Tag Archives: Insurance and liability

Ralph Nader: Unsafe and Unnecessary Oil Trains Threaten 25 Million Americans

Repost from The Huffington Post
[Editor: This is a must read, a comprehensive summary by a visionary and influential old-timer.  – RS]

Unsafe and Unnecessary Oil Trains Threaten 25 Million Americans

By Ralph Nader, 12/15/2014
Ralph Nader Headshot
Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, lawyer and author

Back in 1991 the National Transportation Safety Board first identified oil trains as unsafe — the tank cars, specifically ones called DOT-111s, were too thin and punctured too easily, making transport of flammable liquids like oil unreasonably dangerous. As bad as this might sound, at the very least there was not a lot of oil being carried on the rails in 1991.

Now, in the midst of a North American oil boom, oil companies are using fracking and tar sands mining to produce crude in remote areas of the U.S. and Canada. To get the crude to refineries on the coasts the oil industry is ramping up transport by oil trains. In 2008, 9,500 crude oil tank cars moved on US rails. In 2013 the number was more than 400,000! With this rapid growth comes a looming threat to public safety and the environment. No one — not federal regulators or local firefighters — are prepared for oil train derailments, spills and explosions.

Unfortunately, the rapid increase in oil trains has already meant many more oil train disasters. Railroads spilled more oil in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.

Trains are the most efficient way to move freight and people. This is why train tracks run through our cities and towns. Our rail system was never designed to move hazardous materials, however; if it was, train tracks would not run next to schools and under football stadiums.

Last summer, environmental watchdog group ForestEthics released a map of North America that shows probable oil train routes. Using Google, anyone can check to see if their home or office is near an oil train route. (Try it out here.)

ForestEthics used census data to calculate that more than 25 million Americans live in the oil train blast zone (that being the one-mile evacuation area in the case of a derailment and fire.) This is clearly a risk not worth taking — oil trains are the Pintos of the rails. Most of these trains are a mile long, pulling 100-plus tank cars carrying more than 3 million gallons of explosive crude. Two-thirds of the tank cars used to carry crude oil today were considered a “substantial danger to life, property, and the environment” by federal rail safety officials back in 1991.

The remaining one-third of the tank cars are not much better — these more “modern” cars are tested at 14 to 15 mph, but the average derailment speed for heavy freight trains is 24 mph. And it was the most “modern” tank cars that infamously derailed, caught fire, exploded and poisoned the river in Lynchburg, Virginia last May. Other derailments and explosions in North Dakota and Alabama made national news in 2014.

The most alarming demonstration of the threat posed by these trains happened in Quebec in July 2013 — an oil train derailed and exploded in the City of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people and burning a quarter of the city to the ground. The fire burned uncontrollably, flowing through the city, into and then out of sewers, and into the nearby river. Firefighters from across the region responded, but an oil fire cannot be fought with water, and exceptionally few fire departments have enough foam flame retardant to control a fire from even a single 30,000 gallon tank car, much less the millions of gallons on an oil train.

Given the damage already done and the threat presented, Canada immediately banned the oldest of these rail cars and mandated a three-year phase-out of the DOT-111s. More needs to be done, but this is a solid first step. Of course, we share the North American rail network — right now those banned trains from Canada may very well be transporting oil through your home town while the Department of Transportation dallies.

The immense public risk these oil trains pose is starting to gain the attention it deserves, but not yet the response. Last summer, the U.S. federal government began the process of writing new safety regulations. Industry has weighed in heavily to protect its interest in keeping these trains rolling. The Department of Transportation, disturbingly, seems to be catering to industry’s needs.

The current draft rules are deeply flawed and would have little positive impact on safety. They leave the most dangerous cars in service for years. Worse yet, the oil industry would get to more than double its tank car fleet before being required to decommission any of the older, more dangerous DOT-111s.

We need an immediate ban on the most dangerous tank cars. We also need to slow these trains down; slower trains mean fewer accidents, and fewer spills and explosions when they do derail. The public and local fire fighters must be notified about train routes and schedules, and every oil train needs a comprehensive emergency response plan for accidents involving explosive Bakken crude and toxic tar sands. In addition, regulations must require adequate insurance. This is the least we could expect from Secretary Anthony Foxx, who travels a lot around the country, and the Department of Transportation.

So far, Secretary Foxx is protecting the oil industry, not ordinary Americans. In fact, Secretary Foxx is meeting with Canadian officials this Thursday, December 18, to discuss oil-by-rail. It is doubtful, considering Canada’s strong first step, that he will be trying to persuade them to adopt even stronger regulations. Will Secretary Foxx ask them to weaken what they have done and put more lives at risk? Time will tell. He has the power, and the mandate, to remove the most dangerous rail cars to protect public safety but he appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this month ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, represented by EarthJustice, filed a lawsuit against the DOT to require them to fulfill this duty.

Secretary Foxx no doubt has a parade of corporate executives wooing him for lax or no oversight. But he certainly doesn’t want to have a Lac Megantic-type disaster in the U.S. on his watch. It is more possible now than ever before, given the massive increase in oil-by-rail traffic.

Pipelines, such as the Keystone XL, are not the answer either. (Keystone oil would be routed for export to other countries from Gulf ports.) Pipelines can also leak and result in massive damage to the environment as we have seen in the Kalamazoo, MI spill by the Enbridge Corporation. Three years later, $1.2 billion spent, and the “clean up” is still ongoing.

Here’s the reality — we don’t need new pipelines and we don’t need oil by rail. This is “extreme oil,” and if we can’t transport it safely, we can and must say no. Secretary Foxx needs to help make sure 25 million people living in the blastzone are safe and that means significant regulations and restrictions on potentially catastrophic oil rail cars.

Rather than choosing either of these destructive options, we are fortunate to be able to choose safe, affordable cleaner energy and more efficient energy products, such as vehicles and furnaces, instead. That is the future and it is not a distant future — it’s happening right now.

Follow Ralph Nader on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RalphNader

Once in 111 years? Could be tomorrow…

Repost from The Vacaville Reporter
[Editor: The author convincingly makes the case that when it comes to oil trains, public safety is a roll of the dice.  He then suggests that the only way to win at crude oil craps is to buy insurance and prepare for the inevitable disaster(s).  In his next column, maybe Mr. Kimme will consider a statistically proven casino strategy: don’t play the game.  NOW is the time to say NO to big oil, and to promote, develop, plan for and build clean energy.  – RS]

The odds are, tanker safety needs to be discussed

By Vacaville Reporter columnist Ernest Kimme, 09/22/2014

Many people in Vacaville live in flood plains, and pay flood insurance. The city keeps the flood maps. They show the 50 year flood zones, 100 year flood zones, and 500 year flood zones.

People often believe that means that houses in a 50 year flood zone will flood once every 50 years. If you have a flood, then the next flood will be in 50 years. Sadly, this is incorrect.

Instead, every year, nature rolls a 50 sided dice. If the dice stops with “50” showing, your house gets flooded. If you are lucky, you could roll 100 times (once a year), and never see a “50”. But if you’re not lucky, you might get “50” twice in a row. Or three times in 10 years. Probability is a fickle mistress. You might know the odds, but you just never know what is going to happen each year.

So now let’s talk about train wrecks and oil fires.

The Valero Refinery in Benicia would like to import a lot of oil by train. The trains would start in Roseville, and travel 69 miles to the Benicia Refinery. Part of that journey would be in the Suisun Marsh. Several long trains of tanker cars would make the trip each day. So people have concerns.

Some bright mathematician calculated the odds of a derailment leading to a fire. Without going into the math (your welcome), he found that the odds of a train wreck and oil fire in Solano County were once in 111 years. So every year, the lords of chaos roll a 111 sided dice, and if it comes up “111,” then that year Solano County has a terrible oil fire on the railroad tracks. The fire might not happen for 200 years, or we could have 3 fires in 3 consecutive years. It’s all luck.

For comparison, Vacaville has about 6 to 8 house fires a year. The odds of one particular house — your house — burning are about 1 in 3,500. Take a dice with 3,500 sides you get the idea. Yet we still faithfully pay for fire insurance, and pay taxes for a fire department.

Now, go back and look at the chances of a train wreck, and the chances of a house fire. Did you notice that train wrecks are more likely than house fires?

But let’s not let our knickers get all twisted up — yet. Just like a house fire, oil tanker fires are not likely to happen. We should, however be prepared. We would like the fire department to be able to put them out quickly, if and when they happen.

That’s the rub. Oil fires do not quietly flicker out. They give off big clouds of toxic smoke, often with heavy metals and sulfuric acid in them.

Oil fires burn so hot that firefighters often have trouble getting close. And oil fires need special foams and equipment. Water just spreads it out and makes it worse.

So the obvious question is: Who pays for the extra training for the firefighters and the special equipment? The taxpayers? The refinery? The railroad?

Normally the taxpayers have to pay, and then file claims after the accident in an attempt to recover costs. Usually the railroads carry insurance in case of accidents, so it becomes lawyers arguing with lawyers. Makes you wonder: What if the county got insurance to cover their costs?

We can regret the need for oil and gasoline in our society, and we should make every effort to use less fossil fuel. But until that day, we need to safely transport oil and gasoline. With that in mind, Supervisor Linda Seifert is hosting a community discussion on the tanker trains and safety, Monday, Sept. 29, 6 to 8:30 p.m., in the Supervisor’s Chambers, 675 Texas St, Fairfield. For more information, call her office.

The author is a Vacaville resident and member of The Reporter editorial board.

Insurance industry figures on 2013 natural and human-caused disasters

Repost from Business Insurance
[Editor’s note: The text here lumps together losses from natural catastrophes and “man-made” disasters.  But the link at the end of this story downloads a PDF that shows detailed information about oil and rail disasters. – RS]

Catastrophes caused global insured losses of $45B in 2013: Swiss Re

Sarah Veysey
March 26, 2014

Global insured losses from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters totaled about $45 billion in 2013, down from about $81 billion a year earlier, according to a report released Wednesday by Swiss Re Ltd.

Economic losses from natural and man-made disasters were about $140 billion in 2013, down from $196 billion in 2012, according to the Swiss Re sigma report.

The most costly insured event in 2013 was flooding in parts of central and eastern Europe during May that caused insured losses of about $4.1 billion, according to the study.

Hailstorms in France and Germany in July caused insured losses of about $3.8 billion, the report showed, while floods in Canada in June resulted in insured losses of about $1.9 billion.

In the United States, thunderstorms and tornadoes in May caused insured losses of $1.8 billion, while severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and hail later that same month caused insured losses of $1.4 billion. A winter storm bringing ice, tornadoes and heavy rain in April resulted in insured losses of $1.2 billion.

Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in November, left about 7,500 people dead or missing, and caused insured losses of about $1.5 billion, according to the report.

Windstorm Christian, which hit parts of northern and central Europe in October, caused insured losses of about $1.5 billion, according to Swiss Re, while Typhoon Fitow in China and Japan in September caused insured losses of about $1.1 billion.

“Risk prevention and mitigation measures have progressed in recent years,” Swiss Re said in a statement.

“For instance, the losses from the floods in central and eastern Europe last year would have been much worse had the flood protection measures not been strengthened after the same region suffered severe flooding in 2002,” it said.

The study can be found here: Natural catastrophes and man-made disasters in 2013 sigma1_2014_en.PDF.