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U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

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Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

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A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

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    Kalamazoo River 5 years later – still cleaning it up

    Repost from OnEarth Magazine, Natural Resources Defense Council
    [Editor:  Significant quote: “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean.  Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.”  – RS]

    Remember the Kalamazoo

    Five years ago, a pipeline spilled a million gallons of tar sands crude into a Michigan river—and we’re still cleaning it up.
    By Brian Palmer, July 22, 2015
    Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

    Five years ago, in the middle of the night, an oil pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured outside of Marshall, Michigan. It took more than 17 hours before the Canadian company finally cut off the flow, but by then, more than a million gallons of tar sands crude had oozed into Talmadge Creek. The oil quickly flowed into the Kalamazoo River, forcing dozens of families to evacuate their homes. Oil spills of that magnitude are always disastrous, but the Kalamazoo event was historically damaging.

    The first challenge was the composition of the oil. Fresh tar sands crude looks more like dirt than conventional crude—it’s far too thick to travel through a pipeline.

    Try pumping this through a pipeline. Photo: Suncor

    To get this crumbly mess to flow, producers thin it out with the liquid constituents of natural gas. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as it’s called in the tar sands industry, is approximately three parts tar sands crude, one part natural gas liquids.

    When dilbit gushed into Talmadge Creek in 2010, the mixture broke apart. The volatile natural gas liquids vaporized and wafted into the surrounding neighborhoods. The airborne chemicals were so difficult to find and eliminate that Enbridge decided it would be better to simply buy some of the homes that were evacuated, preventing the residents from ever returning.

    The tar sands oil, which stayed in the water, presented an even bigger chemistry problem. Most forms of oil, including conventional crude, are less dense than water. That’s why oil makes such pretty colors when dropped into a rain puddle—it floats and plays tricks with the sunlight. Traditional oil spill cleanup technology relies heavily on this density relationship. Skimmers and vacuums remove it from the surface. Floating booms prevent surface-level oil from moving into environmentally sensitive areas.

    Tar sands crude behaves differently. “Tar sands bitumen is a low-grade, heavy substance,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project (disclosure). “Unlike conventional crude, when bitumen is released into a water body, it sinks.” (See “Sink or Skim,” onEarth’s infographic on why tar sands oil is more difficult to clean up than conventional crude.)

    Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

    Put simply, the spilled dilbit traveled in every direction—into the air, with the current, to the bottom of the river—at the same time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s indisputably naïve response reveals how little anyone knew about tar sands crude. The EPA demanded that Enbridge remove the oil from wetlands surrounding the pipe by August 27, a little more than one month after the spill began. The agency wanted the stuff out of the creek, river, and shorelines by the September 27. Those deadlines would have been practical for a typical spill—but not for a tar sands oil spill. A half-decade later, some of the oil still remains—though, much of that has to do with Enbridge botching the cleanup effort (see onEarth’s three-part series, “The Whistleblower”).

    Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.

    Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

    As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” says Swift. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”

    Some local residents accuse the company of overstating its progress. “In the process of beautifying everything and giving money to everybody and making everybody feel good about it, they’re not really telling people about the dangers still there in that water,” says Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne of Michigan’s Potawatomi tribe.

    It’s not clear when the river will go back to pre-spill quality. After conventional oil spills, crews eventually back off and allow microbes to break down the last bits of crude. That approach isn’t a good option in Kalamazoo. First, the area doesn’t have a large natural population of oil-eating microbes like the Gulf of Mexico has. In addition, tar sands crude contains very high levels of heavy metals, which don’t break down easily.

    Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

    The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean. The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.

    It’s tempting to dismiss the slow, botched, expensive, and still-unfinished cleanup as growing pains. Tar sands imports have risen significantly since 2010, as has public awareness of the difference between the Canadian crude and the conventional product. In the five years since the incident, we should have improved tar sands oil spill response. But we didn’t.

    If another Enbridge spill were to happen tomorrow, the company might respond more quickly, but huge volumes of heavy tar sands crude would still pour out of the pipeline. David Holtz of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club told reporters that a rupture in Enbridge Line 5, another pipeline that runs through Michigan, would be disastrous.

    “If they hit the shutoff valve immediately after a rupture, there would still be more than 650,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Great Lakes,” he said.

    Cleaning it up would be as challenging today as it was five years ago. There have been no technological breakthroughs since 2010. The tar sands industry should accept a large portion of the blame for this stasis.

    “The efforts to improve spill response have been caught up in a public relations war,” says Swift. “The tar sands industry wants you to believe that oil is oil, and that its product involves no heightened concerns. As a result, spill responders are working with largely the same tools today as in 2010.”

    Tar sands pipelines—like the one operated by Enbridge, or TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline—run for thousands of miles, crisscrossing the United States and Canada in elaborate networks. They entail certain risks, and those risks are not going away. We have to decide how to respond. If we accept them, we must work to minimize the consequences by developing the appropriate safety measures and technology. Or we can reject them by eliminating tar sands from our energy infrastructure. The one thing we must not do is to pretend they don’t exist. The Kalamazoo spill is a reminder. It won’t be the last.

     

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      Mayors from Great Lakes region, St. Lawrence River address oil train derailments

      Repost from the Sarnia Observer
      [Editor: reading highlighted text for references to the Mayors’ efforts to stop crude oil train derailments, and the importance of local communities banding together on such matters.  – RS]

      Sarnia convention brings together mayors from Great Lakes region, St. Lawrence River

      By Chris O’Gorman, June 18, 2015 8:11:34 EDT AM
      Deputy mayor of Quebec City, Michelle Morin-Doyle, speaks about the need for oil transportation regulations at the kick off to a three day conference in Sarnia. The conference will produce a list of resolutions backed by 110 mayors and municipal leaders asking governments and industries to curb harmful environmental practices. (CHRIS O’GORMAN, Sarnia Observer)
      Deputy mayor of Quebec City, Michelle Morin-Doyle, speaks about the need for oil transportation regulations at the kick off to a three day conference in Sarnia. The conference will produce a list of resolutions backed by 110 mayors and municipal leaders asking governments and industries to curb harmful environmental practices. (CHRIS O’GORMAN, Sarnia Observer)

      The mayors of cities and towns dotting the coast of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are in Sarnia for a three-day environmental conference where they announced “aggressive targets” for reducing phosphorus in Lake Erie.

      A Lake Erie algae bloom last summer made city water unsafe for residents of Toledo, Ohio to unable to use city water for several days.

      The event served as a “wake-up call” for all municipalities on the lake to pressure governments and industries to reduce phosphorus run-off, David Ullrich, the executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said Wednesday

      “In the minds of the mayors, this was really a game changer for us. We couldn’t be complacent anymore about algae blooms,” he said.

      Phosphorus is a naturally occurring element is the byproduct of some industries and is found in fertilizers. When it makes it way from farm fields into bodies of water, it feeds toxic algae, sometimes creating blooms.

      The city representatives from eight states and two provinces are hoping to introduce a harmonized system for dealing with algae blooms, similar to the one Toledo adopted after the toxic water disaster. They’re calling for a 40% reduction in phosphorus by 2025 in Lake Erie.

      There are a number of items on the conference agenda on Thursday,  including making oil transportation safer through the Great Lakes region , eliminating micro beads from consumer products, and discussing the future of energy generation and distribution.

      “Our collective voice has never been more important. We’re facing a number of challenging issues that we will be discussing at our conference,” said Mitch Twolan, the mayor of Huron-Kinloss.

      While it may seem as if initiatives like these involve a lot of policy documents and occasional finger pointing—one mayor said “we do send a lot of letters,” receiving a few chuckles—the collective of mayors has achieved much in just the last year.

      At the last conference, the group decided to take action against “micro beads,” small plastic beads found in body washes, toothpastes, and other products. The beads accumulate in waterways and the bodies of animals.

      Today, the city initiative has successfully lobbied six companies to stop using the beads in their products. Most recently, Loblaws said it would be phasing out micro bead products from its stores.

       The Lac Mégantic disaster will also be a major agenda item. In July 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed near the rural Quebec town of Lac Méganic and exploded killing 47 people. Deputy mayor of Quebec City, Michelle Morin-Doyle said the group is committed to improving oil transportation safety through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence regions. While the initiatives work may be slow sometimes and alone a city may be able to move faster, working with a larger collective means changes are permanent and far-reaching.

        “Because what it all comes down to is we want to make sure our citizens are safe,” she said. “The objective must be zero derailments. We cannot afford another accident like the one in Lac Mégantic.”

        From Wisconsin, mayor John Dickert of Racine said the environmental group prefers to speak with, encourage, and sometimes demand industries that create these contaminants stop, rather than dealing with aftermaths like Lac Mégantic.

        “The reason these are not small issues is… because businesses deal with these disasters on the day it happens. If their train derails, they’ve lost a financial commodity. Our people have lost their lives,” he said.

        “We are going to be very aggressive on these issues so that we don’t have to deal with it after the fact or deal with a parent who’s saying they just lost a loved one.” 
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        With fracking boom and oil trains, big cities fear explosive safety risks

        Repost from The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
        [Editor:  Significant quote by Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago: “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America…. Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest…. These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.

        RISKY CARGO ON MIDWEST OIL TRAINS

        Amid fracking boom, cities fear explosive safety risk it can carry

        BY TOM HENRY , BLADE STAFF WRITER, June 1, 2015

        CHICAGO — While the global fracking boom has stabilized North America’s energy prices, Chicago — America’s third largest city and the busiest crossroads of the nation’s railroad network — has become ground zero for the debate over heavy crude moved by oil trains.

        With the Windy City experiencing a 4,000 percent increase in oil-train traffic since 2008, Chicago and its many densely populated suburbs have become a focal point as Congress considers a number of safety reforms this year.

        Many oil trains are 100 or more cars long, carrying hydraulically fracked crude and its highly explosive, associated vapors from the Bakken region of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

        A majority of those trains also cross northwest Ohio on their way to refineries and barge terminals along the East Coast.

        Derailments can lead to massive explosions, such as the one on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que., just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine. The resulting explosions and fire killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.

        “For me to assure my community there’s no risk, I would be lying,” Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner told reporters on the Halsted Station’s elevated platform near downtown Chicago last week. The discussion was arranged by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a group that promotes better environmental reporting.

        Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular.
        Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular. THE BLADE/BRIAN BUCKEY

        “A derailment in or around our downtown would be absolutely disastrous,” he said.

        One of Chicago’s distant western suburbs, Aurora, with 200,000 people, is the second-largest city in Illinois. Though it has fewer than one resident for every 10 in Chicago (population: 2.7 million), Aurora is somewhat smaller than Toledo, which has 281,000 residents.

        Mr. Weisner, whose mayoral office overlooks tracks where many of the oil trains pass going toward Chicago, shrugged when asked about emergency planning.

        “That always helps, of course. But you could have a major catastrophe before they could arrive on the scene, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Weisner said, noting the Lac-Megantic explosion on at least three occasions.

        Closer to home, he said, are memories of a train explosion on June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, Ill., just outside Rockford.

        Although that derailment involved a train carrying flammable ethanol — not an oil train — its fire killed a motorist stopped at a railroad crossing, injured seven people in cars plus two firefighters, and forced the evacuation of 600 homes.

        Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area.
        Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

        On March 5, 21 cars of a 105-car BNSF Railway train hauling oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed in a heavily wooded, rural area outside Galena, Ill.

        The train erupted into a massive fireball 3 miles from a town of 3,000 people in the northwest corner of Illinois, near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.

        No deaths were reported from that incident and, like several other derailments that have resulted in explosions and fires in recent years, it occurred in a rural area.

        Mr. Weisner and others fear it is a matter of time before a much higher-profile incident occurs in Chicago or some other big city where the death toll could be significant.

        Shortly after he finished, an oil train moved past Halsted Station, whose tracks are flanked by high-rise apartment buildings.

        Oil trains move throughout the Great Lakes region after getting filled with Bakken crude, often ending up on the East Coast.

        Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes region is “the heart of the country,” Mr. Weisner said.

        “We’re always going to be at one of the highest levels of exposure,” the Aurora mayor said. “There’s no doubt about it.

        This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.
        This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district. ASSOCIATED PRESS

        Environmental activists such as Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago, put the risk in more graphic terms.

        “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America,” he told reporters outside a coffee shop at West Maxwell and Halsted streets, three blocks north of the train station where Mr. Weisner would speak moments later.

        “Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest,” Mr. Mogerman said. “These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.”

        Tony Phillips is an artist who lives in a condominium adjacent to Chicago’s Halsted Station.

        He said he can hear “the rip of noise” and feel his building shudder as oil trains come by, often in the wee hours of the morning. He said he feels a “slosh effect” in the flooring from the oscillating weight of crude if he gets up in the middle of the night.

        “That’s a little spooky,” Mr. Phillips said.

        He and others want reforms, tighter rules, and more robust train cars, if nothing else. Some efforts are being made through tighter regulations, but critics claim they’re either not enough or being phased in too slowly.

        Fracking boom

        Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by.
        Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

        Lora Chamberlain, spokesman for Frack Free Illinois and a new coalition called Chicagoland Oil By Rail, said vapor removal should be on the list of priorities to help mitigate the risk.

        In a May 7, 2014, order, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for state emergency responders to receive more information about railroad routes handling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil per week because the number and type of railroad accidents “is startling.”

        In 2013, America moved 8.3 billion barrels (348.6 billion gallons) of crude oil via pipeline — nearly 29 times the 291 million barrels (12.2 billion gallons) moved by rail, according to data from the Association of Oil Pipelines and the Association of American Railroads.

        Safety experts see North America at a turning point because of the oil and gas industry’s rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, a process commonly known as “fracking” that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts will remain strong for at least the next 30 years.

        Fracking has occurred commercially since the 1950s. The game-changer occurred less than a decade ago, when a technique developed to combine horizontal drilling with fracking made it economical to go after vast reserves of previously trapped oil and natural gas worldwide — including in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where the Utica and Marcellus shale regions meet.

        Rail traffic

        Railroads moved 493,126 tank-car loads of oil in 2014, a nearly 5,200 percent increase over the 9,500 tank cars that hauled oil before the fracking boom began to hit its stride in many parts of North America in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Before the fracking boom, rail shipment of crude was rare and generally confined to a few isolated corridors where pipelines hadn’t been built.

        Overall domestic crude production has risen 70 percent during that same period. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show domestic oil produced at a rate of 8.5 million barrels a day in 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008.

        Mogerman
        Mogerman | THE BLADE/ BRIAN BUCKEY

        This year, crude is expected to be produced at a rate of 9 million barrels a day, just shy of its peak rate of 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration.

        “While pipelines transport the majority of oil and gas in the United States, recent development of crude oil in parts of the country under-served by pipeline has led shippers to use other modes, with rail seeing the largest percentage increase,” a Government Accountability Office report said. “Although pipeline operators and railroads have generally good safety records, the increased transportation of these flammable hazardous materials creates the potential for serious accidents.”

        The agency cited a need for better U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flammability of products shipped by rail and a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness, “especially in rural areas where there might be fewer resources to respond to a serious incident.”

        In its 2015 forecast, the Association of American Railroads contends railroads “are making Herculean efforts” to improve “an already safe nationwide rail network” now crisscrossing some 140,000 miles of the country.

        The trade association said freight railroads plan to spend a record $29 billion in 2015 — a staggering $3 million an hour or about $79 million a day — to rebuild, maintain, and expand America’s rail network. Much of the money will go toward new equipment and locomotives, new track and bridges, higher tunnels, and newer technology.

        Freight railroads are expected to hire 15,000 more people this year, continuing its upward hiring trend for an industry that employs 180,000 people, the association said.

        While considering safety reforms, Congress must ensure that “any changes to public policy still allow railroads to continue private infrastructure spending and other network investments needed to meet customer demand,​” the industry group said.

         

         

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