Gorge leaders oppose Vancouver oil terminal as hearings wrap up
By Patrick Mulvihill, August 5, 2016
Gorge leaders spoke out against a proposed oil-by-marine terminal in Vancouver as hearings over the project’s fate came to a close July 29.
Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) heard closing arguments for an environmental review of the terminal proposed by Vancouver Energy, a venture spearheaded by Tesoro Corp.
EFSEC is charged with recommending whether Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should approve or reject the 360,000-barrel per day oil hub at the Port of Vancouver, and panel’s decision is expected in late 2016.
At Friday’s hearing — the final chance for public oral testimony — local elected leaders and environmental advocates evoked the recent memory of Mosier, where a crude oil bearing train derailed and caught fire on June 3.
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, gave the panel a stark depiction of the aftermath.
“We’re really still exhausted,” she said. “This is going to be an ongoing, long-term process that we’re going to be dealing with,” Burns said.
She noted that Mosier’s groundwater had been contaminated by oil during the spill. Drinking water has been declared safe, but concerns remain for the rainy season washing out remaining oil in the ground.
Peter Cornelison, a Hood River City Council member and field representative for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, argued the risks of a new terminal — and boosted train traffic — would affect all river communities.
Proponents of the terminal highlighted economic benefits and stressed a need for United States’ independence in the oil industry. They said the terminal would be held to regulatory safeguards.
“We believe the evidence has demonstrated that this project is necessary to secure a strong sustainable reliable supply of energy for the citizens of Washington,” Jay P. Derr, an attorney representing Tesoro, said.
“We ask the council to recognize and remember the benefits the Port of Vancouver provides, and work hard to avoid … hurting those structures and processes that allow the port to provide those benefits to the community,” said David Bartz, a port attorney.
Most testimony disagreed with the terminal’s backers about the project’s safety and economic value.
Washington Attorney General’s Office came out last week against the terminal. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the potential benefits of the project are “dramatically outweighed by the potential risks and costs of a spill.”
The cities of Vancouver and Spokane also voiced opposition, a sentiment expressed in recent months by letters and resolutions by tribes, advocacy groups and governments throughout the region.
Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said the local group hopes in light of the Mosier derailment, EFSEC will recognize the risk of another fiery oil train wreck in the Columbia Gorge.
Both sides in the issue will now file closing written briefs, ending testimony. EFSEC is expected to issue a decision in late 2016. From there, Inslee will make a decision that can be appealed in state supreme court.
Mosier groundwater contaminated after derailment spill
By Patrick Mulvihill, July 22, 2016
Regulators have found contaminated groundwater at the site of the June 3 fiery oil train derailment in Mosier.
There’s no current threat to drinking water or beach users, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), but concerns have surfaced for wildlife health in the Rock Creek wetland near the Columbia River.
“It really isn’t a significant issue of harming human health; however, there is a wetland (nearby) and we’re mainly concerned for animals (living there),” said Bob Schwarz, DEQ project manager.
DEQ staff found high levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds in one of four test wells crews installed north of the Union Pacific train tracks in Mosier shortly after the train wreck.
Schwarz described the contaminant levels discovered at the east-most site as roughly 10 times higher than the safe amount for animal populations — 1,800 parts of benzene per billion, compared to the ecological risk level of 130 parts.
The wetland ecosystem includes various amphibians and insects, he said.
DEQ has ruled the local drinking water safe because Mosier’s municipal water supply is located about a mile away from the spill area, uphill.
Beach access at Mosier — a popular watersports access spot — has been deemed safe. Booms laid out on the river following the derailment (to catch a small sheen of oil) have since been removed.
Mosier’s wastewater system is also back in action. While heavy green sewage tanks and pump trucks were a common sight during early June, the town no longer trucks sewage to Hood River for treatment.
In the derailment, 16 cars of a 96-car Union Pacific train bearing Bakken crude oil left the tracks in what U.P. ruled an accident due to faulty rail bolts. At least three cars caught fire. Crews extinguished the blaze by early morning the next day.
About 47,000 gallons of oil escaped from four rail cars.
During the wreck, one of the railcars tore off the lid of a sanitary sewer manhole, allowing roughly 13,000 gallons of oil to flow into the nearby Mosier wastewater treatment plant. That system was shut down as crews worked to pump out oil and clean the piping network.
As a temporary fix, workers trucked sewage from Mosier to Hood River for treatment at the municipal plant on Riverside Drive. By June 16, the plant was restored, and shortly after Mosier’s system was fully functional.
A small sheen of oil leaked into the Columbia River through the wastewater system at some point following the wreck, DEQ reported.
Crews cast out absorbing booms into the river to contain the sheen. The exact amount is “unknown but low in volume,” according to a DEQ fact sheet, but it quickly dissipated.
Surface water samples in the river didn’t show any significant contamination from the spill, Schwarz said. He expects the booms will be replaced in September, before autumn rains, in case new rain flushes any oil from the ground into the river.
Agencies reported that the rest of the oil was burned off or absorbed into the soil. Excavation workers disposed of about 29,600 tons of earth that had been contaminated with petroleum.
Oil remaining in the derailed cars was transferred by truck to The Dalles, then hauled by rail to Tacoma, Wash., its original destination. The emptied railcars were taken by truck to Portland for salvage.
Following the derailment, DEQ oversaw the installation of six wells near the train tracks — two extraction wells and four monitoring wells. At the fourth monitoring site, staff found high petroleum levels and other compounds.
Now, DEQ is working with the railroad’s consultant to design an underground system that will treat the contamination, Schwarz said.
The “biosparge” system will include vertical pipes where air will be injected into the ground water. That oxygen will spur growth of naturally occurring microbes that will break down the oil.
“We are still waiting for groundwater flow direction information from CH2M, the consultant for Union Pacific Railroad,” Schwarz said in a July 6 memo.
Local conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper raised concerns about U.P.’s role in the high pollutant levels and called for a third party to steer the cleanup.
“It’s very concerning that we have such high levels of toxic pollutants so close to the river,” Riverkeeper staff attorney Lauren Goldberg said.
She asserted that the public needs to hold state officials accountable so that “U.P. is not at the wheel of this cleanup.”
Schwarz expects a small drill rig and a half dozen or so workers will be on scene in Mosier to implement the treatment system.
Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025
By Justin Mikulka, July 21, 2016 – 13:00
In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.
Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.
Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.
This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.
Just Re-Stencil It and Call It a DOT 117
One of the biggest risks with Bakken oil train accidents is that often the only way to deal with the fires is to let them burn themselves out. This can result in full tank cars becoming engulfed in flames for hours or days in what is known as a pool fire. This can lead to a “thermal tear” in the tank and the signature mushroom cloud of fire so often seen with these derailments.
The new regulations address this issue by requiring tank cars to have a layer of ceramic insulation covering the entire tank car to prevent the oil from heating up to the point of creating a thermal tear (ceramic shown in pink in the image below.)
However, the RSI has requested the FRA to allow the existing jacketed CPC-1232 cars, like the ones in the Mosier accident, to not require the ceramic thermal protection.
The industry’s argument is that the current fiberglass insulation on the CPC-1232 is sufficient protection. However, the fact that the fiberglass insulation was not designed to protect the contents of a tank car from fire does not seem to bother the RSI.
At the same time the RSI is arguing against thermal protection for CPC-1232s, the RSI has helpful videos on its website explaining the new safety features for DOT-117 tank cars — including “thermal protection.”
The NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt summed up what this request would mean in one simple statement at the July 13 round table event saying, “the same type of cars as in Mosier can be re-stenciled as DOT-117R with nothing more than a new bottom outlet valve.” [R stands for retrofit.]
So, they are essentially asking to paint over the CPC-1232 label on the tank cars with a DOT-117 while doing nothing more than changing the bottom outlet valve. Which means we should expect many more accidents like Mosier in the future since most of these CPC-1232 cars are only a few years old and they have an expected working life of 30-40 years.
As Robert Sumwalt said in his opening statement explaining why we should expect many more fiery oil train derailments with the existing tank car fleet, “just do the math.”
Industry Arguments Laughable If Not For the Consequences
Would you believe that one of the arguments made at the roundtable in favor of not requiring thermal protection on these cars was that the oil itself acts as a heat sink? Which is true. Until the point where the oil absorbs so much heat from the fire that the tank car explodes.
However, the reason this argument is given credibility is that the regulations only require a tank car to endure sitting in a pool fire for 100 minutes without exploding. Forget the fact that many of the Bakken oil train accidents have involved fires that burned for days.
This 100-minute limit was the same reasoning used to justify the fiberglass insulation on the current jacketed CPC-1232 as offering sufficient protection, as per the industry request. Which led to the following exchange between the NTSB’s Sumwalt and RSI representative John Byrne.
Byrne: “In our own modeling the fiberglass insulation system met the federal requirement for thermal protection.”
Sumwalt: “But in reality in the fiberglass situation, doesn’t the fiberglass all just melt… doesn’t it also melt and all end up pooling down in the bottom in the void between the blanket and the shell?”
Byrne: “Basically yes…but at the same time, that whole system acts as a thermal protection system in that it meets the requirement based on the federal law.”
Sumwalt: “Ok, thanks. So it meets the requirements.”
So, along with the oil itself being offered as adequate thermal protection, we also get fiberglass that melts in a fire being offered as protection for anyone in the blast zone.
So what did the regulators have to say about this absurd argument?
FRA’s Karl Alexy made it clear that “industry” concerns were receiving serious consideration saying, “we’re not taking it lightly, we understand what it means to industry… be certain that we are taking this very seriously.”
Well, we do understand what it means to the industry. Adding ceramic thermal protection would cut into profits. And one thing that was made clear repeatedly during the day’s discussion was that this was all about the money and that safety was only for people worried about “risk.”
As usual when there is a discussion about oil train safety, the oil industry lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute had a seat at the table. API representative Susan Lemieux cut to the heart of the issue with some actual honesty.
“In the industry we don’t see transportation as a risk, it is just a function of business.”
Why try to improve the situation when you don’t see any risk?
The FRA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have informed DeSmog that they will issue a formal response to the industry’s request to allow the fiberglass to qualify as thermal protection in the near future.
The Ground Rules – Profits Over Safety
In the above slide shown of the DOT-117, there is one other important thing to note. The shells on those tank cars are 9/16th of an inch thick. The shells of the jacketed CPC-1232 are 7/16th of an inch thick. This difference has safety implications as the thinner shells rupture more easily. The RSI points out this fact in a video on its website about the advantages of the thicker shells on the DOT-117 which they say are “less prone to puncture.”
But the more important difference, as we have pointed out repeatedly at DeSmog, is that safer car designs are heavier, which means they can transport less oil per car. That lower capacity again cuts into profits. This point was made by ExxonMobil in a slide they presented to regulators arguing against thicker tank shells.
While Exxon was not at the roundtable, plenty of oil and rail industry representatives were, and they made this point very clear.
Gabe Claypool, President of oil train operators Dakota Plains, explained why it made economic sense to use CPC-1232s over DOT-117s.
“A lot of it’s economics as well…we were just having a conversation around the sizing of the car, the 1232 car type is very much in abundance and it is also a larger car. In the current category of still trying to be profitable, if I can get that extra volume in a larger car that is still regulatorally [sic] compliant, they’re [sic] gonna stick with that.”
Richard Kloster of rail consulting firm Alltranstek was one of the more vocal participants during the roundtable and he repeatedly made points about the economics of retrofitting the CPC-1232 over buying the new DOT-117 saying, “The retrofit is always going to win economically.”
Kloster also made it clear where the industry put its priorities when it came to safety versus profit saying, “There has got to be a balance between safety and the economic viability of moving these products by rail” and that there were a “lot of cases, you know, where economics wins all the time but risk trumps economics in some cases.”
Economics wins all the time.
There was one representative from labor at the roundtable who did not offer a comment until the final closing segment, but he also shared the reality of what was driving the decisionmaking when he discussed the need for safety but stated, “I know it’s about money.”
ExxonMobil Wins Again
So, in the end, ExxonMobil and the oil industry have won again. Watching this roundtable and the many congressional hearings and previous NTSB events in the past few years and seeing the lack of progress on real safety improvements, it almost seems like this all was orchestrated from the start.
In the years leading up to the latest tank car rulemaking, the industry essentially ordered a whole new fleet of CPC-1232 cars which they are currently using. The CPC-1232 cars have the thinner tank shells which makes them more prone to puncture and also more profitable. And they are ok to use, unchanged, until 2025. If the industry request is approved, those cars will just need new bottom outlet valves after 2025.
Regardless, they will always have the thinner tank shells, like Exxon wanted.
At the end of the July 13 event, Robert Sumwalt made an interesting statement. He said, “some of us met yesterday to go over the ground rules.”
The meeting where they went over the ground rules was not open to the public or media. If one were to hazard a guess as to what the first and foremost ground rule set was, it would be a safe bet to posit it was that “economics wins all the time.”
Upgrades to Unsafe Tank Cars Could Take 15 Years, Board Says
By Matthew Brown, Associated Press, July 13, 2016, 2:30 A.M. E.D.T.
BILLINGS, Mont. — Accident-prone tank cars used to haul crude oil and ethanol by rail could remain in service for another 15 years under federal rules that allow companies to phase in upgrades to the aging fleet, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Transportation officials and railroad representatives have touted the rules as a key piece of their efforts to stave off future disasters, following a string of fiery derailments and major spills that raised concerns about the crude-by-rail industry.
Yet without mandatory, periodic benchmarks for meeting the requirements, the decision to upgrade to safer tank car designs “is left entirely to tank car fleet owners, and may be driven by market factor influences, not safety improvements,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Tom Simpson with the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car manufacturers and owners, said the industry is committed to putting stronger cars in place. Members of the group will meet deadlines for replacing or upgrading the cars, he said, noting that demand for rail cars has eased after crude-by-rail shipments decreased over the past two years in response to lower oil prices.
“The need to modify or install new cars isn’t as urgent as when the rule was issued,” Simpson said.
In recent years, accidents involving the older cars have occurred in Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia and Canada.
The most notable was in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train derailed in 2013. During the most recent accident last month in Oregon, 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, sparking a massive fire that burned for 14 hours near the small town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge.
Cars built before the rule was enacted do not have to be fully replaced until 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner.
Just over 10,300 stronger tank cars mandated by the new rules are available for service, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press from the Association of American Railroads.
That’s equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the 51,500 tank cars used to haul crude and ethanol during the first quarter of 2016.
Transportation Department Press Secretary Clark Pettig said in response to the NTSB’s criticism that the schedule to retrofit older cars was locked in by Congress in a transportation bill approved last year. The Congressional deadline represents “the absolute last moment” to meet the new standards, Pettig said.
“We agree with NTSB that industry should work to beat those deadlines,” he said.
A Wednesday meeting was planned in Washington, D.C., where government and industry officials were set to update the safety board on progress addressing the issue.
Safety board member Robert Sumwalt told the Associated Press that federal regulators need to set milestones to hold the industry accountable.
“There’s been 28 accidents over the past 10 years. That’s almost three accidents a year,” Sumwalt said. “Unfortunately, history shows we probably will have more accidents involving flammable liquids.”
A bill from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and other Democratic lawmakers would offer tax credits for companies that upgrade their cars during the next several years.
“Communities near train tracks, like Mosier, Oregon, must be confident that companies are using the safest tank cars possible,” Wyden said.
The railroad association said only 700 of the least resilient model of the older-style tank cars remain in service. Most of the cars in current use have at least some improvements, such as shields at either end of the car to help prevent punctures during derailments.
Transportation officials cautioned, however, that thousands of idled “legacy cars” could quickly come back online if oil prices rise and shipment volumes rebound.
Most tank cars are owned or leased by companies that ship fuel by rail, not the railroads themselves.
“Every tank car carrying crude or ethanol needs to be upgraded or replaced,” said railroad association spokesman Ed Greenberg.