Tag Archives: Minnesota

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis MN

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

By Jim Spencer, March 21, 2015 – 8:22 PM

Industry says reinforced cars on current routes are better than trying to avoid heavily populated areas.

A train carried Bakken oil past St. Paul. Federal rules say a single tanker car spill and fire would require a half-mile evacuation. Photo: Star Tribune

WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken asked the Federal Railroad Administration to consider rerouting trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota so they do not pass through Minnesota’s biggest cities.

For Franken, the possibility of rerouting is an integral part of a comprehensive response to a recent rash of fiery oil train derailments that also includes stabilizing Bakken crude before it is loaded into stronger tanker cars.

For the nation’s powerful railroad lobby, however, rerouting is an unwarranted intrusion into a rail safety system that the industry says works.

Government-ordered rerouting of private rail traffic is not exactly a snowball in hell. It is more like a blizzard in Bahrain — possible, but unprecedented.

In Minnesota and around the country, “rerouting issues ought to be high on everyone’s agenda,” said rail safety expert Fred Millar, who fought unsuccessfully against railroads to move chlorine trains out of the District of Columbia. “But rerouting has been pushed off the table.”

Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration in 1966. In nearly half a century it does not appear to have forced any railroads to reroute trains around big cities for safety reasons, despite computer modeling that estimates routing changes could lower citizens’ risks to hazardous materials derailments by 25 to 50 percent and reduce casualties in an actual derailment by half.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) last week estimated that 326,170 state residents live within a half-mile of rail routes that carry oil from North Dakota across Minnesota. A half-mile is the federal emergency response evacuation zone required in the event of a single tanker car spill and fire. Multiple-car fires require up to a mile evacuation.

MnDOT data shows that 156,316 of the Minnesotans subject to evacuation in an oil train derailment live in the Twin Cities metro area. Most North Dakota oil trains enter Minnesota at Moorhead, then travel on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks into the Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River and east across Wisconsin. A few oil trains travel through western Minnesota into Iowa.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board has backed rerouting in some circumstances, federal laws passed in 2007 grant private rail companies wide latitude in determining when and where trains should move, even trains carrying hazardous materials.

Canadian Pacific did not comment specifically on rerouting trains in Minnesota, but in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the railroad said it has voluntarily complied with the federal government’s Crude by Rail Safety Initiatives and performed “route risk assessments.”

BNSF, the largest crude-by-rail hauler out of North Dakota, declined to comment on rerouting and referred questions to the rail industry’s major trade group, the Association of American Railroads.

An AAR spokesman said the industry opposes re-routing oil trains because the existing routes are the safest, even when they pass through urban areas. The industry supports more structurally secure tanker cars, track inspections and training of emergency response teams, said AAR media relations director Ed Greenberg.

BNSF also has invested heavily in track improvements to increase safety along its existing Minnesota oil train routes.

“We’re using routing technology called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System developed by the federal government,” Greenberg said. The technology measures 27 factors — including population density — to determine the safest route for moving hazardous materials, including crude oil, Greenberg said.

“Rerouting isn’t the answer,” he maintained. “All it has accomplished in the past is to force rail traffic through other communities on tracks not built to accommodate products like crude oil.”

The Federal Railroad Administration declined to discuss rerouting oil trains in Minnesota. In an e-mail statement, acting administrator Sarah Feinberg said of Franken’s request: “Over the past 18 months we have taken more than a dozen actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil while working on a comprehensive rule that is now in its final stages of development.”

The state has little say in the rerouting debate. “The railroads are regulated by the federal government,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said. “The state does not have the authority to move, or reroute, rail lines.”

Rerouting trains away from the Twin Cities is not part of a rail safety initiative unveiled March 13 by Gov. Mark Dayton. That proposal calls for spending $330 million over 10 years, much of it in greater Minnesota, mainly to make road-rail crossings safer and to improve emergency response.

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    Minnesota Gov. Dayton pressures railroads to pony up for safety upgrades

    Repost from The Mineapolis StarTribune

    Dayton pressures railroads to pony up for safety upgrades across Minnesota

    By: Kyle Potter, Associated Press, March 13, 2015 – 3:45 PM

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton gave railroad companies and Republicans a public tongue-lashing Friday for their resistance to his tax plan to fund safety improvements across Minnesota’s railroad network.

    Seven trains haul North Dakota crude across Minnesota daily — an influx that has contributed to backlogs of agricultural shipments and raised safety concerns after a string of recent explosive derailments.

    With a throng of officials from towns dealing with the headaches of heavier train traffic behind him, Dayton called it “totally unacceptable” that railroads would oppose contributing more money to the state’s safety efforts. The governor and other fellow Democratic lawmakers have proposed a series of tax increases and annual fees on railroads to upgrade railroad crossings and ease congestion across Minnesota.

    “That is the responsibility of the railroad,” Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said of improvements.

    By taxing train cars and levying an annual fee on Minnesota’ four major freight railroads, the state would net $330 million over the next decade, mostly for improvements at railroad crossings. Dayton’s plan would also fund increased training for first responders, including a new statewide training facility.

    The governor is also planning to carve out $76 million from a bonding bill this year to build underpasses or overpasses in Moorhead, Prairie Island, Coon Rapids and Willmar, where passing trains block crossings for hours every day.

    Railroad companies such as BNSF Railway, the state’s largest freight railroad and a major shipper of Bakken crude, balked at the governor’s proposal. In a statement, spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the company believes Dayton’s proposed taxes violate federal law “because they single out railroads for discriminatory taxation.”

    The other three major freight railroads operating in Minnesota are Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Canadian National.

    Majority House Republicans have also signaled they’re not on board with the tax increases.

    “While the governor and I agree that our railroad crossings need improvements, the funding source is still the main issue,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Finance committee.

    Dayton criticized Republicans for not supporting his plan, but he saved his strongest words for the railroad companies.

    The governor said state officials believe they’re on solid legal ground to foot railroads with a larger tax bill. And he remained defiant in the face of a possible lawsuit from railroads if his proposal goes ahead.

    “We’re going to do what we know is right for Minnesota. If they want to take us to court, that certainly shows their true colors,” Dayton said.

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      Crude Oil on Derailed Train Contained High Level of Gas

      Repost from The Wall Street Journal
      [Editor: This is a MUST READ.  Highly significant findings, with life-and-death implications for all regulators, first responders, rail and oil industry workers and executives, and for every town and country along the rails.  – RS]

      Crude on Derailed Train Contained High Level of Gas

      Cargo would have violated new vapor-pressure cap that goes into effect in April

      By Russell Gold, March 2, 2015 6:54 p.m. ET
      crude_oil_train_derailment_Mt.CarbonWVa
      The scene of a CSX crude-oil train burning after derailment in Mount Carbon, W. Va. Photo: Marcus Constantino/Reuters

      The crude oil aboard the train that derailed and exploded two weeks ago in West Virginia contained so much combustible gas that it would have been barred from rail transport under safety regulations set to go into effect next month.

      Tests performed on the oil before the train left North Dakota showed it contained a high level of volatile gases, according to a lab report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The oil’s vapor pressure, a measure of volatility, was 13.9 pounds per square inch, according to the Feb. 10 report by Intertek Group PLC.

      That exceeds the limit of 13.7 psi that North Dakota is set to impose in April on oil moving by truck or rail from the Bakken Shale. Oil producers that don’t treat their crude to remove excess gas face fines and possible civil or criminal penalties, said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

      The state introduced new rules on shipping oil in December, after a series of accidents in which trains carrying crude from the Bakken erupted into fireballs after derailing. As the Journal has reported, oil from shale formations contains far more combustible gas than traditional crude oil, which has a vapor pressure of about 6 psi; gasoline has a maximum psi of about 13.5.

      The company that shipped the oil,  Plains All American Pipeline LP, said it follows all regulations governing the shipping and testing of crude. “We believe our sampling and testing procedures and results are in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements,” said Plains spokesman Brad Leone.

      New information about the West Virginia accident is likely to increase regulators’ focus on the makeup of oil being shipped by train. Federal emergency rules adopted last year imposed new safety requirements on railroad operators but not on energy companies.

      “The type of product the train is transporting is also important,” said Sarah Feinberg, the acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration. “The reality is that we know this product is volatile and explosive.”

      Ms. Feinberg has supported requiring the energy industry to strip out more gases from the crude oil before shipping it to make the cargo less dangerous, but such measures aren’t currently included in current or proposed federal rules.

      In the wake of the West Virginia accident, members of Congress have called on the White House to expedite its review of pending safety rules developed by the U.S. Transportation Department. Timothy Butters, the acting administrator of the department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the new regulations were being vetted as quickly as was practical, given what he called their complexity.

      Some critics are calling for lower limits on the vapor pressure of oil moving by rail.

      crude_oil_train_derailment_Mt.CarbonWVa02
      The train that derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in mid-February included 109 tanker cars loaded with about 70,000 barrels of Bakken crude. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

      The lower the vapor pressure, the less explosive the oil and “the less chance of it blowing up—that should be the common goal here,” said Daniel McCoy, the chief executive of Albany County, N.Y., which has become a transit hub for Bakken crude heading to East Coast refineries.

      The train that exploded in West Virginia included 109 tanker cars loaded with about 70,000 barrels of crude. It traveled from Western North Dakota across Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio before derailing in Mount Carbon, W. Va. Nearly two dozen tanker cars full of crude oil were engulfed in flames, some exploding into enormous fireballs that towered over the small community and burned a house to the ground.

      The cause of the derailment remains under investigation. State and federal officials have said the train was traveling well under speed limits imposed last year on trains carrying crude oil. The train was made up of relatively new tanker cars built to withstand accidents better than older models.

      A couple hours after the derailment, CSX and Plains All American Pipeline turned over paperwork about the crude to first responders and state and federal investigators. The testing document was included; the Journal reviewed it after making an open-records request.

      A spokesman for  CSX Corp. , the railroad that carried the oil at the time of the crash, said it had stepped up its inspections of the track along this route, a procedure that railroads voluntarily agreed to last year.

      Related

      “Documentation provided to CSX indicated that the shipments on the train that derailed were in compliance with regulations necessary for transportation,” said Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman. “We support additional measures to enhance the safety of oil shipments, and continue to work cooperatively with regulators, oil producers, tank car manufacturers and others to achieve ever higher safety performance.”

      A spokesman for BNSF Railway Co., which hauled the crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, where it was handed off to CSX, declined to comment on the derailment.

      Intertek, the testing company, said it is abreast of the regulatory changes and “working closely with authorities and our clients to assure compliance.”

      The U.S. Transportation Department is testing samples of crude that didn’t spill or burn and says it plans to compare its findings with the North Dakota test.

      The fire burned for three and a half days. “If it is burning hard, you can’t put it out,” said Benny Filiaggi, the deputy chief of the Montgomery Fire Department, who responded to the West Virginia derailment. He said he received training from CSX about oil-train fires in October.

      “We concentrated on evacuating everyone nearby before the first explosion,” Mr. Filiaggi said.

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        MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO: Seven things you need to know about oil-by-rail safety

        Repost from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)

        7 things you need to know about oil-by-rail safety

        By Emily Kaiser, Feb 26, 2015
        Derailment in Mount Carbon, West Virginia
        This aerial Feb. 17, 2015 file photo photo made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. Steven Wayne Rotsch | AP file

        Last week’s oil train derailment in West Virginia launched a national conversation about the safety of shipping oil by rail. It’s a topic we’ve been hearing about over the past couple years, especially here in Minnesota, where Bakken oil crisscrosses the state’s rail lines in large volume.

        It’s a complex topic combining federal policy with scientific questions. The Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold has been following the issue closely and spoke to MPR News’ Tom Weber to explain what you need to know.

        Here are 7 things you should know about oil transport by rail:

        1. The most misunderstood part of crude oil transport by train: It’s very explosive.

        “The kind of oil that’s being taken out of the ground in North Dakota and put into these tanker cars is a much lighter oil,” Gold said. “It is a very gassy oil; it has a lot of ethanes, and butanes and propanes dissolved in it. It really does explode and that’s really what’s causing the problems.”

        When a set of tanker cars goes up in flames, it can cause 20-story-tall fireballs.

        Footage from the West Virigina derailment last week:

        2. The amount of crude oil carried by train has increased exponentially in less than a decade.

        According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude in 2008. Last year is was 400,000.

        We’ve been moving small amounts of crude by rail for years, but it was one or two cars in long train, Gold said. Now we see 100 to 120 tanker cars all filled with crude oil. That’s 70,000 barrels of crude per train, he said.

        3. Once the crude oil is extracted in North Dakota, it has to be transported to the country’s major refineries on the coasts.

        Refineries are built to utilize the gases removed from the product. If it was stabilized near the extraction site, North Dakota would have to find a way to use or dispose of the ethane and propane gases that make the oil explosive.

        4. Railroads have become “virtual pipelines” for oil.

        From a Gold WSJ article:

        While these virtual pipelines can be created in months, traditional pipelines have become increasingly difficult to install as environmental groups seek to block permits for new energy infrastructure.

        “What we are seeing on rail is largely due to opposition to and uncertainty around building pipelines,” said Brigham McCown, who was the chief pipeline regulator under President George W. Bush . Pipelines, he adds, are far safer than trains.

        5. Pipeline leaks and spills are environmental problems. Oil train derailments are public safety issues.

        When you have a tank car that derails and starts losing it’s very gassy oil, it’s going to burst into fire rather than leak into waterways, Gold said.

        6. If you live close to these rail lines, get in touch with local first responders.

        Gold recommends checking with emergency responders nearby and ask if they are properly trained to handle a crude oil train derailment. Make sure your fire chief is in contact with the rail companies to know when major shipments come through your area. Push for decreasing train speed limits and increased track inspection.

        7. Can we make the tanker cars safer? Gold gave us the latest:

        MPR News Producer Brigitta Greene contributed to this report.

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