Tag Archives: Homeland Security

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
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    Maryland judge orders railroads to release oil train reports

    Repost from McClatchyDC

    Maryland judge orders release of oil train reports

    HIGHLIGHTS
    • Case marks first time railroads have lost on the issue in court
    • Judge not persuaded that release would harm security, business
    • Companies that filed 2014 lawsuit have until Sept. 4 to appeal

    By Curtis Tate, August 17, 2015
    Tank cars loaded with crude oil head east at Hurricane, W. Va., in May 2014. A Maryland judge has ordered the release of oil train reports to McClatchy and other news organizations. West Virginia and a handful of other states agreed to keep the the reports confidential.
    Tank cars loaded with crude oil head east at Hurricane, W. Va., in May 2014. A Maryland judge has ordered the release of oil train reports to McClatchy and other news organizations. West Virginia and a handful of other states agreed to keep the reports confidential. Curtis Tate – McClatchy

    WASHINGTON – A Maryland judge rejected two rail carriers’ arguments that oil train reports should be withheld from the public, ordering them released to McClatchy and other news organizations that sought them.

    The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring in May 2014 that railroads inform states of large shipments of crude oil after a series of derailments with spills, fires, explosions and evacuations. Since February, six more major oil train derailments have occurred in North America.

    Nonetheless, some railroads have continued to press their case that the reports should be exempt from disclosure under state open records laws. Most states shared the documents anyway, and Pennsylvania and Texas did so after McClatchy appealed. Maryland is the only state that was taken to court after it said it would release the reports.

    Norfolk Southern and CSX sued the Maryland Department of the Environment in July 2014 to stop the state agency from releasing the records to McClatchy and the Associated Press. They have until Sept. 4 to appeal the decision, issued Friday by Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

    Both companies, which transport crude oil to East Coast refineries concentrated in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said they would review the decision.

    Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company would “respond at the appropriate time and venue.”

    Melanie Cost, a spokeswoman for CSX, said the railroad “remains committed to safely moving these and all other shipments on its network.”

    The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret, but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to access them.

    In his 20-page opinion, Fletcher-Hill was not persuaded by arguments that releasing the oil train reports would harm the railroads’ security and business interests. He also dismissed the relevance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s May final rule addressing the safety of oil trains. The companies had argued that the final rule supported their claims.

    He also ordered the companies to pay any open court costs.

    In a statement, Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said the agency was pleased with the ruling and that it is “committed to transparency in government.”

    Rail transportation of Bakken crude oil, produced through hydraulic fracturing of shale formations in North Dakota, has grown exponentially in the past five years. However, a series of fiery derailments, including one in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people, have raised numerous concerns about public safety, environmental protection and emergency planning and response.

    U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued an emergency order on May 7, 2014, that required any railroad shipping 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil through a state to inform that state’s emergency response commission what routes the trains would take and which counties they would cross, as well as provide a reasonable estimate of how many trains to expect in a week.

    Beginning in June 2014, McClatchy submitted open records requests in 30 states for the oil train reports, including Maryland.

    McClatchy was able to glean some of the details in the Maryland report through a Freedom of Information Act request to Amtrak, which owns part of Norfolk Southern’s oil train route in the state. The subsequent release of oil train reports in Pennsylvania revealed more about such operations in Maryland.

    On Monday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf released an 84-page assessment of oil train safety in the state, which examined derailment risk, tank car failures and regulatory oversight. Some Maryland lawmakers have called for the state to perform a similar assessment.

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      Obama’s two faces on climate change

      By Roger Straw, Editor, The Benicia Independent

      ObamaTwoSidesDear President Obama: I read two articles about you in this morning’s news.  What’s wrong here?  You are all worried about climate change as it relates to national security, but not as it relates to climate change itself??!  See below …

      OBAMA: It’s real!


      Climate change a threat to national security, Obama warns

      Associated Press, SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle), 5/20/15

      NEW LONDON, Conn. — President Obama has argued for action on climate change as a matter of health, environmental protection and international obligation. On Wednesday, he added national security.

      Those who deny global warming are putting at risk the United States and the military sworn to defend it, he told cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Failure to act would be “dereliction of duty,” their commander in chief said.

      He said climate change and rising sea levels jeopardize the readiness of U.S. forces and threaten to aggravate social tensions and political instability around the globe.

      The president’s message to climate change skeptics was unequivocal: “Denying it or refusing to deal with it undermines our national security”

      “Make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country,” Obama said on a crisp, sunny morning at Cadet Memorial Field. “We need to act and we need to act now.”

      Seated before him were 218 white-uniformed graduates, pondering where military service will take them in life.

      Obama drew a line from climate change to national security that had multiple strands:

      • Increased risk of natural disasters resulting in humanitarian crises, with the potential to increase refugee flows and worsen conflicts over food and water.
      • Aggravating conditions such as poverty, political instability and social tensions that can lead to terrorist activity and other violence.
      • New threats to the U.S. economy from rising oceans that threaten thousands of miles of highways, roads, railways and energy facilities.
      • New challenges for military bases and training areas from seas, drought and other conditions.

      Preparing for and adapting to climate change won’t be enough, he said. “The only way the world is going to prevent the worst effects of climate change is to slow down the warming of the planet.”

      He laid out his administration’s steps to reduce carbon greenhouse gas emissions, including strict limits on emissions from vehicles and power plants. The government expects those emission reductions to provide the U.S. contribution to a global climate treaty that world leaders are expected to finalize in December. Obama said it doesn’t take a scientist to know that climate change is happening.

      The evidence is “indisputable,” he said.

      OBAMA: Eh, well …


      Eugene Robinson: Obama drills a hole in his climate policy

      By Eugene Robinson, The Contra Costa Times, 05/19/2015

      Here are two facts that cannot be reconciled: The planet has experienced the warmest January-March on record, and the Obama administration has authorized massive new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

      “Climate change can no longer be denied … and action can no longer be delayed,” President Barack Obama said in an Earth Day address in the Everglades. Indeed, Obama has been increasingly forceful in raising the alarm about heat-trapping carbon emissions. “If we don’t act,” he said in Florida, “there may not be an Everglades as we know it.”

      Why, then, would the Obama administration give Royal Dutch Shell permission to move ahead with plans for Arctic offshore drilling? Put simply, if the problem is that we’re burning too much oil, why give the green light to a process that could produce another million barrels of the stuff per day, just ready to be set alight?

      Please hold the pedantic lectures about how the global oil market works: Demand will be met, if not by oil pumped from beneath the Arctic Ocean then by oil pumped from somewhere else. By this logic, the administration’s decision is about energy policy — promoting U.S. self-sufficiency and creating jobs — rather than climate policy. The way to reduce carbon emissions, according to this view, is by cutting demand, not by restricting supply.

      But we are told by scientists and world leaders, including Obama, that climate change is an urgent crisis. And on the global scale — the only measure that really matters — the demand-only approach isn’t working well enough.

      The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an astounding 40 percent higher than it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when large-scale burning of fossil fuels began. Fourteen of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred this century, with 2014 measured as the warmest of all. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last month that January through March 2015 were the warmest first three months of the year ever recorded.

      It’s not that demand-side efforts are entirely ineffectual against climate change; without them, emissions and temperatures would be rising even faster. But it is hard to argue that the current approach is doing enough.

      If we are going to avert the kind of temperature rise that climate scientists say would be catastrophic, some of the oil, coal and natural gas buried in the ground will have to stay there.

      “Drill, baby, drill” was a slogan Republicans used during the 2008 campaign, but it became a reality under Obama. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic oil production zoomed from 5.4 million barrels a day in 2009 to 8.7 million barrels a day last year, a level not seen since the waning days of the Reagan administration.

      Obama has opened vast new lands and offshore tracts to oil drilling. To be fair, he has also put some sensitive areas off-limits, including in the Arctic. But overall, under Obama, the United States has come to threaten the likes of Saudi Arabia and Russia for supremacy in fossil-fuel production.

      This is part of what Obama calls his “all of the above” energy strategy, in which he fosters growth and innovation in renewable energy sectors, such as solar and wind, while also promoting U.S. self-sufficiency.

      Anticipated rules from the Environmental Protection Agency limiting emissions at coal-fired power plants may go a long way toward reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. But given the urgency, why shouldn’t Obama also take such an approach to climate change? Why not attack the supply side of the equation by firmly deciding to keep drilling rigs out of the Arctic Ocean?

      The environmental risk alone would justify saying no to Shell’s plans; a big spill would be a disaster. But even if Arctic oil can be exploited without mishap, we’re talking about billions of gallons of oil being added to a market that is currently glutted. It doesn’t matter whether that oil is eventually burned in New York or New Delhi, in Los Angeles or Lagos.

      If we don’t take a stand in the Arctic, then where? And if not now, when?

      Eugene Robinson is a syndicated columnist.
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