics.org and share your concern with President Obama on rail safety here.

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