Tag Archives: Fred Millar

NPR: What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

Repost from State Impact Pennsylvania, NPR.org
[Editor:  Quote: “Conrail knows what’s in the cars on their tracks but considers it proprietary information, not to be revealed unless there’s an emergency.”  – RS]

What’s in those tank cars near the Amtrak derailment?

By Susan Phillips, May 13, 2015 | 6:12 PM

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. The Amtrak train, headed to New York City, derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, killing at least six people and injuring dozens of others. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

News footage of the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia Tuesday night shows nearby tank cars that look similar to the rail cars carrying crude oil or other hazardous material across the country each day. In aerial photos, it looks as if the Amtrak train, traveling at 100 miles an hour, nearly missed creating an even greater catastrophe, if it had struck an oil train, say, or a train carrying chlorine gas. Residents quickly took to twitter, wondering what about the content of those tank cars, and whether it was hazardous.

“This could be just one more in a litany of near misses,” said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, an activist group working to ban oil trains.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched for a passenger rail car to collide with an oil train, dozens of oil trains run through the state on their way to Philadelphia and South Jersey refineries each week. In fact, Norfolk Southern runs oil trains on a track that runs above Amtrak lines, close to the derailment. Bakken crude oil from North Dakota crosses those lines daily, traveling across the Delaware river, and down to refineries in South Jersey. WHYY reporter Tom MacDonald says he saw the black tankers about 50 yards from the derailed Amtrak train.

But it’s still unclear what is in those tank cars.

“It could be corn oil, it could be very benign stuff,” said Conrail spokesman John Enright.

The accident occurred on Amtrak’s rail lines, but the scene is very close to a Conrail yard, which Enright says is used for local transport.

“I know the sensitivity to the whole crude oil situation,” said Enright. “One shouldn’t presume anything.”

Enright says Conrail knows what’s in the cars on their tracks but considers it proprietary information, not to be revealed unless there’s an emergency.

“If there was an incident then that information would be readily available to [first responders],” he said.

In this case, the Amtrak train did not hit any nearby freight cars, so the contents of the blank tankers remains a mystery.

Norfolk Southern, which operates the oil trains that cross the Amtrak line, did not respond to requests for comment. And the American Association of Railroads would also not comment on the freight rail traffic in the area. Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management would not comment on the contents, saying they were focusing on the accident itself.

But rail safety experts say the accident could have been much worse if the Amtrak train did hit those black tank cars, and if those cars were carrying explosive or flammable material.

A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)
A passenger is carried following an Amtrak train crash Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. Train 188 was traveling from Washington to New York City. (AP Photo/Paul Cheung)

Fred Millar is an independent rail safety expert.

“Having the oil train sitting there is not necessarily an undangerous situation,” said Millar.

Millar says, although it’s rare, trains have been known to run into each other. Federal investigators recently released a report about an oil train explosion in North Dakota in 2013, where the train hit a derailed freight train.

“One kind of industrial accident can set off another,” he said.

Not only would the death toll be higher, but the neighborhood would need to be evacuated.

Jim Blaze is an economist and railroad consultant who worked in the railroad industry for 30 years.

“Let’s say there was [hazardous material] in those rail cars,” said Blaze. “If the cars cracked open, it could have been an explosive force and caused a chain reaction. What would the casualty rate have been as a result? Could you imagine evacuating 750,000 people? What’s that going to cost? What’s the lost business revenue?”

Not only is it unclear what’s in those nearby tank cars. It’s unclear if Philadelphia’s first responders would be ready. The city’s Office of Emergency Management says it’s done exercises to prepare. But it’s not clear if the exercise has included passenger rail cars.

Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency spokesman Cory Angell says that’s not a scenario he’s heard discussed.

Delaware County’s Office of Emergency Management says the risk of an Amtrak or regional rail line hitting an oil train is low because the passenger rail cars don’t run in close proximity to the oil trains as they do in Philadelphia. Ed Truitt runs Delco’s OEM.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different scenarios and that was never conceived as being a threat in Delaware County,” said Truitt.

Truitt says the rail cars only travel between midnight and 5 AM through the county.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to block the implementation of new oil train safety rules.

 

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Benicia Valero Crude-by-Rail comment period closes with a landslide of criticism

By Roger Straw

The Benicia Independent makes it easier for you to read comments of INDIVIDUAL state and regional agencies and organizations. See our updated Project Review page (or just see below).

Something UNUSUAL happened in Benicia on September 15, the final day of the public comment period on the Draft EIR on Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal. I understand that opponents of a project will almost always wait until the last day to submit public comments. But not only did a remarkable NUMBER of critical comments arrive in the City of Benicia’s inbox on September 15 – there was a dramatic landslide of comments from significant governmental agencies and environmental organizations, including…

Also highly significant on September 15 were written comments from four of Benicia’s Planning Commissioners: Steve Young, George Oakes, Susan Cohen Grossman and Belinda Smith.

Prior to September 15, the City also received critical comments from the

These documents are also downloadable from Project Review.

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NRDC Senior Scientist: Another explosion, and slow progress on tank car regulations

Repost from NRDC Switchboard, Diane Bailey’s Blog

This Washington, that Washington on Crude Oil by Rail

 Diane Bailey | Posted April 30, 2014

Diane Bailey

This afternoon brought news of another fiery crude oil train derailment.  Luckily no one was hurt in the Lynchburg, Virginia accident, but flames were shooting up as high as the 19th floor of one bystander’s office building, oil was spilling into the James River and hundreds have been evacuated.  The billowing black plumes of smoke serve as a warning not just to the 77,000 people living in Lynchburg but to everyone living near rail lines or terminals that the growing transport of long crude oil trains is incredibly dangerous.

It’s not clear that mile long crude oil trains can ever be made safe, but they are upon us, so while we are fighting to keep them out of communities, we better make every effort to improve the situation.  This blog includes notes on the National Transportation Safety Board Rail Safety Forum on the Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol  in Washington D.C. last week from Fred Millar, a well-known rail safety expert; and a summary of fieldwork from a leading activist, Matt Landon, who is oil trainspotting in Washington State. (What is oil trainspotting?)

The NTSB Forum in DC last week was packed with industry shippers and carriers, NTSB oil forum.jpgtechnical, policy, emergency response and regulatory experts, all talking about hazardous materials transportation issues and crude oil train derailments disasters. From that discussion, the top two strategies to address these safety risks involve federal regulations: (1) Ordering a fast retrofit of existing tank cars with a strong safety standard, and a similarly strong standard for new tank cars; and (2) re-routing the unit trains around major cities.

As far as the tank cars go, NTSB Chairman Hersman noted that federal agencies could use emergency powers to quickly issue safety-forcing Emergency Orders and even Interim Final Regulations.  She recounted an expeditious federal action in the 1970’s, when the DOT ordered speedy retrofits of pressurized “jumbo” tank cars DOT-112A and DOT-114A that experienced dangerous failures.

In February 1978, a rail tanker explosion killed 16, in Waverly, TN.  Less than a year later, in January 1979 the DOT Secretary reported that nearly all of the defective tanker cars had been retrofitted, and soon thereafter it was obvious that the package of three railcar retrofit devices had reduced serious pressurized railcar releases significantly. During that rulemaking process, it’s important to note that although the industry warned that only four shops could do railcar retrofits and they would take 3 days each, the NTSB ultimately found that 100 shops could retrofit tank cars, and each would take 93 minutes.

So, technically and politically, rail tanker cars can be retrofitted or replaced quickly. And in the case of the puncture-prone DOT-111 tanker cars now used to carry significant amounts of crude oil, speed is called for in their replacement as well.  According to researcher, Dr. David Jeong of DOT, using sophisticated models, the “legacy” DOT-111 tank cars are estimated to spill their contents in an accident over 25 percent of the time, whereas other models are less likely to breach in an accident. For example, COC-1232 tanker cars with full height head shields are estimated to breach in only 6 percent of accidents; and the proposed new design for more robust tanker cars with a thicker shell would only breach in 4 percent of accidents. While imperfect, these newer designs are clearly much safer and should be phased in immediately.

It remains to be seen what this week’s expected federal proposal on rail car safety will bring.  In the meantime, the Canadian government announced last week that industry must – at its own cost – replace 5,000 DOT-111 tanker cars within 30 days, and another 65,000 DOT-111 cars must be removed or retrofitted within three years.

This is a significant step, although three years is a long time to wait, and the regulations do not address re-routing of trains around cities.  In Canada, however, the railroads will have to provide hazmat rail flow information to local emergency responders (note: the public still will not have access to this). The US has no such requirement on the railroads.  Also, to make matters worse, the current “routing selection tools” used by railroads in the U.S. are not disclosed to anyone and receive minimal government oversight.  Railroads and governments have blocked any effort to keep dangerous trains away from the most populated areas by keeping the routing secret and unaccountable, unmeasured as to effectiveness.

firefighter tanker train.jpgHow can emergency responders deal with crude oil rail accidents?  A panel concluded that the best tactic is to let a derailment burn, pull back, and take a “defensive posture”.  Emergency responders were clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle.  “Even with an infinite amount of costly foam”, letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in Lynchburg this afternoon).  They note that major derailments would require enormous amounts of foam, there is not enough water to apply it especially in rural areas, and anyway, they cannot get close enough to the fires to apply it.  Derailments in urban areas would pose significant operating risks that go well beyond current operational capabilities for emergency responders.

In the meantime, Matt Landon with the Vancouver Action Network, set out to find whether crude oil trains are leaking fumes in the other Washington – State, that is. This past month, Matt initiated the Washington State Train Watch 2014 covering Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, Washougal, Camas, Vancouver, Fruit Valley, and Everett, recording the number of oil and coal trains coming through these communities.  Using a FLIR Gasfindir GF320 hydrocarbon viewing video camera, this footage of air emissions from a train carrying crude oil thought to be from the North Dakota Bakken was posted.  Watching this video makes you wonder who is monitoring the air emissions from leaky crude oil trains, how much is leaking, who is exposed and how dangerous is it?

leaking oil train.jpg

Back in Washington D.C., waiting for an announcement on new rail safety measures from U.S. DOT, Fred Millar provided more information from the rail safety forum.  Participants in the NTSB Forum recognize the scope and seriousness of the Crude by Rail issues, given that 80 percent of the 1 million barrels per day of Bakken crude oil produced is shipped by rail, and production is growing, yet there is no single silver bullet to address the rail safety risks.

In addition to the need for improved tanker cars and routing discussed above, there are additional improvements that can be made to rail operations and to emergency response.

One key factor in train derailments that influences the extent of damage is speed.  The models that predict failure rates of tank cars during derailments use an “average accident” speed of 27 mph. Yet, even the NTSB Chair Hersman pointed out that it is not realistic, given the higher speeds seen in some of the serious derailments in recent years and the fact that the new standard adopted by the railroads on routes outside of major cities is 50 mph.  Reducing train speeds would be one effective strategy to reduce risk of catastrophic derailments.

It is also essential to strengthen emergency response capabilities. No one at the Forum asked or speculated on what would it cost if railroads paid for adequate emergency preparedness or if FRA increased their oversight in any serious way. The scale of the needs here is vast, given that there are an estimated 2 million firefighters, 80% of which are volunteers, and 20% of those turn over every year.  They all need hazmat training and appropriate resources to respond in any real way to a unit crude oil train accident.rail placard.jpg

Finally, in order for emergency responders to do their jobs, they need to know what substance they are dealing with during an accident.  Full disclosure of tanker train contents and characteristics is essential.  Communities also have a right to know this information about the mile long trains hurtling through their neighborhood, but this was never even mentioned during the Forum.

The residents of Lynchburg, Virginia and thousands of others who have witnessed the devastation of crude oil train derailments over the past year probably join me in wondering whether the federal government is going to do anything to keep these dangerous oil trains out of communities, or try to make those tanker trains safer, or make the trains slow down, or provide adequate emergency response resources, or… anything.  How many more fiery derailments will it take to act?

Full notes of Fred Millar are available to community, public health and safety advocates upon request.

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