Tag Archives: oil spill

Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh...this sounds SO familiar....  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  - RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015

In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

Please share!

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

Repost from The Oregonian / OregonLive
[Editor:  The consultant’s connections with BNSF were noted nearly a month ago here and in Curtis Tate’s McClatchy DC report.  On November 24 Tate wrote, “The rail spill analysis portion of the Washington state draft document was written in part by three consultants who are former employees of BNSF and its predecessor, Burlington Northern. In addition to the state agency for which they prepared the analysis, their clients include BNSF and the Port of Vancouver.”  I  understand that the Washington agency that hired the consultant, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, was asked about the possible conflict of interest in advance of publication of Tate’s article, but they never got back to him.  Staff at the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have been aware well in advance of the Oregonian story.  – RS]

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

By Rob Davis, Dec. 17, 2015, updated Dec.18, 2015 9:44 AM
vancouver oil train

An oil train parked outside Vancouver, Wash., in 2014. A terminal proposed there would bring four oil trains to the city each day. (Rob Davis/Staff)

A consulting firm that helped write a report underestimating the risks of catastrophic spills from a proposed Vancouver oil train terminal has worked for two groups that will gain financially if the project moves forward.

Stephen Posner, the Washington energy regulator who approved the company’s hiring, didn’t know about all those connections until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him. But he did not answer repeated questions about whether he would investigate further.

Three of the four authors who wrote the risk analysis for Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council are former executives of BNSF Railway Co. The railroad would move oil trains to the Vancouver terminal.

The authors’ company, MainLine Management, lists BNSF as a client on its website.

MainLine, which didn’t respond to repeated queries, recently worked for another project supporter: the Port of Vancouver, which owns the land where the terminal would be built.

Much remains unclear about MainLine’s relationships with BNSF and the port. It is not known whether BNSF is a current MainLine client. It’s also unclear whether MainLine’s past work for the port would constitute a conflict.

Washington law prohibits the energy council from hiring consultants with a significant conflict of interest with a project’s applicant or others involved.

MainLine finished its work for the port before it was hired to analyze the terminal. The port awarded a $121,000 contract to MainLine in April 2013 to analyze part of its freight rail system serving the oil train terminal. A port spokeswoman said the final payment was sent to MainLine Sept. 25, 2014, four months before the firm was hired to analyze oil spill risks.

The relationships raise questions about the thoroughness of Washington’s review of the experts it’s using to independently evaluate the Vancouver oil terminal.

The $210 million terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Services is the highest profile project pending before the Washington energy council.

The small agency is designed to be a one-stop permitting shop for major energy projects, studying their impacts and recommending a decision to Gov. Jay Inslee. The governor has final approval.

Posner, the agency’s manager, approved hiring MainLine. He said he was unaware the firm listed BNSF as a client until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him.

But neither Posner nor an agency spokeswoman, Amanda Maxwell, would commit to inquiring further about whether the company has a current connection with BNSF.

Before MainLine was hired, Posner said he discussed the company with Washington’s lead consultant, Cardno. He said his agency relied on Cardno to vet MainLine’s clients and past work.

How did Cardno review MainLine’s potential conflicts? That’s unclear. Posner told The Oregonian/OregonLive to direct that question to Cardno, which didn’t immediately respond.

Cardno has provided written assurance that its subcontractors, including MainLine, are forbidden to discuss the terminal with any outside party, Maxwell said.

“This written assurance provided by Cardno is the basis for trusting in the credibility of the work being performed,” she said.

When we asked Posner whether he was concerned that MainLine could have a conflict, the spokeswoman, Maxwell, interrupted, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

“Without having the information, it’s not something he could put in context,” she said.

The agency should have that knowledge and be able to answer such a question, said Robert Stern, a good government advocate who helped write California’s post-Watergate conflict of interest law. He said the energy agency’s review appeared inadequate.

“Maybe they don’t have any conflicts, but how do you know?” Stern said. “There should be something in writing saying we have no conflicts of interest.”

Both BNSF and the Port of Vancouver stand to benefit financially from the project’s construction. The port estimates netting $45 million in lease revenue from the project over 10 years. BNSF has rallied supporters to send comments to the energy council praising the project, saying its construction would strengthen the rail company’s customer base.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, didn’t specifically answer a question about whether MainLine is currently under contract with the railroad.

“BNSF does not discuss specific relationships involving contract companies,” Melonas said by email, “however MainLine Management Inc. has worked with Northwest agencies providing modeling on rail related projects.”

If built, the Vancouver project would be the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal, capable of unloading 15 million gallons of oil from four trains daily. The oil would be put on barges and sent to coastal refineries.

It has drawn strong opposition from Vancouver elected officials and environmental groups amidst a string of fiery oil train explosions nationwide since 2013.

The report co-authored by MainLine lowballed those risks. It called a 2013 oil train spill in Aliceville, Alabama the worst on record, using it to analyze impacts of a disaster in the Pacific Northwest. The study said a slightly larger spill is “the most credible or realistic” worst-case scenario.

But a far larger spill has already happened. An out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Quebec in July 2013, fueling a raging inferno that killed 47 people and leveled part of a small Canadian town.

The analysis incorrectly said the Quebec accident spilled just 36,000 gallons of crude. Far more did. Canadian safety regulators concluded 1.5 million gallons escaped from tank cars. Much of it burned in the resulting fire.

Just a third as much oil spilled in the Alabama accident.

Please share!

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province

Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province

A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province

A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.

Please share!