Tag Archives: Lac-Mégantic

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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Oil Train Insurance: Washington State and the Billion Dollar Disaster

Repost from STAND

Oil Train Insurance: Washington State and the Billion Dollar Disaster

By Alex Ramel, extreme oil campaign field director, March 28, 2016
WA Dept of Ecology

Washington is now one of only two states that requires railroads to disclose whether they have sufficient insurance to cover a “reasonable worst case spill.” This is a step in the right direction. But the new rule falls far short of requiring enough insurance to cover a catastrophic oil train derailment, spill and explosion.

The new State rule requires that any major rail company operating in Washington — today, only BNSF — report whether they have sufficient financial resources or insurance to cover the costs of an oil train spill of around $700 million (smaller railroads have smaller requirements). That’s better than nothing, which is what most states have. But it’s not nearly enough.

The deadly Lac Megantic oil train disaster cost more than $1 billion (see page 98 in the federal regulations) and the cost of rebuilding is more like $2.7 billion. As terrible as the Lac Megantic disaster was, and it was a heartbreaking catastrophe, a worst case oil train disaster in Washington could be even much worse.

Washington State’s failure to require railroads to pay the full and true cost of doing business in Washington is an even greater concern if it becomes a precedent in other states. The confusing, undefined phrase “reasonable worst case” appears to have already been copied into a proposed bill in the New York State Assembly.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration suggested that a disaster inside a major city could cost $12.6 billion (see page 110). What could a $12 billion derailment look like? BNSF runs oil trains within 20 yards of Safeco Field in downtown Seattle during Mariners games when fans are in the stands.

Insurance monetizes risk, assigning a direct cost to risky behavior and assigning financial value to safety. What would your homeowners insurance company do if you wanted to unload oil tanker trucks in your driveway? They would raise your rates (astronomically) or cancel your policy. Railroads, which operate without requirements to carry adequate insurance, make decisions about assuming risk without an important financial feedback loop. If railroads had to be properly insured for the risk to life, property, and the environment from oil trains, there would be far fewer or zero oil trains.

Last year BNSF was fined for 14 spills and leaks and for failing to report problems along the track in Washington. The summer before that three oil tank cars tipped over in downtown Seattle. Over the last two years four BNSF oil trains have derailed and either spilled or exploded in Casselton, ND, Galena, IL, Heimdal, ND, and Culbertson, MT. Under usual circumstances a safety record like that should lead to a very awkward conversation with an insurance agent. And an already expensive, high-risk policy should get even more expensive. But BNSF doesn’t seem to carry enough insurance to cover the real cost of an oil train disaster, and they don’t seem to care.

BNSF has already intimated that they don’t think that the state should be able to require insurance, and it is likely that the company will challenge the rule. The railroad wants the cost of insurance and the calculation of possible damages kept off of their books. That means that in addition to living with the risk, the public is also asked to shoulder the cost. That’s the most unreasonable proposition yet.

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BUFFALO NEWS: The next train derailment could be far more disastrous

Repost from the Buffalo News

Another Voice: The next train derailment could be far more disastrous

By Jean Dickson & Larry Brooks, March 24, 2016 – 12:01AM

The March 1 train derailment in Ripley should serve as a warning to all residents of Western New York, and especially to those living close to the rail lines.

Many people give no thought to the passing freight trains that run along the Lake Erie shore, through our suburbs, and around the Beltline, which runs through Buffalo’s dense Black Rock, North, East Side and South neighborhoods with tracks crossing the Buffalo River in several places.

A century ago, there were even more tracks through the city, but the trains carried passengers and freight, which was mostly heavy and inert, such as grain, coal and lumber. If a car derailed, the only people hurt were those standing along the tracks. Now the freight includes huge quantities of hazardous chemicals, including chlorine gas, hydrochloric acid, ethanol, liquefied petroleum gas, propane and petroleum crude oil.

In Ripley, residents were very lucky that no spark lit up the ethanol and propane tank cars that derailed. In Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, people were not so lucky: 47 people died when petroleum crude oil exploded and a large part of the town was burned. The downtown area is not yet habitable almost three years later, due to soil and water contamination.

Firefighters in Ripley knocked on doors to evacuate residents, but this took some time. The cars derailed at 9:30 p.m.; a resident interviewed by WBFO said he was awakened and evacuated at 11 p.m. If the cars had exploded, as in Quebec, this would have been much too late. In Buffalo, the number of people to evacuate would greatly exceed the 50 or so households evacuated in Ripley.

Ripley residents were also lucky that no tank cars of poisonous gas derailed. If one car of chlorine gas had burst open, it would have killed people for miles around, depending on wind conditions, even without a fire.

In Buffalo, this hazardous freight crosses more than 30 bridges, most of which are 100 or more years old. They belong to companies such as CSX and are used by many railroad companies. Some are in decrepit condition, rusty and dropping chunks of concrete on our roads as they fall apart.

While this railroad infrastructure is in corporate hands, the public has little influence on its condition. Before a deadly derailment occurs, we must do everything possible to inspect and repair bridges and to reroute the hazardous freight away from populated areas.

In the long run, we should make every effort to decrease the use of such hazardous chemicals.

Jean Dickson and Larry Brooks live adjacent to Beltline tracks in Buffalo.
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