Another View: No to proposal that would bring oil through Auburn
By: Rosalie Wohlfromm / Guest Columnist
Do you remember back in 2013, when there was a train derailment carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec? That incident resulted in a fiery explosion and caused the death of 47 people.
It has been reported that crude oil from North Dakota and Canada into California would be expected to rise from just 1 percent of total oil imports in 2013 to 25 percent by 2016, according to state energy officials.
This oil would travel by rail through densely populated areas to refineries on the coast. One of these routes is right through our town of Auburn. We could see trains pulling 100 oil tanker cars going past our homes, schools and parks.
Since 2013, we have heard of numerous derailments causing evacuations of citizens from their homes. One of the latest was last February in Lynchburg, Virginia. It is now known that the cause of the derailment was a broken rail, which was missed in two previous inspections.
Oil giant Valero wants to build a massive terminal for oil trains at its Benicia refinery. Union Pacific runs from Reno via Donner Pass, a dangerous route that, according to the Environmental Impact Report for Valero Crude by Rail Project, has only 3.5 percent of Class 4 or 5 track, the quality deemed by the U.S. Dept of Transportation necessary to support daily travel of extremely heavy unit trains made up of over 100 tank cars loaded with crude oil.
The City of Benicia is currently in the process of approving or rejecting the Valero Refinery’s proposed CBR project, which would permit Union Pacific to haul crude oil through Auburn. If this project is approved, Auburn could see oil trains loaded with highly flammable oil from North Dakota running right through our town on their way to Benicia. I ask you to remember what happened in Lynchburg. That could happen here.
Concerned citizens of Benicia are asking for those of us along the rail lines to call or write the City of Benicia City Manager, Brad Kilger, 250 E.L. Street, Benicia CA 94510 or e-mail Planner Amy Million at email@example.com. Please submit your comments by 5pm on Oct. 30.
Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.
The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.
“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.
The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.
Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.
Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.
California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.
“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”
Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.
In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.
Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (PAI) – Rail workers scored a big safety win in California on August 21 as state lawmakers gave final approval to a bill mandating two-person crews on all freight trains.
The measure, pushed by the Teamsters and their California affiliates, the Rail Division of SMART – the former United Transportation Union – and the state labor federation, now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., who is expected to sign it.
Rail unions nationwide have been pushing for the two-person crews while the rail carriers have been pushing for just one, an engineer. Several months ago, the head of one carrier, the Burlington Northern, advocated crewless freights.
The unionists told lawmakers presence of a second crew member would cut down on horrific crashes such as the one that obliterated downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, two years ago. Then, a runaway oil train crashed and exploded, killing 47 people. That train had only an engineer. There has been a string of similar U.S. accidents since, especially of oil-carrying trains. Recent oil train accidents were near Galena, Ill., Lynchburg, Va., and in West Virginia.
The proposed California statute requires trains and light engines carrying freight within the nation’s largest state – home to one of every eight Americans – to be operated with “an adequate crew size,” reported Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from SMART, the Teamsters and other unions.
The minimum adequate crew size, the bill says, is two. Railroads that break the law would face fines and other penalties from the state Public Utilities Commission. The commission supported the bill, SB730.
“Today’s freight trains carry extremely dangerous materials, including Bakken crude oil, ethanol, anhydrous ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, and acids that may pose significant health and safety risks to communities and our environment in the case of an accident,” said sponsoring State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Solano.
“With more than 5,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the state through wilderness and urban areas, the potential for derailment or other accidents containing these materials is an ever present danger. I urge the governor to sign this bill into law, providing greater protection to communities located along rail lines in California, and to railroad workers.”
“California has nearly 7,000 miles of railroad track that winds through both wilderness and urban areas, making train safety a priority issue,” said California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith. “SB730 will help to protect railway workers, the public, and the environment from freight train derailments by ensuring trains operate with a two-person crew.
“The labor federation is proud to support this critical legislation and we’re urging the governor sign it into law.”
The rail workers union and Railroad Workers United have also pushed for two-person crews at the national level, but they’ve run into indifference, at best, in the Republican-run 114th Congress. Meanwhile, the carriers lobby federal regulators to let them have one-person crews.
Dennis Pierce, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Teamsters Rail Conference, told the U.S. House Transportation Committee in June that while another safety measure – positive train control (PTC) – would also help cut down the possibility of accidents, it’s no substitute for two-person crews.
“PTC can’t replace the second crewmember,” Pierce said then. “It doesn’t provide a second set of eyes and ears trained on the road ahead or monitor the ‘left’ side of the train for defects like hot wheels, stuck brakes or shifted lading, or observe the ‘left’ side of highway-rail grade crossings for drivers who fail to stop, or separate stopped trains that block crossings to allow first responders to cross the tracks.”
SMART, the Teamsters and other rail unions and workers are pushing the Safe Freight Act (HR1763), mandating the two-person crews, introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the senior Republican in the House.
SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich said, “The safest rail operation is a two-person crew operation. With several major train derailments having occurred in the last few months…our lawmakers and the general public must understand that multi-person crews are essential to ensuring the safest rail operations possible in their communities. No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though it can fly itself. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”