Tag Archives: FracTracker Alliance

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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    Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

    Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
    [Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues.  The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback.  This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are.  For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo.  – RS]

    Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

    By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
    With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

    They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”

    This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

    The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

    Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

    The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “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.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

    Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

    While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

    While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

    Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

    What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”

    While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,

    “All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”

    It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

    See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone: tinyurl.com/NYS-derailment-risks.

    Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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