Repost from the Billings Gazette [Editor: Note the industry terminology: “BNSF attributes the July 16 incident…to ‘thermal misalignment,’ also known as sun kink, which occurs when rail tracks expand when heated and buckle.” …Will we see more of this with global warming? – RS]
Heat caused Montana train derailments, BNSF says
By Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Nov 4, 2015
CULBERTSON — Two July train derailments in Eastern Montana, including one that spilled 35,000 gallons of Bakken crude, were caused by tracks that buckled in the heat, according to BNSF Railway.
BNSF attributes the July 16 incident that caused 22 oil tankers to derail east of Culbertson to “thermal misalignment,” also known as sun kink, which occurs when rail tracks expand when heated and buckle.
The company also attributes the same cause to the July 14 train derailment about 10 miles west of Culbertson, said BNSF spokesman Matthew Jones.
The Federal Railroad Administration said Tuesday the agency’s investigation into the derailments is still ongoing.
BNSF reported to the FRA that the two derailments caused $3.2 million in damage, including nearly $2 million in equipment damage and more than $1.2 million in track damage.
In the July 16 incident, a westbound train containing 106 crude oil tankers that had been loaded in Trenton, N.D., derailed about five miles east of Culbertson. Twenty-two tankers derailed, with five cars releasing oil, according to information submitted to the FRA.
BNSF and contractors recovered the spilled oil and removed and replaced about 3,900 cubic yards of contaminated soil, Jones said.
On July 14, nine cars on an eastbound mixed merchandise train derailed west of Culbertson, but the cars remained upright and did not cause a spill.
BNSF inspects tracks and bridges more frequently than required by the FRA, including visual inspections and inspections using rail cars equipped with advanced technology, Jones said.
Meanwhile, a legislative audit released last week highlights weaknesses in Montana’s oversight of rail safety, calling attention to a lack of emergency response resources in northeast Montana.
The report by the Montana Legislative Audit Division said the state’s rail safety inspection program is not adequate and first-responders are not adequately trained and equipped to respond to incidents involving hazardous materials.
Northeast Montana does not have a regional hazmat team, primarily due to a lack of hazmat trained and equipped firefighters and the lack of a full-time, salaried fire department, the report said. The closest hazmat team is in Billings, 300 miles from Culbertson.
When a new oil transloading facility in East Fairview, N.D., is at full capacity, Montana may see as many as 40 oil trains each week, the report said.
Montana’s Public Service Commission, which discussed the audit during a meeting Tuesday, would need statutory authority and resources from the state Legislature to expand its oversight of rail safety, said Eric Sell, a spokesman for the agency. Sell noted that the Federal Railroad Administration has primary oversight of rail safety.
BNSF train derailments that were caused by the tracks occurred at a rate of 0.38 incidents per million train miles last year, Jones said, noting the rate is 50 percent better than 10 years ago.
Another recent train derailment involving Bakken crude near Heimdal, N.D., remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Six oil tankers derailed and four caught fire in May.
Heimdal Residents Move Forward After Oil Train Derailments
By Megan Mitchell, Nov 03, 2015 9:55 AM
Six months ago Heimdal, N.D., made headlines for a oil train derailments. The accident forced the evacuation of the entire town. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues to investigation the incident and is focusing on wheel fragments recovered at the scene.
No cause for the crash has been identified at this point.
The NTSB has sent the evidence the collected to a metallurgy testing lab in Washington, D.C. Metallurgists specialize in the physical and chemical behavior of metals. Their examination could take another year to complete. In the meantime, residents of Heimdal have returned to their homes and routines.
Sparky is an affectionate 9-year-old border collie cross. His friendly disposition is second only to the loyalty he has for his owners Arden and Linda Georgensen.
Arden Georgensen is a resident of Heimdal and says the dog never leaves his wife’s side.
“If I can’t find her in the yard I can find the dog. He’s always with her,” Arden said.
On May 6, 2015 neither Linda or Arden could find Sparky when they were forced to evacuate their home without their beloved dog.
“I saw this big plume I thought it was a tornado the way it looked because it was swirling,” Arden said.
An oil train derailed just half a mile from their farm, spewing 60,000 gallons of Bakken crude. That’s when firefighters came knocking.
“They said you need to get out right now ’cause if those tanks explode it’s hard to say what’ll happen out here,” Arden said.
It was a long night wondering whether Sparky would be there when they returned.
Linda went back the next morning and was overjoyed.
“It was a good feeling to see him laying there ’cause when we got home here he was by the door like usual,” Linda said.
Oil production in the Bakken has drastically declined, but tanker trains continue to roll through Heimdal every day. Despite what happened there, residents say they’re not overly concerned when they hear an engine whistle sound.
Curt Benson saw the oil train derail and was the first person to contact emergency management.
“It’s still a concern, but yeah, if you’re only getting five trains a day instead of 20 trains a day sure it’s a little less of a concern,” Benson said.
Other residents aren’t sidetracked by worry.
“You just have that risk. There’s a certain amount of risk just being alive,” Bill Ongstad said.
BNSF is still cleaning up the site, but it appears the landscape around Heimdal is almost restored.
“I have to say they did a pretty bang up job. I think seeing all of them come out here with all the equipment and the time they put in, it certainly makes you feel confident that they probably did a good job,” Benson said.
The 22 residents of Heimdal and Sparky are living in the moment and moving on.
The NTSB said the wheel fragments from the accident were sent to those metallurgy labs two and a half weeks ago.
The agency says they look at everything associated with this accident and no conclusions have been drawn.
About 40 miles west of Williston, North Dakota — the epicenter of the Bakken oil formation — sits a tiny rural town that was recently rocked by a strange occurrence.
Culbertson, Montana, a town of less than 1,000 people just north of the Missouri River, saw a massive train derailment in July.
A 106-car BNSF Railway train was carrying oil from the Bakken to a BP refinery in Washington State, but when it reached Culbertson, 22 of the cars derailed and five began leaking crude.
When the cars derailed, a nearby power line was knocked over — a sure sign of imminent catastrophe.
Of course, train derailments and explosions are not strange occurrences these days. Such derailments have become an all-too-common consequence of North America’s shale oil boom.
In 2013, as I have discussed many times, a train derailed and exploded in the center of a small town in Canada, destroying several buildings and killing 47 people.
There was also a crash and explosion earlier this year in West Virginia that threatened residents and nearby water resources.
But this derailment in Montana was different…
You see, despite the five breached tankers, the more than 1,000 barrels of oil that leaked, and the downed power lines, there was no explosion.
There was no fire to speak of, either — just leaked oil and the torn metal of the train cars scattered near the tracks.
Many began to question exactly how an explosion was avoided and if such conditions could be replicated on all future oil rail shipments.
Unfortunately, as of yet, there are no definitive answers…
Air + Gas + Sparks = Explosion
A local sheriff’s deputy said of the spill: “You could smell it from over a mile away.”
As a precaution, some residents were evacuated, but BNSF crews quickly contained the leaked oil, and the debris and the tracks were soon restored to order.
Some have said that the reason the oil didn’t ignite was because the vapor pressure of the oil was in compliance with new regulations…
After a report released last year by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said that crude oil from the Bakken is more dangerous because of its higher-than-normal gas content, regulators in North Dakota required that any oil shipped from the Bakken be heated to 110 degrees to lower the gas content in the oil to below 13.7 psi.
According to Statoil, the owner of the crude in the train, the oil was below the 13.7-psi mark, and many commentators leaped to the conclusion that this prevented fires and explosions.
Of course, this is a bit disingenuous because, as I discussed in a column a few months ago, an oil train in compliance with the same standards crashed outside of Heimdal, North Dakota and burst into flames, forcing the evacuation of the small town.
Even though the oil was treated, it still caught fire, so it would seem that the lack of explosion or fire in the Culbertson crash had everything to do with luck and very little to do with science or regulation.
I’ll reiterate: It was very lucky indeed.
Usually a fire starts in a train derailment because the sparks caused by the friction of a train wreck meet the leaking oil and oxygen present in the air and combust.
Once oil and air meet fire, as you know, explosions happen — typically large ones.
Since the incident caused a power line to go down, it’s practically miraculous that there were no explosions or fires.
Still, can we really rely on luck to prevent the dangerous explosions caused by most derailments?
Pipelines are Coming
Despite all of the industry standards and new rules announced by the Department of Transportation, there’s still no definitive solution to stopping these crude oil derailments other than to cull the amount of oil shipped by rail.
Even with oil production in a tenuous position because of low prices, large amounts of crude are still shipped via rail.
And if rail shipments of oil were forcibly halted, the effects could be devastating on the companies drilling in the Bakken that need secure revenue streams now more than ever.
Instead, the solution to cutting traffic has to benefit producers and be market-based. The only way to do this is by pipeline.
As the amount oil traffic — and accidents — on rails has increased, so too has the call for construction of more pipelines.
Within a few years, the pipeline capacity in the U.S. is set to double, and when it does, there will hopefully be a reduction in railroad traffic and accidents.
Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost
By David Schaper, June 19, 2015 3:30 AM ET
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.
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.”
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.