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With fracking boom and oil trains, big cities fear explosive safety risks

Repost from The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
[Editor:  Significant quote by Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago: “Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America…. Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest…. These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.

RISKY CARGO ON MIDWEST OIL TRAINS

Amid fracking boom, cities fear explosive safety risk it can carry

BY TOM HENRY , BLADE STAFF WRITER, June 1, 2015

CHICAGO — While the global fracking boom has stabilized North America’s energy prices, Chicago — America’s third largest city and the busiest crossroads of the nation’s railroad network — has become ground zero for the debate over heavy crude moved by oil trains.

With the Windy City experiencing a 4,000 percent increase in oil-train traffic since 2008, Chicago and its many densely populated suburbs have become a focal point as Congress considers a number of safety reforms this year.

Many oil trains are 100 or more cars long, carrying hydraulically fracked crude and its highly explosive, associated vapors from the Bakken region of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

A majority of those trains also cross northwest Ohio on their way to refineries and barge terminals along the East Coast.

Derailments can lead to massive explosions, such as the one on July 6, 2013, when a runaway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que., just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine. The resulting explosions and fire killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.

“For me to assure my community there’s no risk, I would be lying,” Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner told reporters on the Halsted Station’s elevated platform near downtown Chicago last week. The discussion was arranged by the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, a group that promotes better environmental reporting.

Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular.
Authorities are concerned a rail accident would be catastrophic, as trains are carrying more heavy crude since fracking became popular. THE BLADE/BRIAN BUCKEY

“A derailment in or around our downtown would be absolutely disastrous,” he said.

One of Chicago’s distant western suburbs, Aurora, with 200,000 people, is the second-largest city in Illinois. Though it has fewer than one resident for every 10 in Chicago (population: 2.7 million), Aurora is somewhat smaller than Toledo, which has 281,000 residents.

Mr. Weisner, whose mayoral office overlooks tracks where many of the oil trains pass going toward Chicago, shrugged when asked about emergency planning.

“That always helps, of course. But you could have a major catastrophe before they could arrive on the scene, and that’s the truth,” Mr. Weisner said, noting the Lac-Megantic explosion on at least three occasions.

Closer to home, he said, are memories of a train explosion on June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, Ill., just outside Rockford.

Although that derailment involved a train carrying flammable ethanol — not an oil train — its fire killed a motorist stopped at a railroad crossing, injured seven people in cars plus two firefighters, and forced the evacuation of 600 homes.

Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area.
Aurora, Ill., Mayor Tom Weisner fears what would happen if an oil train derails and explodes in an urban area. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

On March 5, 21 cars of a 105-car BNSF Railway train hauling oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed in a heavily wooded, rural area outside Galena, Ill.

The train erupted into a massive fireball 3 miles from a town of 3,000 people in the northwest corner of Illinois, near the Iowa and Wisconsin borders.

No deaths were reported from that incident and, like several other derailments that have resulted in explosions and fires in recent years, it occurred in a rural area.

Mr. Weisner and others fear it is a matter of time before a much higher-profile incident occurs in Chicago or some other big city where the death toll could be significant.

Shortly after he finished, an oil train moved past Halsted Station, whose tracks are flanked by high-rise apartment buildings.

Oil trains move throughout the Great Lakes region after getting filled with Bakken crude, often ending up on the East Coast.

Chicago and the rest of the Great Lakes region is “the heart of the country,” Mr. Weisner said.

“We’re always going to be at one of the highest levels of exposure,” the Aurora mayor said. “There’s no doubt about it.

This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district.
This July 7, 2013, photo shows fire fighters watering smoldering rubble in Lac Megantic, Que., after a runaway train derailed causing explosions that killed 47 people and leveled the town’s business district. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Environmental activists such as Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Great Lakes regional office in Chicago, put the risk in more graphic terms.

“Welcome to the Bomb Train Capital of America,” he told reporters outside a coffee shop at West Maxwell and Halsted streets, three blocks north of the train station where Mr. Weisner would speak moments later.

“Of all the suite of issues I work on for the NRDC, this is the scariest,” Mr. Mogerman said. “These are moving targets going through very, very densely populated areas.”

Tony Phillips is an artist who lives in a condominium adjacent to Chicago’s Halsted Station.

He said he can hear “the rip of noise” and feel his building shudder as oil trains come by, often in the wee hours of the morning. He said he feels a “slosh effect” in the flooring from the oscillating weight of crude if he gets up in the middle of the night.

“That’s a little spooky,” Mr. Phillips said.

He and others want reforms, tighter rules, and more robust train cars, if nothing else. Some efforts are being made through tighter regulations, but critics claim they’re either not enough or being phased in too slowly.

Fracking boom

Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by.
Tony Phillips points to the condo in Chicago where he lives on the other side of the tracks at the Halsted Station, where oil trains pass by. THE BLADE/TOM HENRY

Lora Chamberlain, spokesman for Frack Free Illinois and a new coalition called Chicagoland Oil By Rail, said vapor removal should be on the list of priorities to help mitigate the risk.

In a May 7, 2014, order, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for state emergency responders to receive more information about railroad routes handling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil per week because the number and type of railroad accidents “is startling.”

In 2013, America moved 8.3 billion barrels (348.6 billion gallons) of crude oil via pipeline — nearly 29 times the 291 million barrels (12.2 billion gallons) moved by rail, according to data from the Association of Oil Pipelines and the Association of American Railroads.

Safety experts see North America at a turning point because of the oil and gas industry’s rapid increase in hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, a process commonly known as “fracking” that the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts will remain strong for at least the next 30 years.

Fracking has occurred commercially since the 1950s. The game-changer occurred less than a decade ago, when a technique developed to combine horizontal drilling with fracking made it economical to go after vast reserves of previously trapped oil and natural gas worldwide — including in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, where the Utica and Marcellus shale regions meet.

Rail traffic

Railroads moved 493,126 tank-car loads of oil in 2014, a nearly 5,200 percent increase over the 9,500 tank cars that hauled oil before the fracking boom began to hit its stride in many parts of North America in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State. Before the fracking boom, rail shipment of crude was rare and generally confined to a few isolated corridors where pipelines hadn’t been built.

Overall domestic crude production has risen 70 percent during that same period. U.S. Energy Information Administration figures show domestic oil produced at a rate of 8.5 million barrels a day in 2014, up from 5 million barrels a day in 2008.

Mogerman
Mogerman | THE BLADE/ BRIAN BUCKEY

This year, crude is expected to be produced at a rate of 9 million barrels a day, just shy of its peak rate of 9.6 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration.

“While pipelines transport the majority of oil and gas in the United States, recent development of crude oil in parts of the country under-served by pipeline has led shippers to use other modes, with rail seeing the largest percentage increase,” a Government Accountability Office report said. “Although pipeline operators and railroads have generally good safety records, the increased transportation of these flammable hazardous materials creates the potential for serious accidents.”

The agency cited a need for better U.S. Department of Transportation rules on flammability of products shipped by rail and a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness, “especially in rural areas where there might be fewer resources to respond to a serious incident.”

In its 2015 forecast, the Association of American Railroads contends railroads “are making Herculean efforts” to improve “an already safe nationwide rail network” now crisscrossing some 140,000 miles of the country.

The trade association said freight railroads plan to spend a record $29 billion in 2015 — a staggering $3 million an hour or about $79 million a day — to rebuild, maintain, and expand America’s rail network. Much of the money will go toward new equipment and locomotives, new track and bridges, higher tunnels, and newer technology.

Freight railroads are expected to hire 15,000 more people this year, continuing its upward hiring trend for an industry that employs 180,000 people, the association said.

While considering safety reforms, Congress must ensure that “any changes to public policy still allow railroads to continue private infrastructure spending and other network investments needed to meet customer demand,​” the industry group said.

 

 

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    Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

    Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
    [Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues.  The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback.  This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are.  For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo.  – RS]

    Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

    By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
    With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

    They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”

    This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

    The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

    Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

    The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

    Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

    While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

    While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

    Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

    What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”

    While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,

    “All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”

    It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

    See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone: tinyurl.com/NYS-derailment-risks.

    Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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      Canada: Dangerous crude could still travel in misclassified tank cars

      Repost from The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada

      Dangerous crude could still travel in misclassified tank cars, TSB says

      Kim Mackrael and Grant Robertson, Sep. 04 2014
      People from several juristictions including the Ministry of the Environment for Canada and Quebec, and the RCMP prepare to do some investigative work in the area of the nine remaining tank cars sitting on the tracks in Nantes, PQ on July 11, 2013. This is where the ill-fated train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic originated from early Saturday morning. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
      People from several jurisdictions including the Ministry of the Environment for Canada and Quebec, and the RCMP prepare to do some investigative work in the area of the nine remaining tank cars sitting on the tracks in Nantes, PQ on July 11, 2013. This is where the ill-fated train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic originated from early Saturday morning. | (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

      Canada’s transportation safety agency is raising concerns that dangerous crude oil could still be travelling by rail inside misclassified tank cars, despite assurances from the federal government that the problem has been fixed.

      In a recent letter to Transport Canada, the Transportation Safety Board said new requirements to test oil don’t explicitly address its “variability,” including the fact that different products are sometimes blended together before they are shipped.

      The letter was sent just days before the TSB issued its final report on the Lac-Mégantic rail tragedy, in which a train loaded with volatile crude oil exploded last summer, killing 47 people and levelling much of the Quebec town. The agency’s report, made public last month, found that more than a dozen different factors contributed to the crash, including a failure to apply enough hand brakes, a weak safety culture at the railway and lax regulation by the federal government.

      TSB tests conducted early in the investigation showed that the oil on the train was more volatile than its shipping documents had indicated and it recommended that new measures be taken to ensure shipments are classified accurately. The federal government responded by toughening the rules for testing crude oil samples, including new provisions requiring a shipper to make information about the sampling method they use available to the government upon request.

      However, those new regulations “do not explicitly address the variability in the properties of mined gases and liquids, such as petroleum crude oil,” the letter from the TSB says. While the properties of manufactured dangerous goods, such as gasoline, are better understood and relatively predictable, the agency warned that crude oil and natural gas can vary from one well to another and in the same well over time.

      Oil that comes from different sources may also be blended when it’s loaded onto rail cars, the TSB notes. That means crude that was deemed relatively safe during one set of tests – for example, at the time crude is extracted from a well – could be mixed with more dangerous oil when it is loaded onto tank cars, and the overall risk may not be reflected by the original test results. The TSB letter also raises questions about the department’s ability to enforce its own classification rules.

      Oil is widely known to be flammable, but regulators in Canada did not previously believe it had the potential to explode and cause the kind of destruction it did in Lac-Mégantic. The train that derailed there was carrying light crude from the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Bakken crude and other light shale oils are now widely believed to be more volatile than conventional oil.

      A spokesperson for Transport Canada said there are “strict requirements” under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act that compel companies to classify dangerous goods properly. “Testing criteria are harmonized with [United Nations] requirements and are the same as for the U.S.,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. She added that the department is working with the crude oil industry, U.S. regulators and Natural Resources Canada to develop standardized tools and processes for crude oil testing.

      The American Petroleum Institute recently developed a new set of classification and rail loading standards for its members to approve, which are expected to be made public later this month. Both Transport Canada and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration were involved in the process, according to the API, but the new standards would not be enforceable unless regulators chose to adopt them.

      In the meantime, some companies are choosing to adopt new testing methods – in addition to those required by federal regulations – to ensure they are accurately measuring the possible dangers of the crude they’re extracting or transporting. Producers in North Dakota are also increasingly looking to stabilize the crude before they ship it, in a process that removes the most volatile components from the main product, reducing the potential dangers of shipping it by rail.

      A separate safety advisory from the TSB, which was also issued days before the agency’s final report on Lac-Mégantic, warned that some of the problems identified at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway may also exist at other short-line railways. The safety agency said runaway trains occur at a greater rate at short-line railways than larger railways and suggested short-line employees may not always receive the training they need to operate safely.

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        ‘Micro refineries’ a solution to oil-train woes, energy firm says

        Repost from Reuters in The Jamestown Sun

        ‘Micro refineries’ a solution to oil-train woes, energy firm says

        By Reuters Media Today

        WASHINGTON – A handful of small refineries in North Dakota could remove dangerous gas from oil train cargoes and make shipments from the state’s productive Bakken shale area safer on the tracks, according to a company which has pitched the idea to regulators.

        The proposal from Quantum Energy Inc would strip propane and other volatile gas from North Dakota crude and send much of the remaining fuel to distant refineries.

        Williston, North Dakota-based Quantum hopes to build five “micro refineries” near railheads already handling Bakken crude to strip about 100,000 barrels a day of fuel from that stream.

        Some of the resultant gas could add to household fuel supplies in the upper Midwest while making Bakken-origin rail cargoes safer, Quantum’s executive vice president Russell Smith told Reuters.

        “Our plan solves a couple of important problems,” said Smith, who earlier this month pitched the idea in meetings with White House officials and Transportation Department regulators mulling oil train safety.

        Besides light fuels, Smith said, the Quantum facilities would also pull a stream of diesel gasoline from Bakken sources to help slake demand in the region. Executives hope to have permits and financing to break ground on at least one of the proposed refineries before year-end.

        The company expects that each processing center would cost about $500 million.

        A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said officials could not comment on their deliberations about oil train safety or meetings with industry.

        In the coming weeks, though, officials are expected to outline measures to improve oil train safety such as demanding tougher tank cars, slower speeds and diversions around urban centers.

        Several oil cargoes from North Dakota’s Bakken have exploded during rail accidents in the last year. Some officials say toughened tank cars should be used to move such fuel.

        Regulators have homed in on the vapor pressure of Bakken fuel, one index of the explosion risk.

        Industry-funded tests of Bakken fuel have returned vapor pressure readings of 15 pounds per square inch on the commonly-used Reid scale, while Quantum Energy believes it could bring that reading below 6 psi, similar to fuels like ethanol and heavy crude.

        “The crude is much less volatile once you take these light tops off,” said Smith, referring to the gassy share of Bakken fuel.

        Some oil industry officials, though, see little need to reduce vapor pressure in oil train cargoes and think Quantum might have misjudged demand for gas.

        “There will be a market for propane, potentially in North Dakota, but what about the other components they’ll be removing?” said Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

        Pentane, butane and other light gases are not easily marketable in North Dakota currently and may have to be shipped to buyers such as far-off chemical plants in tank cars fit to carry dangerous gas.

        Smith said Quantum expects to find buyers that would welcome the portion of Bakken fuel not marketed close to the source. The Bakken field extends into Montana and Canada’s Saskatchewan and Manitoba provinces.

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