Tag Archives: Galena IL

OIL TRAIN DISASTER PLANS: A burning need for the truth about oil train fires

Repost from STAND.EARTH
[Editor:  Highly significant. REQUIRED READING.  For a number of BenIndy articles addressing “Let it burn,” click here.  For “first responder training,” click here.  – RS] 

Oil Train Disaster Plans: A burning need for the truth about oil train fires

By Matt Krogh, May 13, 2016
Don’t believe the hype: The scene of a crude oil derailment and fire is an uncontrollable fire. All firefighters can do is evacuate the area and wait for the fire to burn itself out.

In the year since five fiery oil train disasters in the US and Canada brought national attention to the threat from trains hauling explosive crude oil, the rail industry has embarked on a high profile public relations exercise to reassure the public that deadly disasters can be averted by emergency responders. In fact, the reality of oil train accidents — and the unanimous opinion of fire officials and federal rail safety experts — proves that there is no fighting an oil train derailment and fire. The scene of a crude oil derailment and fire is an uncontrollable fire. All firefighters can do is evacuate the area and wait for the fire to burn itself out.

Images from oil train firefighter training circulated by railroad and oil companies show firefighters standing close to burning tank cars, training hoses on small fires. But as Fairfield, Iowa, Fire Chief Scott Vaughan described in 2014, “If there was a spill or a fire, our big thing would be containment and evacuation,” he said. “We train for it, but training and actually doing are two different things.” Very simply, there is no controlling an oil train fire.

In 2013 in Lac Megantic, Quebec, 47 people died when an oil train derailed and caught fire in the center of a small Canadian town. More than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in flowing “rivers of fire”, creating pool fires and filling sewers. Blocks away uncontrollable fires erupted from drains and manholes and more than 30 building were destroyed. Despite 1,000 firefighters responding from across Quebec and Maine the fire burned for two days.

When an oil train derails at any speed over the puncture velocity of roughly 10 miles an hour (for a common CPC-1232 tank car) a dozen or so cars typically come off the tracks, decouple and are thrown from their wheels. If tank cars are punctured, possibly by something on the ground or the couplers on the ends of the cars, the crude (either Bakken or diluted tar sands, both highly volatile) can easily self-ignite or find an ignition source.

Observations published by FEMA from County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness on the oil train explosion that rocked the small town of Casselton, ND, describe the derailment and the size of the spill:

On December 30, 2013 in Casselton, a BNSF westbound train with 112 grain cars went off the tracks. Thirteen of the cars derailed, and one fell on the eastbound tracks. Within two minutes, a BNSF eastbound crude oil train hit that car. That caused two front locomotives, a hopper car, and twenty cars on the eastbound train to derail, and 18 of them ruptured, exploded, and released 450,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil.

First responders to the Casselton accident were forced to pull far back from the scene because of the intense heat:

The command post was originally set up one-quarter mile from the scene, but they had to pull back to a half mile because it was too hot for the responders even inside their rigs.

A similar situation occurred in Galena, Illinois, where the fire from the March 2015 derailment burned for days. First responders, who unloaded emergency equipment nearby to fight the fire, were forced to abandon $10,000 in equipment on the scene when they pulled back to a safe distance.

The DOT Emergency Response Guidebook is quite clear on the initial response to a single tank car disaster: “If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, isolate for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions” But this direction is for a single tank car, and oil train disasters almost always involve many more than one car.

Emergency response to oil trains traveling across the US and Canada is left to municipal fire departments. Few fire departments have the manpower, training, or equipment to respond to more than a single burning 10,000-gallon tank truck of crude. An oil train tank car carries triple that, and most oil train disasters involve way more than a single tank car. As North Dakota Emergency Manager Rogness describes:

“There were few options for fighting the fire. Water should not be put on exploding crude oil. Firefighters did not have enough foam in four counties together to put the fire out, plus the foam would freeze in the cold. Dry chemicals were not available. The only choice was to let it burn, which BNSF responders said would take about 12 hours. It took more than 24. Political leaders were skeptical of the strategy.

In fact, federal guidelines for emergency responders for oil train fires state very clearly that the only option is to let the oil burn itself out.

In the event of an incident that may involve the release of thousands of gallons of product and ignition of tank cars of crude oil in a unit train, most emergency response organizations will not have the available resources, capabilities or trained personnel to safely and effectively extinguish a fire or contain a spill of this magnitude.

In 2015 in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, tens of thousands of gallons of burning crude escaped punctured cars, flowing into the nearby river and forming a pool fire under other tank cars. Under the intense heat those additional cars began to rupture and explode. A report on oil train safety by the Interagency Board, which coordinates local, state and federal agencies on emergency response, described the situation on the ground during the 2015 West Virginia oil train accident:

During the derailment sequence, two tank cars were initially punctured releasing more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil. Of the 27 tank cars that derailed, 19 cars became involved in the pileup and post-accident pool fire. The pool fire caused thermal tank shell failures on 13 tank cars that otherwise survived the initial accident.

Emergency responders at the Mount Carbon, WV incident reported the first thermal failure about 25 minutes after the accident. Within the initial 65 minutes of the incident, at least four tank car failures with large fireball eruptions occurred. The 13th and last thermal failure occurred more than 10 hours after the accident.

With oil trains continuing to run across North America, it’s a question of when, not if, we will experience the next fatal oil train accident. As Christopher A. Hart of the National Transportation Safety Board explained in January 2016, “We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area… But an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time.”

Realistic oil train disaster preparations would not involve firefighters spraying tank cars for cameras. The first, most important step would be to recognize — as emergency responders across the country freely admit — that no municipal fire department can control an oil train fire.

An upcoming Department of Transportation rulemaking is intended to provide oil train information and preparedness (materials and training) for first responders around the country. Unfortunately, that new rule has been delayed for years and the draft rules are not expected until late 2017. It will be years before the final rules are released, leaving dangerous tank cars, volatile crude, and unprepared communities to bear the risks of oil train traffic.

And thorough reporting by DeSmog Blog on the weak existing regulatory standards and the oil and rail industry’s failure to meet them demonstrates, there have been no improvements in the safety of the 100,000 unsafe tank cars in the US fleet. The steps oil shippers have promised to improve the safety of oil trains are as hollow and inadequate as the promise of firefighters dousing burning oil tank cars.

Real emergency preparedness for oil trains would involve preparing for massive amounts of spilled crude oil by developing evacuation protocols for the 25 million Americans who live in the oil train blast zone. It would include modeling the flow of burning crude, likely toxic plumes and wildfires. It would also require much better information sharing and coordination with emergency officials on oil train hazardous cargo, routes, and scheduling, information which railroads have strongly resisted sharing.

According to the National Fire Protection Association 69 percent of the 1.1 million firefighters in North America serve in volunteer fire departments. They are not trained or equipped for effective oil train emergency response – in fact, the scale and danger of an oil train fire puts our emergency responders, like the millions who live along the tracks, at unacceptable risk. The railroads are providing some highly touted emergency training to a tiny sliver of this massive force, but the reality is that these efforts are staged to misinform the public, not prepare emergency responders.

Federal emergency response guidance and fire chiefs have long recognized that there is no effective emergency response to a crude oil derailment fire event. If even one tank car of crude oil is involved in a fire, federal guidelines are clear that firefighters should pull back half a mile and let it burn. And that is another good reason that oil trains are too dangerous for the rails.


Many thanks to Fred Millar for his research and analysis.


[Editor:  For a number of Benicia Independent articles addressing “Let it burn,” click here.  For “first responder training,” click here.  – RS] 

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    Wisconsin train derailment: All but 1 auto rack back on tracks

    Repost from The Indian Republic

    Wisconsin train derailment: All but 1 auto rack back on tracks

    Divit Nehru | Wednesday, November 18, 2015
    BNSF freight train
    Wisconsin train derailment spilled thousands of gallons of ethanol

    Twenty five cars derailed, including empty auto racks and tanker cars of denatured alcohol, more commonly known as ethanol. The company said four tank cars each released up to 500 gallons of ethanol, and a fifth vehicle released about 18,000 gallons.

    The derailment resulted in 13 tanker cars being knocked off the tracks and spilling oil.

    A 13-car Canadian Pacific train crashed on Sunday, resulting in one tank vehicle spilling Bakken crude oil near the Wisconsin town, according to the agency.

    Three of the cars have been placed onto a temporary track, with nine more to go.

    With the number of trains now traveling through Minnesota and Wisconsin, there are plenty of disaster officials who think it’s a major accident waiting to happen.

    Fire Chief Paul Stephans said his department regularly trains to handle the side effects of derailments.

    The Federal Railroad Administration is focusing on mechanical and track cause as the reason for derailment.

    However, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did agree with the tribes on one issue: the rule’s effective abandonment of a requirement that railroads hauling large quantities of crude oil notify state emergency officials.

    Canadian Pacific tells WKOW that there was a train derailment in Wisconsin Wednesday around 1 p.m. Five freight cars went off of the track at a rail yard near Watertown. On Monday afternoon, new track was installed to replace the damaged track. Six BNSF Railway cars loaded with crude oil derailed in March near Galena, Ill., with two of the cars bursting into flames.

    CP said in its statement that it had reserved hotel rooms for all affected families. The spill was contained and the oil did not reach any waterways, he said.

    With the Wisconsin accidents, at least 26 oil trains and 11 ethanol trains have been involved in major fires, derailments or spills during the past decade in the USA and Canada, according to an Associated Press tally from data kept by transportation agencies and safety investigators. BNSF expects the tracks to return to service Monday morning.

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      States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

      Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

      States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

      Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
       By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
      In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

      When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

      The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

      “This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

      The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

      Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

      Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

      California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

      A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

      “The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

      Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

      In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

      Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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        NPR: Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

        Repost from National Public Radio (NPR)

        Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

        By David Schaper, June 19, 2015 3:30 AM ET

        A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
        A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Steven Wayne Rotsch/Office of the Gov. of West Virginia/AP

        The federal government’s new rules aimed at preventing explosive oil train derailments are sparking a backlash from all sides.

        The railroads, oil producers and shippers say some of the new safety requirements are unproven and too costly, yet some safety advocates and environmental groups say the regulations aren’t strict enough and still leave too many people at risk.

        Since February, five trains carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil have derailed and exploded into flames in the U.S. and Canada. No one was hurt in the incidents in Mount Carbon, W.Va., and Northern Ontario in February; in Galena, Ill., and Northern Ontario in March, and in Heimdal, N.D., in May.

        Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains.
        Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains. David Schaper

        But each of those fiery train wrecks occurred in lightly populated areas. Scores of oil trains also travel through dense cities, particularly Chicago, the nation’s railroad hub.

        According to state records and published reports, about 40 or more trains carrying Bakken crude roll through the city each week on just the BNSF Railway’s tracks alone. Those trains pass right by apartment buildings, homes, businesses and even schools.

        “Well just imagine the carnage,” said Christina Martinez. She was standing alongside the BNSF tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a long train of black tank cars slowly rolled by, right across the street from St. Procopius, the Catholic elementary school her six-year-old attends.

        “Just the other day they were playing soccer at my son’s school on Saturday and I saw the train go by and it had the ‘1267’, the red marking,” Martinez said, referring to the red, diamond-shaped placards on railroad tank cars that indicates their contents. The number 1267 signifies crude oil. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Can you imagine if it would derail and explode right here while these kids are playing soccer and all the people around there?”

        New federal rules require stronger tank cars, with thicker shells and higher front and back safety shields for shipping crude oil and other flammable liquids. Older, weaker models that more easily rupture will have to be retrofitted or replaced within three to five years. But Martinez and others wanted rules limiting the volatility of what’s going into those tank cars, too.

        Oil from North Dakota has a highly combustible mix of natural gases including butane, methane and propane. The state requires the conditioning of the gas and oil at the wellhead so the vapor pressure is below 13.7 pounds per square inch before it’s shipped. But even at that level, oil from derailed tank cars has exploded into flames.

        And many safety advocates had hoped federal regulators would require conditioning to lower the vapor pressure even more.

        “We don’t want these bomb trains going through our neighborhood,” said Lora Chamberlain of the group Chicagoland Oil by Rail. “Degasify the stuff. And so we’re really, really upset at the feds, the Department of Transportation, for not addressing this in these new rules.”

        Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway's tracks in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
        Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway’s tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. David Schaper/NPR

        Others criticize the rules for giving shippers three to five years to either strengthen or replace the weakest tank cars.

        “The rules won’t take effect for many years,” said Paul Berland, who lives near busy railroad tracks in suburban Elgin. “They’re still playing Russian roulette with our communities.”

        A coalition of environmental groups — including Earthjustice, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club — sued, alleging that loopholes could allow some dangerous tank cars to remain on the tracks for up to a decade.

        “I don’t think our federal regulators did the job that they needed to do here; I think they wimped out, as it were,” said Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Ill., a city of 200,000 about 40 miles west of Chicago that has seen a dramatic increase in oil trains rumbling through it.

        Weisner is upset the new rules provide exemptions to trains with fewer than 20 contiguous tank cars of a flammable liquid, such as oil, and for trains with fewer than 35 such tank cars in total.

        “They’ve left a hole in the regulations that you could drive a freight train through,” Weisner said.

        At the same time, an oil industry group is challenging the new regulations in court, too, arguing that manufacturers won’t be able to build and retrofit tank cars fast enough to meet the requirements.

        The railroad industry is also taking action against the new crude-by-rail rules, filing an appeal of the new rules with the Department of Transportation.

        In a statement, Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said: “It is the AAR’s position the rule, while a good start, does not sufficiently advance safety and fails to fully address ongoing concerns of the freight rail industry and the general public. The AAR is urging the DOT to close the gap in the rule that allows shippers to continue using tank cars not meeting new design specifications, to remove the ECP brake requirement, and to enhance thermal protection by requiring a thermal blanket as part of new tank car safety design standards.”

        AAR’s President Ed Hamberger discussed the problems the railroads have with the new rules in an interview with NPR prior to filing the appeal. “The one that we have real problems with is requiring something called ECP brakes — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” he said, adding the new braking system that the federal government is mandating is unproven.

        “[DOT does] not claim that ECP brakes would prevent one accident,” Hamberger said. “Their entire safety case is based on the fact that ECP brakes are applied a little bit more quickly than the current system.”

        Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg disagreed. “It’s not unproven at all,” she said, noting that the railroads say ECP brakes could cost nearly $10,000 per tank car.

        “I do understand that the railroad industry views it as costly,” Feinberg adds. “I don’t think it’s particularly costly, especially when you compare it to the cost of a really significant incident with a train carrying this product.”

        “We’re talking about unit trains, 70 or more cars, that are transporting an incredibly volatile and flammable substance through towns like Chicago, Philadelphia,” Feinberg continues. “I want those trains to have a really good braking system. I don’t want to get into an argument with the rail industry that it’s too expensive. I want people along rail lines to be protected.”

        Feinberg said her agency is still studying whether to regulate the volatility of crude, but some in Congress don’t think this safety matter can wait.

        “The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to address the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”

        Cantwell is sponsoring legislation to force oil producers to reduce the crude’s volatility to make it less explosive, before shipping it on the nation’s rails.

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