Riverkeeper sues U.S. DOT over oil train safety rules
By Brian Nearing, May 18, 2015
The Hudson River environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper is challenging new U.S. Department of Transportation crude-by-rail standards in federal court, saying that they fail to protect the public and the environment from proven threats, according to a statement issued Monday.
The release states: Riverkeeper filed its lawsuit in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City on May 15, a little more than a week after the DOT issued a final tank car and railroad operation rule which had been the subject of scrutiny and controversy since its proposal in 2014. The suit closely follows another filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by a coalition of conservation and citizen groups that includes Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club.
The Hudson River and the Greater New York/New Jersey region, a thoroughfare for up to 25 percent of all crude shipments originating in the Bakken shale oil region, faces a daily risk of spills and explosions that could devastate communities, local economies, drinking water security, and the environment.
“These seriously flawed standards all but guarantee that there will be more explosive derailments, leaving people and the environment at grave risk,” Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said. “The shortcomings are numerous, including an inadequate speed limit, unprotective tank car design, and time line that would allow these dangerous tank cars 10 more years on the rails. The DOT completely fails to recognize that we’re in the middle of a crisis – we don’t need bureaucratic half measures that are years away from implementation, we need common-sense protections today.”
Just this month, tank cars laden with crude oil derailed and exploded in Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the new DOT standards, the same type of cars that exploded in that disaster could stay in service hauling volatile crude oil for another five to eight years, or even indefinitely if they are used for tar sands.
Over the past several years, a series of fiery derailments, toxic spills, and explosions involving volatile crude and ethanol rail transport has caused billions in damages across North America. Crude-by-rail accidents threaten irreversible damage to waterways, many of which, like the Hudson River, serve as the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people. This year alone,six oil-by-rail shipments have caught fire and exploded in North America. In July 2013, a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. The total liabilities for that rail disaster could easily reach $2.7 billion over the next decade.
Here are some of the ways the new safety standards fail to protect people and the environment:
• Hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil can remain in service for up to 10 years.
• The rule rolls back public notification requirements, leaving communities and first responders in the dark about explosive crude oil tank cars rumbling through their towns.
• While new tank cars will require thicker shells to mitigate punctures and leaks, retrofit tank cars will be allowed to stay in use with a less protective design standard.
• Speed limits have been restricted only for “high threat urban areas,” but only two areas in New York have received that designation, Buffalo and New York City.
• The “high threat” category relates to cities seen as vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the Department of Homeland Security. It is unrelated to actual risks posed by crude-by-rail.
Groups Sue Obama Administration Over Weak Tank Car Standards
The new safety standards issued by the Department of Transportation take too long to get dangerous tank cars off the tracks and contain loopholes that leave too many vulnerable
May 14, 2015, Eddie Scher, ForestEthics, (415) 815-7027, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco – In the wake of a spate of fiery derailments and toxic spills involving trains hauling volatile crude oil, a coalition of conservation organizations and citizen groups are challenging the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) weak safety standards for oil trains. Less than a week after the DOT released its final tank car safety rule on May 1, a train carrying crude oil exploded outside of Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the current standards, the tank cars involved in the accident would not be retired from crude oil shipping or retrofitted for another 5 to 8 years.
Earthjustice has filed suit in the 9th Circuit challenging the rule on behalf of ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Department of Transportation’s weak oil train standard just blew up in its face on the plains of North Dakota last week,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice attorney. “Pleas from the public, reinforced by the National Transportation Safety Board, to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents.”
Rather than immediately banning the most dangerous tank cars — DOT-111s and CPC-1232s — that are now used every day to transport volatile Bakken and tar sands crude oil, the new standards call for a 10-year phase out. Even then the standard will allow smaller trains — up to 35 loaded tank cars in a train — to continue to use the unsafe tank cars.
The new rule fails to protect people and communities in several major ways:
• The rule leaves hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil on the tracks for up to 10 years.
• The rule has gutted public notification requirements, leaving communities and emergency responders in the dark about the oil trains and explosive crude oil rumbling through their towns and cities.
• New cars will require thicker shells to reduce punctures and leaks, but retrofit cars are subject to a less protective standard.
• The standard doesn’t impose adequate speed limits to ensure that oil trains run at safe speeds. Speed limits have been set for “high threat urban areas,” but very few cities have received that designation.
“Explosive oil trains present real and imminent danger, and protecting the public and waterways requires an aggressive regulatory response,” said Marc Yaggi, Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Instead, the Department of Transportation has finalized an inadequate rule that clearly was influenced by industry and will not prevent more explosions and fires in our communities. We hope our challenge will result in a rule that puts the safety of people and their waterways first.”
“We’re suing the administration because these rules won’t protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone,” says Todd Paglia, ForestEthics Executive Director. “Let’s start with common sense – speed limits that are good for some cities are good for all communities, 10 years is too long to wait for improved tank cars, and emergency responders need to know where and when these dangerous trains are running by our homes and schools.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that the DOT-111 tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The Safety Board has made official recommendations to stop shipping crude oil in these hazardous tank cars, but the federal regulators have not heeded these pleas. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, and the Safety Board has called for a ban on shipping hazardous fuels in these cars as well.
The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail from 2008 to 2013, primarily in trains with 100 to 120 oil cars that can be over 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.
ForestEthics calculates that 25 million Americans live in the dangerous blast zone along the nation’s rail lines.
“This needs to be fixed:” FOX6 finds a new “risk on the rails,” could Milwaukee be the next Quebec?
By Brad Hicks, May 12, 2015, 10:00pm
MILWAUKEE (WITI) — Last year, the FOX6 Investigators were the first to expose a new risk on the rails — a steady stream of long oil trains trekking across the state from North Dakota. The crude oil they carry from what’s called “The Bakken” is highly explosive. Since then, there has been growing public concern about these so-called “bomb trains” in Wisconsin. Now, there’s a new concern, in a neighborhood in Milwaukee.
When the mile-long oil trains lumber by Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward lofts, the cars come roller-coaster close to a renovated building. A sliver of light between brick and steel.
From his fifth floor window, Brian Chiu has a front row seat.
“It’s so loud,” Chiu said.
But it’s not the noise that concerns him. The fear is five floors down.
Fracking technology has opened an oil spigot in North Dakota.
“It’s increased the amount of traffic on the railroads exponentially,” Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale said.
The railroad traffic has increased by several thousand percent.
Bakken crude oil has a very high vapor pressure, meaning it can easily explode. And the tank cars carrying it?
“(They) were not designed to haul crude. A lot of them were designed to haul corn syrup,” Plale said.
When these trains have derailed, the cracker-thin tank cars have ruptured, with disastrous results. By far the worst incident occurred in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed in the fireball.
Three times this year, trains carrying crude have derailed in the United States. Last week in North Dakota, the sky turned gray with smoke.
In March, a train derailed across the border in Galena, Illinois. The wreckage burned for four days.
A week before that, a train derailed in West Virginia. Hundreds had to evacuate.
The train that derailed in North Dakota was headed toward Wisconsin. Two trains before that had just been here.
“We’re kind of at the epicenter of where this stuff is coming,” Plale said.
That brings us back to Brian Chiu and his Fifth Ward home — and those oil trains just feet from the Fifth Ward lofts, going over the S. 1st Street bridge.
FOX6 first photographed the concern in February — but it wasn’t until the snow and ice melted that we saw the full extent. “I beams” that support the bridge have rusted away at the base to wafer-thin strips of steel. In some spots, entire sections are just gone.
Chris Raebel, an engineer at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) agreed to take a look at what the FOX6 Investigators found.
“My focus is on steel design — just like the bridge,” Raebel said.
Unlike most railroad bridges, which have elevated foundations, the piers on this century-old span reach right to the road — where every winter, salt eats away at the steel.
“That’s hit the base of the bridge and that`s corroding the metal,” Raebel said.
In the past, some of the rusted piers supporting the bridge have been reinforced, but several columns have been corroded right through.
“At some point this needs to be fixed. This is not acceptable,” Raebel said.
FOX6 News received similar comments from other structural and civil engineers who saw the photos, but they didn’t want to be identified because they may do business with the railroads. They said things like:
“The level of rust and deterioration is a serious structural problem. They should be contacted immediately.”
And: “I would definitely report these conditions to the owner of this bridge without further delay.”
Canadian Pacific Railroad should already be aware. Canadian Pacific owns the bridge and is required to inspect it each year. In a written reply to a FOX6 request for those records, the company said it “meets or exceeds all federal requirements,” and that the bridge was last inspected in the winter. Canadian Pacific wouldn’t tell us exactly when that was — and whether there was snow on the ground. Canadian Pacific refused to show FOX6 News any of the inspection reports.
FOX6 asked them again earlier this months at a Common Council meeting in Milwaukee.
“We`ve given you a statement on that and we won`t have anything to add,” a Canadian Pacific representative said.
Canadian Pacific had been invited to Milwaukee to answer questions about the oil trains. Canadian Pacific’s brash brush off didn’t sit well with some Common Council members.
“You don`t give that image to the community that your facilities are safe. You don`t give us that confidence,” Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski said.
Ken Wood knows what these inspections entail.
“I’m a structural engineer. My main focus is bridges. I`ve been working with bridges for 20 years — bridge design, bridge inspection, bridge rehabilitation,” Wood said. “You`re going to be looking for fatigue cracks, and the other thing you`d look for is corrosion, certainly, on a bridge — because corrosion is basically taking away the cross section.”
If you look at the base of the “I beams” on the bridge in the Fifth Ward, you’ll see layers and layers of flaking — in some places, more than an inch thick. That doesn’t happen quickly.
“It`s been some time, that`s for sure,” Wood said. “What happens during corrosion is the steel expands, sometimes seven to eight times what it is, so you can see that actually happening in the base here,” Wood said.
FOX6’s Brad Hicks: “How do you even inspect this with that much flaking on there without removing the flaking?”
“They would have to remove flaking to see what`s underneath and take some measurements with calipers to find out how much area they perceive is left,” Raebel said.
So that’s what the FOX6 Investigators did.
The beam is nine-tenths of an inch thick, but at the base, only four-tenths of an inch is left. The column is just over an inch thick. Corrosion has eaten it down to less than half that.
FOX6’s Brad Hicks: “The kind of thinning we`re seeing here, does that impact the load capacity of a bridge like this?”
“Yes,” Raebel said. “They have a certain amount of steel they need to resist the load from above.”
And that load is greater than ever.
Engines alone weigh three times what they did when the bridge was built in 1914. And a one-mile train weighs more than 25 million pounds.
“Now a two-mile long train is relatively common,” Plale said.
And with trains like that moving over the bridge daily — metal fatigue adds up.
“Is the bridge really built, with all that rust and all that corrosion, to support that kind of weight?” Chiu wonders.
Officials in the state of Wisconsin had the same question. In 2006, a study was commissioned on the impact heavier trains have on state-owned railroad bridges. That study concluded “many within the railroad industry are concerned that the aging bridge infrastructure will no longer be able to withstand the increased loadings.”
One bridge engineer who examined FOX6’s pictures said the problem may not be that bad, because in theory, you could cut a vertical pier in two horizontally, and it would still hold up the bridge. But that’s assuming you still have inch-thick “I beams” — not corroded columns.
The concern here isn’t that the bridge will completely collapse — but that if a column gives way and the load shifts and the train tips — with the Fifth Ward lofts just feet away, could Milwaukee become another Quebec?
“I would encourage the owner of the bridge to seriously look at this and consider repairs. And it seems like it should be done soon,” Raebel said.
To their credit, the railroads, including Canadian Pacific, have been at the forefront — pushing the federal government for stricter tank car standards. The railroads don’t actually own the tank cars — the oil companies and third-party leasers do.
Eleven days ago, the federal government announced new cars need to be thicker, and the old ones need to be retrofitted within five years.
The federal government is the only entity that can demand the railroad turn over its inspection reports on the bridge. For two months, FOX6 News repeatedly asked the Federal Railroad Administration if it has any of Canadian Pacific’s inspection audits for the S. 1st Street bridge. The agency hasn’t responded.
Local municipalities like Milwaukee are pretty powerless when it comes to regulating the railroads.
On Tuesday, May 12th, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a resolution urging federal regulators to immediately inspect all tracks, bridges and crossings on which Bakken crude oil is carried — but at the end of the day, that’s simply a request.
BNSF Railway carried the Hess Corp.-owned rail car, which carried highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and appears to have followed the law.
President Barack Obama weighed and rejected using executive authority to curb the transport of this explosive crude oil, rich in butane and propane, because he decided North Dakota state law should be the controlling authority. But the law North Dakota passed in December and went into effect just last month, only requires less than 13.7 pounds-per-square-inch vapor pressure inside the tanker, despite explosions at lower pressures.
That’s almost 40 percent more than the average vapor pressure among the 63 tanker cars that exploded July 6, 2013, at Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That disaster killed 47 people, some of whom could not be found because they were vaporized, and is driving recent federal and state rail car regulations.
According to an Albany, N.Y., Times Union investigation, the average vapor pressure among 72 tanker cars in the Lac-Megantic train was 10 psi.
Hess Corp. tested the crude just before loading at 10.8 psi, according to Associated Press reporters Matthew Brown and Blake Nicholson, in their follow-up story about the derailment at Heimdal, N.D.
While federal regulations only require flash point and boiling point to be measured, North Dakota now requires vapor pressure be measured. But measuring and labeling the danger does not make transporting it safe.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s two divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, are the regulating authorities overseeing railway transport of crude oil. Generally, the FRA is responsible for train car and rail safety, while the PHMSA inspects the proper testing of the oil. That determines the oil’s proper classification and its proper “packaging” in pressurized cars and their labeling.
Other PHMSA duties include checking shipping documents to see if the shipper has self-certified the procedures properly as well as employee safety and handling training.
The U.S. DOT initiated “Operation Safe Delivery” in August 2013, in reaction to the Lac-Megantic incident, although the Bakken oil boom dates to 2008.
A federal rule-making process also began in August 2013. Those rules went into effect last week.
PHMSA, as part of Operation Safe Delivery, took several samples of Bakken crude oil from rail-loading facilities, storage tanks and pipelines used to load rail cars. Several also were collected from cargo tanks.
The first set of samples were taken August through November 2013 and the second set February through May 2014.
The first set showed psi vapor pressure among a dozen samples ranging from 7.7 psi to 11.75 psi.
A second set of 88 samples showed vapor pressure ranging from 10.1 psi to 15.1, with the average at about 12 psi.
Only six of the 88 samples were at or exceeded North Dakota’s 13.7 psi. This means shippers are not required to treat most of the crude generated from the Bakken oil formation before loading it onto cars.
The “Operation Safe Delivery Update,” available on the PHMSA website, also gives test results for propane, sulphur, hydrogen sulfide, methane and butane content.
The conclusions in the Operations Safe Delivery Update, which was not dated, are:
“Bakken crude’s high volatility level — a relative measure of a specific material’s tendency to vaporize — is indicated by tests concluding that it is a ‘light’ crude oil with a high gas content, a low flash point, a low boiling point and high vapor pressure …
“Given Bakken crude oil’s volatility, there is an increased risk of a significant incident involving this material due to the significant volume that is transported, the routes and the extremely long distances it is moving by rail… These trains often travel over a thousand miles from the Bakken region to refinery locations along the coasts…”
And although the report states, “PHMSA and FRA plan to continue … to work with the regulated community to ensure the safe transportation of crude oil across the nation,” the new rules that went into effect last week did nothing about regulating vapor pressure.
Instead, the rules phase out weaker and older pressurized tanker cars, the DOT-111, by 2020, and phase in CPC-1232 cars.
So far, at least four derailments of CPC-1232 cars carrying Bakken oil have exploded:
March 5 in Galena, Ill.;
Feb. 1 in Mount Carbon, W.Va.;
Feb. 15 near Timmons, Ontario; and
Last year in Lynchburg, Va.
Experts in various news articles and public comment submitted during the federal rule-making stated the way to make transport safe is to refine the crude before shipping. That would involve building refineries near the extraction point, which experts pointed out would be expensive.
In a Sept. 26, 2014, story, Railway Age contributing editor David Thomas applauded North Dakota for “using state jurisdiction over natural resources to fill the vacuum created by the federal government’s abdication of its constitutional responsibility for rail safety and hazardous materials.”
But Thomas admitted the state law on crude treatment would reduce the danger only slightly.
“Simply put, North Dakotan crude will have to be lightly pressure-cooked to boil off a fraction of the volatile ‘light ends’ before shipment,” Thomas said. “This conditioning lowers the ignition temperature of crude oil — but not by much. It leaves in solution most of the culprit gases, including butane and propane. Even the industry itself says conditioning would not make Bakken crude meaningfully safer for transportation, though it would make the state’s crude more consistent from one well to another.”
“The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquifies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners,” Thomas said.
He points out owners and shippers in the Eagle Fork formation in Texas, voluntarily stabilize their crude before shipping. It’s more volatile than Bakken crude.
“So far, stabilized Eagle Fork crude has been transported by tank car as far away as Quebec City, without the fireballs that have plagued the shipment of unstabilized Bakken crude,” Thomas said. “The Texan gases are liquefied and piped underground to the state’s Gulf Coast petrochemical complex for processing and sale.”
Keeping the volatile gases in solution during shipping, while dangerous, is profitable.
Thomas said North Dakota has no nearby petrochemical plants, which “explains the oil industry’s collective decision not to extract the otherwise commercially valuable gases from North Dakota crude oil. Instead, most of the explosive gases remain dissolved in the unstabilized Bakken oil for extraction after delivery to distant refineries.”
The PHMSA, however, requires butane and propane be removed from the crude before it is injected into pipelines, Thomas said.
Comments to the federal rule-making pointed out Bakken oil is made more dangerous still by corrosive chemicals used in the fracking process. The crude is further treated with chemicals to make the molasses-like consistency easier to pump.
Severe corrosion to the inner surface of the tanker cars, manway covers, valves and fittings have been recorded in various incidents, commentators said.
The lack of federal regulations is not the only problem. Enforcement is minimal because there are only 56 inspectors, according to PHMSA spokesman Gordon Delcambre.
Ten of those have been assigned to the North Dakota Bakken oil formation region, he said.
In the PHMSA 2013 annual enforcement report, 151 cases were prosecuted and 312 civil penalty tickets were issued, resulting in $1.87 million in fines. The largest fine was $120,200.
The report did not mention what the hazardous material was in 173 of the 463 enforcement actions.
Only one enforcement action appeared to result from an inspection of “fuel oil” transport, which resulted in a $975 fine for incorrect “packaging” and failure to prove, through documents, employees had been given the required safety and hazardous material handling training.
According to BNSF Railway’s report to the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management, required by a U.S. DOT emergency order since May 2014, a range of zero-to-six trains carrying at least 1 million gallons (30,000 gallons per car or about 35 cars or more) pass through Burlington each week.