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Merced Sun-Star editorial: Tell us when dangerous oil cars are rolling

Repost from The Merced Sun-Star

Our View: Tell us when dangerous oil cars are rolling

Editorial, August 15, 2014

Railroad tracks run up and down the valley like a spine, carrying everything from cans to cars, telephone poles to toothpicks. Many communities see 30, 40 or even 50 trains a day.  Some of those cars carry dangerous materials. Compressed gas and caustic chemicals move in black, cylindrical tank cars adorned with two markings – the red diamond with a flame and “DOT 111” stenciled on each car.

Not yet, but soon some of those rail cars will be hauling another dangerous material – crude oil extracted from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. While it is no more dangerous than many other chemicals, there’s likely to be a lot more of it on the rails that bisect our communities. The railroads and state must make certain that we are aware of these movements and have a plan for dealing with any emergency.

California’s Office of Emergency Services estimates shipments of Bakken crude will increase 25-fold by 2016 as 150 million barrels are sent to refineries in the Bay Area, Southern California and soon to two being readied in Bakersfield. That could mean thousands of tank cars a year moving through Modesto, Livingston, Merced and beyond. Mother Jones magazine calls it a “virtual pipeline.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Bakken crude contains higher amounts of butane, ethane and propane than other crude oils, making it too volatile for actual pipelines.

In July, 2013, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Less dramatic derailments, some with fires, have occurred in North Dakota, Virginia and Illinois. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 108 crude spills last year.

“When you look at the lines of travel from Canada and North Dakota, you figure if they’re headed for the Bay Area or to Bakersfield, the odds are that you’re going to see shipments going down the Valley,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who represents north Sacramento. So, he authored Assembly Bill 380, which would require the railroads to notify area first-responders whenever these trains are passing through.

Others are concerned, too. In July, the DOT issued proposed rules for safe transport, including increased cargo sampling, better route analysis, a 40 mph speed limit on trains labeled “high-hazard flammable,” and switching to newer, safer DOT 111 cars after Oct. 1, 2015. The new cars have double steel walls, better closures and heavier carriages. Currently, they make up about a third of the nation’s tanker fleet. California’s Office of Emergency Services has issued 12 recommendations, ranging from allowing better data collection to phasing out those old tank cars to better training for first-responders.

The railroads are already doing many of these things. Since the mid-1990s, BNSF has offered – at no charge – training for handling spilled hazardous materials and more extreme emergencies. But not enough local agencies have found the time to take the classes. A BNSF spokeswoman said the railroad would even come to town to conduct the training.

In May, the USDOT issued an emergency order in May requiring all carriers to inform first responders about crude oil moving through their towns and for the immediate development of plans to handle spills. Unfortunately, it contains a discomforting criteria: the order applies only to trains carrying 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, or roughly 35 tank cars. And to reach USDOT’s definition of a “high-hazard flammable train,” also requiring a warning, a train must have 20 tank cars.

Some perspective. In Virginia, one one tank car carrying Bakken crude exploded and flew an estimated 5,500 feet; a photograph of another explosion showed a fireball rising 700 feet from a single car. Our first responders ought to know when even one car carrying such material is coming through town. And that information must be shared beyond communities directly on rail lines because even our largest communities count on neighboring agencies to provide assistance during emergencies. When such cargo is moving, every emergency responder in the vicinity should be on alert.

Currently, the railroads share that information only if a local agency asks for it. That’s not good enough. Dickinson’s bill would make notification available on a real-time basis, without asking. But his bill mirrors federal orders on the size of the train; a dangerous loophole.

The incredible expansion of America’s oil resources is creating many positives – from more jobs to less dependence on foreign oil. But it’s happening so fast that we’re making up the safety aspects as we roll along. Federal rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect public safety in this new world.

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