Two-person train crews necessary for safety, lawmakers say
By Zach Pluhacek | Lincoln Journal Star, May 28, 2015 1:45 pm
Trains need two-person crews to help prevent disasters like the 2013 derailment and explosion of a crude oil train that killed 47 people in Quebec, some Nebraska lawmakers argued Thursday.
The Federal Railroad Administration has signaled plans to require two-man crews on trains carrying oil and freight trains, which is the industry’s standard practice, but its proposed rule hasn’t been issued.
Rail lines would like to switch to a crew of one on most freight engines as they equip trains with positive train control, a new federally mandated wireless safety system that can force a train to stop automatically to avoid a potential crash.
“This is a risky development for public safety in Nebraska, particularly in light of the hazardous types of freight that are being hauled through our state,” said Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis on Thursday.
Nebraska is home to the nation’s two biggest railroads, Union Pacific, based in Omaha, and BNSF Railway, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha. UP operates the world’s largest railroad classification yard, the Bailey Yard in North Platte, and BNSF has extensive operations in Lincoln and the rest of Nebraska.
Davis sponsored a measure (LB192) this year that would have outright required two-person crews in Nebraska, but it failed to advance from the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
Instead, lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution Thursday that doesn’t specifically call for two-person crews, but it urges the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt a rule that “ensures public safety and promotes the efficient movement of freight, while supporting interstate commerce.”
The resolution (LR338) was adopted on a 36-4 vote.
“These trains are some of the heaviest moving things on this planet, and just having one person in charge doesn’t seem to make sense,” said Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who cosigned the resolution.
But Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill argued human mistakes are often to blame when tragedy strikes. “Sometimes true safety does lie within automation,” he said.
Union Pacific opposes the resolution because it falsely implies trains are unsafe and ignores collective bargaining deals that have addressed safe train crew sizes for decades, said spokesman Mark Davis.
Two rail unions — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which represent about 3,700 active members between them — support the resolution.
Cutting down on the number of crew members would almost certainly affect jobs and reduce the number of workers paying into shared retirement plans.
The more critical issue is what happens when a train derails or breaks down, said Pat Pfeifer, state legislative board chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
One crew member has to remain inside the engine at all times, so without a second person, there’s no one available on scene to help cut a crossing or take other emergency precautions.
Both unions are also backing a bill in Congress to require two-person crews.
“It’s about public safety; it’s not about jobs,” Pfeifer said.
Pipeline Explodes In West Virginia, Sends Fireball Shooting Hundreds Of Feet In The Air
By Emily Atkin, January 27, 2015
A gas pipeline in Brooke County, West Virginia exploded into a ball of flames on Monday morning, marking the fourth major mishap at a U.S. pipeline this month.
No one was hurt in the explosion, but residents told the local WTRF 7 news station that they could see a massive fireball shooting hundreds of feet into the air. An emergency dispatcher reportedly told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the flames had melted the siding off one home and damaged at least one power line. The gas pipeline is owned by Houston, Texas-based The Enterprise Products, L.P., which said Monday evening that it is investigating the cause of the explosion.
The West Virginia explosion is the fourth in a string of news-making pipeline incidents this month. Earlier this month, a gas pipeline in Mississippi operated by GulfSouth Pipeline exploded, rattling residents’ windows and causing a smoke plume large enough to register on National Weather Service radar screens. On Jan. 17, a pipeline owned by Bridger Pipeline LLC in Montana spilled up to 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, a spill that left thousands of Montanans without drinkable tap water. Just a few days later, on Jan. 22, it was discovered that 3 million gallons of saltwater drilling waste had spilled from a North Dakota pipeline earlier in the month. That spill was widely deemed the state’s largest contaminant release into the environment since the North Dakota oil boom began.
The four incidents come while American lawmakers are entrenched in debate whether the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — a proposed 1,700-mile line that would bring up to 860,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands crude oil down to Texas and Louisiana refineries every day — is in the national interest.
One of arguments most often made by environmentalists against the pipeline is that, if a spill were to occur from Keystone XL, it would be harder to clean up than a spill from a conventional oil or gas pipeline. Canadian tar sands oil is thicker and more sludgy than regular oil, and does not float on top of water like conventional crude. Instead, it gradually sinks to the bottom. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the fact that Keystone XL would pass over the Ogallala aquifer, Nebraska’s primary source of drinking water. Nebraska’s state Department of Environmental Quality has said that a spill in or around the aquifer would only affect local, not regional water sources.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already passed a bill approving Keystone XL’s construction, and the Senate is expected to pass an identical bill this week, though it has come up against unexpected procedural hurdles. President Obama has pledged to veto the bill.
Phillips 66 Runs into Public Resistance over Proposal to Lay New Tracks and Unload More Canadian Crude
By Natalie Cherot, January 23, 2015
A slow-moving pipeline moves a haul of crude oil to a refinery just north of the Santa Barbara County border. Stand on the nearby coast’s 18,000-year-old sand dunes and look away from the sea, and a perfect view emerges of the expansive Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery. The name is a misnomer. The San Luis Obispo facility on the Nipomo Mesa is 17 miles northwest from the City of Santa Maria. Directly south is the Santa Maria River.
Golden Sierra Madre mountains shimmer in the distance, and hearty sage scrub surrounds its perimeter alongside grazing cattle. The night sky around the facility is never dark; its aquarium lights border on festive. The illumination is necessary because the refinery is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It begins the process of turning crude into a finished product like gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel, and pumps the semi-refined batches 200 miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area plants for finishing.
With oil prices dropping and California supplies both dwindling and facing harsh competition from North Dakota, much speculation swirls on the question of what kind of oil will arrive to the refinery on the dunes in the coming years. Right now it is “mostly used for California-produced oil,” said Phillips 66 spokesperson Rich Johnson.
But as of 2013, Phillips 66’s newest product is Canadian tar sands, a thick, gooey combination of clay, sand, water, and viscous bitumen. It’s hard to control and expensive to process. The Kearl Lake tar sands field cuts through Alberta’s boreal forest and wetlands, and has been turned into a mined landscape. An estimated 170 billion more barrels are still available for the taking.
In the summer of 2013, Phillips 66 submitted permit applications to San Luis Obispo County’s Planning Commission to add 1.3 miles of train track to its Santa Maria Refinery’s existing rail spur so crude can be delivered by train rather than by pipe. The proposed upgrades, which include five parallel tracks, an unloading facility, and new on-site pipelines, wouldn’t increase the amount of crude processed at the facility — volume is capped by the county’s Air Pollution Control District — but they reflect an increasing amount of oil train traffic across the country. BusinessWeek.com reported that it’s tripled in the last four years.
According to the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the facility would be able to handle five train unloads a week for a maximum of 250 a year. Each train with about 80 tanks on board would carry between 1.8 million and 2.1 million gallons of crude.
A first draft of the EIR — which indicated that both Canadian tar sands and North Dakota Bakken formation crude would be carried on the trains — was published that fall and received 800 public comments. The massive amount of feedback, much of it negative, prompted the Planning Commission to delay a final decision on the project. The commission issued a second 889-page draft EIR in October 2014, and a few weeks from now, a public comment period will take place. The date has not been finalized.
The biggest contention in the first draft was about Bakken crude. “The bottom line is Bakken Crude likes to burn and it will not take much to get it going,” wrote Paul Lee, battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning and Building Department. For preparation of the second draft EIR, Phillips 66 requested the county “delete statements suggesting that the Bakken oilfield as the most likely source of crude oil.” The new draft EIR states no Bakken will arrive by rail. Phillips’s spokesperson Rich Johnson said the refinery can’t handle the sweeter, lighter Bakken crude, as it specializes in the ultra-heavy tar sands.
Four accidents involving Bakken crude are mentioned in the latest report. A 30,000-barrel spill occurred in April 2014 in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a transport train derailed and erupted into flames. In November 2013, a train jumped the tracks in Aliceville, Alabama. Twelve tanker cars of Bakken spilled and caught fire. The next month, another oil train crashed in Casselton, North Dakota, where 20 cars of Bakken exploded and burned for 24 hours. Forty-seven people died when a train carrying the crude derailed and exploded in Quebec on July 2013.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a warning to move transportation of Bakken oil away from highly populated areas because of explosion risks. “Most think that Crude will not get going unless it gets warmed up first and in some cases that is correct, [but] Bakken Crude does not need to be aggravated to burn or even explode,” wrote Lee. “The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is concerned about its ability to explode so much in fact that there is a recommendation to have rail avoid populated areas.”
Phillips 66’s rail expansion plan is part of larger national strategy to better accommodate tar sands coming out of the ground quicker than the current system of pipelines can handle. “Our real challenge that we have, or opportunity that we have, is to get advantaged crudes to the East Coast and West Coast,” said Greg Garland, chairman and CEO of Phillips 66, at the Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference last year. “So we’re working that in terms of moving Canadian crudes down into California or building rail facilities.”
Two thousands miles north in Alberta, Canada, the contentious Keystone XL pipeline would transport tar sands through Montana, Nebraska, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Houston. The pipeline’s foes claim the fuel is too emission-intensive and corrosive to pipelines. Supporters say if the Keystone XL is blocked, tar sands will come by the more dangerous transportation methods of boat or rail. Recent Philips 66 literature states: “Until new pipeline projects come online, rail is in many cases the easiest and most cost efficient way to get advantaged crude to some of our refineries.”
Trains coming and going from Santa Maria Refinery would travel the path of the Union Pacific Rail, on tracks shared by Amtrak. They would make the journey north through the Nipomo Mesa, up the precarious Cuesta Grade through Paso Robles, Salinas, and San Jose. Then they head through Richmond, then Berkeley. Richmond and Berkeley city councils recently passed resolutions calling for stricter regulations on crude oil trains.
The paths of the trains coming from the south — and carrying crude from any number of sources — are unclear and not ironed out in the draft EIR, but they would likely go through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. A potential path indicated in the report heads through downtown Moorpark at the eastern edge of Ventura County after it passes through Simi Valley, but that potential route may have hit a glitch.
On December 17, the Moorpark City Council voted to send a letter to the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission opposing Phillip 66’s proposal because of its potentially hazardous risks. “I feel strongly that we need to show a little bit of leadership here as a city to formally object to this,” said one councilmember. “Hopefully other cities along this track will as well.” According to the report, once the trains leave Moorpark they could head through Camarillo to Ventura and along the coast to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Goleta.
Johnson does not see much long-term job growth — or even stability — at the refinery given its current pipeline setup and a recent dip in statewide supplies. To stay competitive, company officials have argued, the refinery needs to revamp its intake methods so it can accept crude from other sources. “We are trying to keep the jobs we have,” Johnson said of the 200 people working at the plant. “Oil production in California is on the decline.” Rumors of a too-twisted and warped Monterey Shale formation from years of tectonic activity became a public reality in May when the government agency, Energy Information Administration, downgraded a predicted 13.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil to 600 million.
[Editor: All across the U.S., media reports are focusing on how the States are responding to the new Federal rules on disclosure of crude by rail shipments. Some states are making these disclosures available to the public, and some are withholding the reports. Here is a sampling of the articles Mr. Google found today…. – RS]