Tag Archives: Lake Oroville

Firefighter battalion chief: Russian roulette on the railways

Repost from Chico News & Review
[Editor:  This article is well-written and documents gutsy analyses by a regional firefighter and County officials who understand that local safety is at the mercy of federal regulators.  Three years of Russian roulette - and more.  A "must read."  - RS]

Russian roulette on the railways

Butte County train tracks are Bakken-free for now, but emergency responders fear a return of the volatile fuel
By Evan Tuchinsky, 05.21.15

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Russ Fowler says the Department of Transportation’s new rules regarding traincar safety are insufficient. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL FIRE

What is ‘Bakken’?

The light crude oil known as Bakken comes from fracking a geologic formation of that name under North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Less dense and with less carbon, light crudes yield more gasoline than heavier crudes, but also are more volatile.

Trains crash. That fact hit home last week when a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia and also last year, on Nov. 26, when a cargo train derailed in the Feather River Canyon.

The risk of devastation multiplies when the derailed train carries volatile crude oil. A recent spate of those accidents has garnered national attention, too, prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to release new regulations governing the conveyance of flammable liquids. The measures have drawn near-unanimous opposition, though, and done little to assuage lingering local fears.

“My constituents have raised concerns and the Board [of Supervisors] is concerned,” said Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who represents Chico. “We’re hoping that some of the legislation and some of the discussion that comes forward will make even stiffer requirements on the transport of this Bakken oil.”

The DoT regulations came out May 1. Five days later, another oil train crashed, in North Dakota. By last Friday (May 15), both the petroleum industry and environmentalists had filed legal challenges to the DoT’s so-called “final rule.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters also has voiced objections. Representing more than 300,000 firefighters in North America, the IAFF protested a provision that allows railroads to keep the contents of their trains confidential—under the banner of national security.

Russ Fowler, battalion chief with Cal Fire Butte County and coordinator of the local Interagency Hazardous Materials Team, has additional concerns. DoT regulations phase out tank cars that are not up to the current safety standard, rather than pull them off the rails for retrofitting or retirement. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has argued that the alternative would result in increased oil-tanker traffic on highways.

Fowler says one particular railcar commonly used to carry volatile Bakken crude oil, the DOT-111, “just [wasn’t] designed for that product.” Since railroads have until 2018 to get those cars up to standard, “we have three years of potential Russian roulette on our hands if light crude oil is transported down the Feather River Canyon like it was done last fall.”

Cal Fire has communicated with BNSF Railway, Fowler said, and has been told no crude oil deliveries have come through Butte County this year. “I have no reason not to believe them,” he added, though he’s seen DOT-111s riding on Chico tracks.

Lena Kent, BNSF’s spokeswoman for California, confirmed by email that “we are not currently transporting Bakken crude in your county.” She also wrote: “We do provide information to the Office of Emergency Services in California.”

That’s in contrast with last year, when train cars carrying millions of gallons of the explosive oil, reportedly around one shipment per week, did make their way way along the Feather River Canyon. Experts tie the reduction of imports to a reduced demand for the fuel, a lighter type that’s similar to gasoline and thus extremely volatile.

While Cal Fire dreads the prospect of an urban crash, the Feather River Canyon presents a distinct set of frets.

Train tracks head into remote areas that are difficult for emergency responders to reach. Access roads don’t always run adjacent to the rail route—not even parallel in certain spots. Depending on where a crash occurred, spilled oil could contaminate the Feather River and Lake Oroville—a major source of water for California—or could start a forest fire should it ignite.

Even without a blaze or river release, “it would make an ugly, oily mess in the canyon,” Fowler said. “It would be a terrible environmental disaster.”

Butte County supervisors articulated such concerns to the California Public Utility Commission and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, before the DoT released its regulations. OES responded by saying the state is investing in “purchasing new Type II hazardous material emergency response units” and in “local training specific to … rail safety incidents.”

For Supervisor Doug Teeter, the board chair who represents the Ridge, that’s little assurance. He has a powerless feeling—believing “it’s just a matter of time” before an accident happens locally, yet knowing “as a county we have no control” over the rails.

“We’re at the mercy of the federal regulators,” he continued. “All we’re really getting is a little response on improved training and equipment. That is not nearly enough to handle a 100-car spill.”

Either in populated or unpopulated areas.

“We as a hazmat team plan for worst-case scenarios,” Fowler said. “Just because you plan for a worst-case scenario doesn’t mean you can mitigate the worst-case scenario, because there are things that can happen that are so catastrophic that it would overwhelm local resources until more regional or statewide resources could come in to help.”

Should legal challenges fail, and in the absence of local authority, a remedy to the DoT regulations remains: Congress. Teeter recently met with a representative of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Meanwhile, North State Congressman John Garamendi has introduced legislation to make light crude safer for rail transport.

Teeter encourages constituents to write congressional representatives and senators. He finds encouragement even in the controversial DoT regulations, which arose amid an uproar.

“Maybe now we’ll have a voice,” Teeter said. “Maybe something can happen.”

 

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November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail

Repost from The Chico Enterprise-Record

November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail

By Ashley Gebb, 04/13/15, 5:11 PM PDT

Twelve rail cars full of corn derailed Nov. 25 in the Feather River Canyon. The accident was caused by a broken rail. Courtesy of Jake Miille

No railroad cars reached the Feather River after the Nov. 25 derailment, but corn did. Courtesy of Jake Miille

Belden >> A November train derailment in the Feather River Canyon was caused by a broken rail, the Enterprise-Record has learned.

As Union Pacific Railroad prepares to replace more than 36 miles of track between Keddie and Lake Oroville, spokesman Francisco Castillo has confirmed a detail fracture caused by cracks led to the derailment of 12 train cars that tumbled into the canyon Nov. 25. The repairs are unrelated and were planned before the accident, Castillo said, part of a greater effort to improve rail safety as transport of crude oil continues to rise.

“Though serious accidents are rare, we recognize that there are still risks associated with rail transportation, just as there are risks with any other mode of transportation. That’s why we follow strict safety practices and work tirelessly to achieve our goal of zero derailments,” he said in an email.

In the early morning of Nov. 25, a westbound train derailed near Virgilia, upstream of Belden, causing 12 loaded hoppers to slide down an embankment toward the North Fork Feather River below, stopping just before the water. No one was injured but the carloads of corn were spread across the hillside and into the river, causing $640,049 in equipment damage and $85,786 in damage to the track.

At the time, emergency officials said the incident underscored the risks associated with train transport in the canyon.

“It’s a concern for us because it shows there is still a history of derailments in the county, especially in the canyon,” Butte County Emergency Services Officer John Gulserian said Monday of the November derailment.

Though the incident occurred in Plumas County, the same railroad lines continue into Butte County, along with whatever the trains are hauling — be it corn or crude oil. The derailment of any such materials can have devastating implications for the water, the environment and wildlife, as well as create a fire danger, Gulserian said.

Because of the remote area and the nature of the spills, the county is not always equipped to deal with the accident and has to wait for other resources, he said.

The canyon area as a whole tends to see a derailment every three to five years, with most similar to the November incident, where only a few cars go off the tracks, he said. The last derailment Gulserian could remember spilled a load of neutralized alcohol near Storrie.

Track failures are linked to 31 percent of all train accidents, and even though such incidents are becoming less common, prevention remains critical, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike Booth. It’s especially important with a 400 percent increase in more volatile Bakken crude oil being shipped out of the North Dakota region.

“It travels to nearly every state and it travels long distances,” he said. “To prevent accidents due to increased traffic going longer distances, we have increased inspection on crude oil routes. … Since the Lac-Mégantic accident two years ago in Canada, it was a bit of a wake-up call for everyone.”

The 2013 incident occurred when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in a fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-seven people were killed, and dozens of buildings were destroyed or critically contaminated.

Railroads are required by law to inspect and maintain their equipment in good repair, and the Federal Railroad Administration ensures that by auditing records and doing spot inspections, Booth said. It also works with the Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which has taken more than two dozen actions to increase the safety of crude oil transport.

“And we are looking for more ways to make it even safer,” Booth said. “We don’t want to have a single derailment …”

In the past 10 years, Castillo said derailments have decreased 38 percent, largely in part to a derailment and risk reduction process, which includes using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections, tracking acoustic vibration on wheels to anticipate failures before they happen, and performing real-time analysis of every rail car via trackside sensors. Employees also participate in rigorous, regular safety training programs that include the identification and prevention of derailments, and Union Pacific trains first responders on ways to minimize the impact of derailment in their communities.

Track maintenance projects are part of Union Pacific’s annual maintenance work and scheduled three to five years in advance, Castillo said. From 2005-14, the railroad invested more than $31 billion in its network and operations to support the transportation infrastructure, and it is in the middle of $26.1 million in improvements in the Feather River Canyon area.

The first project is complete and included replacement of 15.2 miles of rail just east of Oroville. The second project, scheduled to begin next month and be complete in August, will replace 36.3 miles of rail at various locations between Keddie and Lake Oroville.

“The Feather River Canyon upgrades will enhance the safe transport of commodities we transport through the canyon,” Castillo said.

Union Pacific and other entities have been working with Butte County recently to improve safety, Gulserian said. That effort included an exercise March 11 with a simulated train derailment near Chico that provided the opportunity to practice alert notifications, areas of authority, staging materials and alerting the public. Another simulation has been scheduled.

Gulserian said it’s encouraging to hear news of rail replacement, as safety and security of hazardous materials is as much a priority for the county as it is for the railroad.

 

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Call For Crude-By-Rail Moratorium In California After Train Derailment

Repost from DeSmogBlog

Call For Crude-By-Rail Moratorium In California After Train Derailment

2014-12-09, by Mike Gaworecki

A train derailment last week has prompted a California state legislator to call for a moratorium on crude-by-rail shipments through the state’s “most treacherous” passes.

Twelve cars derailed on a Union Pacific rail line along the Feather River northeast of Oroville, CA in the early morning hours of November 5th. The state Office of Emergency Services responded by saying “we dodged a bullet” due to the fact that the train was carrying corn, some of which spilled into the river, and not oil.

State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), a vocal critic of the state’s emergency preparedness for responding to crude-by-rail accidents, does not think California should wait around for a bullet it can’t dodge before taking action. Hill sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown calling for a moratorium on shipments of volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and other hazardous materials via the Feather River Canyon and several other high risk routes throughout California.

“This incident serves as a warning alarm to the State of California,” Hill wrote in the letter. “Had Tuesday’s derailment resulted in a spill of oil, the spill could have caused serious contamination in the Feather River, flowing into Lake Oroville and contaminating California’s second largest reservoir that supplies water to the California Water Project and millions of people.”

Hill’s letter goes on to mention the fact that increased use of crude transport by rail due to the fracking boom has also led to many more “fatal and devastating rail accidents involving large crude oil spills,” specifically raising the specter of the derailment and explosion of a train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, which killed 47 people and spilled 26,000 gallons of crude into the Chaudière River.

There is a need for a moratorium, Hill argues, because a train carrying one million gallons of Bakken crude—the same type of oil that was being transported through Lac-Mégantic—travels through the Feather River Canyon every week, and there are plans for a second of these “bomb trains” (so called due to the highly volatile nature of Bakken crude) to be added soon.

According to Hill, the trains travel through some of California’s most remote regions where the risk of derailment is especially high and “emergency responders are ill-equipped to quickly respond in these regions to prevent and mitigate major environmental and public health harm.”

Crude-by-rail has taken off in the U.S. because there is simply not enough space in existing pipelines to transport the glut of oil being produced across North America. This has led to more oil being spilled by train accidents in 2013 than in the previous three decades combined. According to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data, last year saw some 1.15 million gallons of crude oil spilled by rail incidents, compared to just 800,000 gallons between 1975 and 2012.

It just so happens that there are no pipelines bringing crude to California, however, so the state is bracing itself for a massive increase in the number of oil trains. In 2011 there were 9,000 carloads of oil shipped by rail into the Golden State, but that number is expected to swell to 200,000 carloads by 2016.

So far this year, California has imported nearly 4.4 million barrels of oil by rail through September, compared to just 3.3 million barrels from January to September in 2013. To put that in context: the 6.3 million barrels ultimately shipped via rail to California refineries last year represented a 506% increase over the 1 million barrels shipped by rail in 2012, but was still just 1% of total oil shipments into the state. However, crude-by-rail shipments are growing so quickly that they are expected to reach as much as 150 million barrels by 2016, some 25% of total imports.

When reached for comment, the governor’s office deferred to the California Office of Emergency Services. Kelly Houston, deputy director of the OES, told DeSmog, “We share Senator Hill’s concern about the increase in crude oil coming into California by rail,” but that ultimately any decision on a moratorium would have to come from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.

Houston stresses that the state is working to make crude-by-rail shipments safer, pointing to a report released by the state this past June, “Oil by Rail Safety in California,” and the work being done with railroad operators and federal regulators to improve California’s safety and emergency preparedness standards. “We’re going to have an increased risk because we don’t want to stop commerce into the state,” Houston says, “but what we want to do is increase safety and preparedness.”

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