The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is taking charge of the investigation of an oil train on April 30 that was hauling crude oil through Lynchburg, Virginia (VA). However, it will be many months before any conclusions are reached and recommendations issued.
According to Investigator Jim Southworth, these incidents happen fast but they take a long time to go through. At this point, the NTSB is gathering facts before moving into analysis. Depending upon how complex the oil accident was, it could take 6-18 months before the report is completed.
Personnel from the Federal Railroad Administration, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Lynchburg’s fire and police departments, labor unions, and CSX Transportation are helping with the investigation, he said.
Several working groups will look at train operations, communications, mechanics, the track and several other areas. These groups then will meet each day to share the information they glean. The preliminary investigation has shown that the train had 105 cars of crude oil and was traveling under the 25 MPH speed limit when the train derailed. Three cars were dumped into the James River.
A total of 13 cars on the CSX train derailed on April 30 at 2:30 PM as it rolled through Lynchburg. Three tankers broke out in flames and nearby residences and businesses had to be evacuated.
CSX removed all of the cars that did not derail, in coordination with local first responders. The railroad also is now doing an environmental assessment that includes air, water and land-based assessments of potential environmental effects.
Repost from The News Tribune, Tacoma, OR
[Editor: This article is a good start, but it leaves much unsaid. Information and disinformation abounds regarding the DOT-111 tank car, designed in 1964. There are retrofitted (improved) versions of the DOT-111, but they are a small percentage of DOT-111’s currently in use, and are not REQUIRED BY LAW for transport of hazardous materials … and even these retrofitted cars are considered by many to be unsafe. A place to begin learning more is Wikipedia. Even better is this NTSB document, or this by New York Senator Schumer … and especially this technical publication by Turner, Mason & Company. See also the authoritative and exhaustive American Association of Railroads’ Field Guide to Tank Cars. The City of Benicia should condition Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal by requiring tank cars of the latest and safest designs for all deliveries, with stiff requirements for daily verification and harsh penalties for violations. – RS]
Old oil tanker cars, old regulations, new danger
The News Tribune | April 22, 2014
Freight trains have an excellent overall safety record, which is why we don’t flee at the sight of them. But the growing numbers of oil trains rumbling through Washington ought to be making us nervous.
U.S. petroleum production – especially at the Bakken formation in North Dakota – has been expanding far more quickly than the nation’s pipeline capacity. As a result, the crude oil is getting carted across states by train and by truck. Let’s take a closer look at the tanker car that hauls much of that oil through Western Washington.
It’s called the DOT-111, a 1964 design. The Bakken oil that exploded catastrophically in Quebec last July, killing 47 people, was being carried in DOT-111 cars.
Five years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a low-speed train crash in Illinois in which 15 DOT-111 cars carrying fuel-grade ethanol went off the rails. Thirteen of the cars ruptured; the resulting explosion killed a motorist waiting at the crossing.
The NTSB did the math: 13 out of 15.
“This represents an overall failure rate of 87 percent,” it concluded, “and illustrates the continued inability of DOT-111 tank cars to withstand the forces of accidents, even when the train is traveling at 36 mph, as was the case in this accident.”
The NTSB noted that the basic DOT-111 lacks many puncture-resistance systems and has a thinner shell than cars designed to carry extremely hazardous liquids, such as chlorine. It reportedly is well-suited for things that don’t blow up, like corn syrup.
Bakken crude – as the Quebec disaster demonstrated – is turning out to be unexpectedly volatile and even explosive. It shouldn’t be in the older DOT-111 fleet – newer models are reputedly safer – if the cars aren’t retrofitted with heavier steel armor and other safety features.
The American petroleum boom caught regulators and railways with their pants down.
Railroad companies didn’t have enough modern, thick-walled tanker cars, so the DOT-111s were pressed into service. Spills and explosions have resulted. The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t come up with the tighter tank-car standards the new reality obviously demands.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray held a hearing that put Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the hot seat. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked Foxx when the new oil train standards would be arriving.
“My target date is as soon as possible,” he said.
Four years ago – when North Dakota ran out of pipeline capacity – would have been better timing.
Communities Not Prepared for Worst-Case Rail Accidents: NTSB
By Patrick Ambrosio Apr 22, 2014 7:38 AM
Bloomberg BNA — Deborah Hersman, the outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said April 21 that U.S. communities are not prepared to respond adequately to worst-case accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.
Answering questions following her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, Hersman said U.S. regulators are behind the curve in addressing the transport of hazardous liquids by rail. She said federal regulations have not been revised to address the increase in rail transport of crude oil and other flammable liquids—an increase of over 440 percent since 2005.
Hersman, who is leaving her post at NTSB April 25 to serve as president of the National Safety Council, said the petroleum industry and first responders don’t have provisions in place to address a worst-case scenario event involving a train carrying crude oil or ethanol. She said several catastrophic accidents have involved crude oil, including a July 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that resulted in 47 fatalities.
The NTSB, in conjunction with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, identified regulatory steps that could be taken by the Transportation Department to address safety risks, including expanded route planning requirements for crude oil shipments, the addition of a requirement for carriers to develop response plans for incidents involving crude oil shipments and increased audits of shippers and carriers to ensure that hazardous liquids are properly classified.
Hersman said the NTSB scheduled a two-day forum to hear from first responders and the petroleum and rail industries on safety issues. The forum, which will be held on April 22-23 in Washington, will include discussions on tank car design, emergency response to releases of flammable liquids and federal oversight of crude oil and ethanol transport, according to an agenda posted on the NTSB’s website.
Tank Car Safety
When asked about the adequacy of the DOT-111 rail tank car to carry crude oil, Hersman reiterated the NTSB’s position that the tank cars are not safe to carry hazardous liquids.
The NTSB recommended in 2009 that all new and existing tank cars in crude oil and ethanol service be equipped with additional safety design features, including enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems, top fittings protection and bottom outlet valves that remain closed during accidents.
“We have said that they are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said about the DOT-111 legacy cars. “Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not.”
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration is working on a proposed rule to update the federal design standards for DOT-111 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous liquids. The consensus among industry and regulators is that new design standards are needed, but there is disagreement over whether the new safety requirements should be more stringent than the CPC-1232 standard, a voluntary industry standard adopted for all new tank cars ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.
Staffing Limitations Said to Delay Work
NTSB staff needs support from Congress to fulfill their mission, Hersman said. At present, she said the NTSB is involved in more than 20 rail accident investigations but only has “about 10 rail investigators.”
“We’re going to have to turn down accidents that occur in the future because we have too much on our plate.”
Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret
By JAD MOUAWAD | APRIL 15, 2014
Jodi Ross, town manager of Westford, Mass., and Joseph Targ, its fire chief, could learn little when a train derailed there this year. Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Jodi Ross, town manager in Westford, Mass., did not expect she would be threatened with arrest after she and her fire chief went onto the railroad tracks to find out why a train carrying liquid petroleum gas derailed on a bridge in February.
But as they reached the accident site northwest of Boston, a manager for Pan Am Railways called the police, claiming she was trespassing on rail property. The cars were eventually put back on the tracks safely, but the incident underlined a reality for local officials dealing with railroads.
“They don’t have to tell us a thing,” Ms. Ross said. “It’s a very arrogant attitude.”
American railroads have long operated under federal laws that shield them from local or state oversight and provide a blanket of secrecy over much of their operations. But now a rapid rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil — along with a series of derailments and explosions — has brought new concern about the risks of transporting dangerous cargo by rail.
Local and state officials complain that they receive very little information about when hazardous materials are shipped through their communities or how railroads pick their routes. Federal interstate commerce rules give them little say in the matter and railroads are exempted from federal “right to know” regulations on hazardous material sites.
Graphic: More Shipments, New Accidents and Calls for Safety (click on image for details)
Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine.
This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 miles per hour when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders.
Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway.
Recently, resolutions seeking more information from the railroads have been approved in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham, Wash., and are being debated by the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota, among other places.
The problem has taken on a new urgency since federal regulators warned earlier this year that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which is mainly transported by rail, can explode in an accident, like it did near Casselton, N.D., in December. Last July, 47 people were killed in Canada, about 10 miles from the border with the United States, when a runaway train carrying Bakken oil derailed and blew up.
Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. These include the type of tracks on the route, distance traveled, the number of grade crossings and the proximity of “iconic targets” like sports arenas along the way.
That information is fed into the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a web-based program that examines alternative routes and ranks them. Tens of thousands of routes are examined in this manner every year.
The software, partly financed by the federal government, considers safety requirements as well as security factors such as the threat of terrorism, according to Robert E. Fronczak, assistant vice president for environment and hazardous materials at the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group.
But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns.
And railroads are also allowed to consider the economic effects of their routing choices and how it would affect their customer relationships, which gives them additional flexibility in their choice.
Gary T. Sease, a spokesman for CSX, said the results of the program’s analysis “are considered sensitive security information, and we are not able to share details.”
Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant, said the system had not demonstrated that it reduced shipping hazards by avoiding populated areas. “The federal government has produced not one line of public assessment on the effectiveness of the law in reducing risk,” he said.
Aftermath of an oil train accident in Casselton, N.D. this year. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Railroads are subject to periodic federal audits. But none has ever been fined over its choice of route since reviews started in 2009, according to Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Some analysts cautioned that rerouting was not always possible or even desirable. Brigham A. McCown, an administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Bush administration, said a railroad may decide that a shorter route through a city may have better tracks, and therefore be less risky, than a longer route with older tracks.
“Rerouting may be less effective than some believe,” he said. “The current concern is that the volume of hazmat is growing exponentially, and the question is whether the agencies have the adequate resources to actively monitor that.”
Railroad officials said they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities. But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to “bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning,” a constraint that precludes them from making the information public.
“We feel the information is getting to where it needs to get,” said Thomas L. Farmer, assistant vice president for security at the Association of American Railroads. “It should be on a need-to-know basis. Public availability of highly detailed information is problematic from a security perspective.”
In 2005, the District of Columbia and a handful of other communities sought to stop the traffic of hazardous products in their city centers. But the ban was successfully challenged in federal court by CSX.
“It’s hard for the regulator and industry not to become somewhat comfortable with each other’s dance moves — like in an old marriage,” said Reuven Carlyle, a representative in the Washington State Legislature and chairman of the House finance committee. “But you shouldn’t have double-secret nondisclosure agreements. Information is not a luxury. Regular people have a right to this information.”
The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that railroads “avoid populated and other sensitive areas” when shipping hazardous materials, something they are not required to do today.
Little oil was transported by trains just five years ago. Today, about 784,000 barrels a day of oil, or 11 percent of domestic production, goes on trains, according to the Association of American Railroads, and those figures are expected to keep growing in the next decade. Carrying mostly oil from the Bakken, these trains cross the country to reach coastal refineries.
Oil trains regularly run through Minneapolis and St. Paul, for instance, instead of using bypass tracks to the west, according to Frank Hornstein, a Democrat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Railroad officials say there is no need for tighter regulation. They argue that the industry has made big investments in recent years to upgrade tracks and that train safety has improved.
But critics say the federal government has been too slow to address the danger posed by these new shipments.
“There is an unwillingness to use any kind of enforcement power at the federal level,” said Mike O’Brien, a Seattle City Council member who sponsored a resolution seeking greater disclosures from the industry. “The railroads have a lot of protections through federal statutes. That’s the ongoing challenge we face as cities.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Despite Rise in Spills, Hazardous Cargo Rides Rails in Secret.