Concerns are growing over the safety of transporting crude oil by train after a series of derailments, most recently last week in Virginia when 13 tankers fell off the tracks, sparking a fire and forcing evacuations. The Federal Railroad Administration has issued emergency rules and will reassess new safety standards for tank cars. In California, environmental groups are challenging crude-by-rail shipments to the city of Richmond. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of transporting crude oil by rail, as well as state and national efforts to improve safety.
Host: Michael Krasny
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association
Molly Samuel, science reporter for KQED
Suma Peesapati, staff attorney with Earthjustice, which filed an injunction to halt the shipment of crude oil into the city of Richmond
Official Tipped Off Hess Rail Yard About Oil-Carrier Inspection
Emails cast doubt on the integrity of a federal crackdown on unsafe shipping practices.
BY Cole Stangler / Web Only / Features » April 29, 2014
Oil containers wait at a train yard near Williston, North Dakota before transporting crude oil across North America. Shippers and carriers often mislabel their cargo, which leads to improper handling and potentially dangerous accidents. (Andrew Burton / Getty Images)
Emails obtained by In These Times show a cozy relationship between North Dakota’s oil industry and a chief federal inspector charged with monitoring the safety of shipping crude oil by rail. The emails cast serious doubts on the integrity of the federal government’s supposed crackdown on the industry’s shoddy shipping practices—a subject of growing concern in the midst of a largely unregulated, and in some cases, deadly, transport boom.
Last August, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration announced they were rolling out the “Bakken Blitz”—a crackdown on shippers and carriers that mislabel their cargo. Federal hazmat regulations require trains carrying oil to properly classify and identify their shipments with placards. These practices are supposed to ensure that oil is safely packaged before being shipped. They’re also aimed at informing railroad personnel and, in the event of a mishap, any emergency responders. Regulators introduced the Blitz just one month after the Lac Mégantic disaster, when a runaway freight train carrying oil exploded in the small Quebec town, killing 47 people. In that case, Canadian safety investigators found American shippers in North Dakota’s Bakken region had understated the volatility of the oil that ignited and destroyed much of Lac Mégantic’s downtown area. Improper classification caused the shipment to be transported in an improper package. Emergency responders, too, were caught by surprise at how quickly the fire spread and how long it burned.
As part of the Department of Transportation’s new enforcement effort, PHMSA officials show up unannounced at rail facilities to conduct classification inspections—at least that’s what an agency spokesperson told In These Times at first. An email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request strongly suggests that Kipton Wills, Central Region Director of PHMSA’s Office of Hazardous Materials Enforcement, pre-arranged at least one of his agency’s visits to a Hess Corp. rail yard in Tioga, North Dakota, last October.
“We will accommodate your request to inspect trucks at the Tioga Rail Terminal,” Jody Schroeder, the rail terminal supervisor, wrote in an email to Wills dated October 3, 2013—five days before the inspection took place. “At your convenience please let me know your schedule for this event.”
Schroeder later confirmed that Wills reached out to him about the visit.
Earlier this month, PHMSA spokesperson Gordon Delcambre told In These Times that such inspections are impromptu. “They’re unannounced,” he said. “[Inspectors] figure out who they’re going to visit ahead of time, make plans, go to the area and then start knocking on doors.”
Indeed, this is normal procedure. The agency’s handbook notes “the policy of the PHMSA hazardous materials enforcement program is to conduct unannounced inspections.” Exceptions can include cases of “apparent imminent danger to enable the company to correct the danger,” instances where special preparations, records and equipment are necessary, and cases where “giving advance notice would enhance the probability of an effective and thorough inspection.”
Delcambre said he would follow up with PHMSA’s Central Region director Wills to confirm the crude-by-rail inspections were unannounced. “Our field hazmat inspector procedures have not changed with our Bakken region effort,” Delcambre wrote later that day in an email. “PHMSA inspectors still do ‘unannounced’ visits to hazmat shippers and offerors and have been taking crude oil samples as needed at the facilities they call on.”
But when asked to respond for this story, Delcambre qualified that answer.
“Because we were conducting inspections on Hess Property of other entities (highway carriers) and in order to do that safely, in some cases such as this one, prior open coordination for facility orientation and confirmation of appropriate personal protective equipment was needed,” he wrote in an email.
Months after the inspection took place, on February 3 of this year, PHMSA slapped Hess with a proposed $51,350 fine and Marathon Oil with a proposed $30,000 fine for the improper classification. Whiting Oil & Gas was hit with a proposed $12,000 fine for misclassifying Packing Group II oil as Packing Group III.
But Martin MacKerel, an environmental activist with the Bay Area-based Sunflower Alliance, says that these fines could have been much higher. “It’s clear that announcing the inspections gave the oil company the opportunity to reduce their fines,” says MacKerel. “These kinds of inspections need to be unannounced to have any real value.”
As he announced the slew of fines, the only federal enforcement thus far to stem from the “Bakken Blitz,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sounded a stern warning:
The fines we are proposing today should send a message to everyone involved in the shipment of crude oil. You must test and classify this material properly if you want to use our transportation system to ship it.
But emails from the top PHMSA official on the ground to Hess strike a much friendlier tone.
On February 4, the day that the fines were publicly announced, Schroeder reached out to PHMSA’s Wills asking if he knew anything about the violations that the inspector’s higher-ups had just announced. Wills replied to Schroeder that he had just learned about the fines, but said that he hoped PHMSA and industry leaders could “get it all on one page working together as a coordinated effort not an enforcement effort.”
Avoiding “enforcement” would appear to contradict the point of the Bakken Blitz, not to mention the very mission of PHSMA—whose job is to enforce existing regulations. After all, federal hazmat regulations are nothing new. The Department of Transportation’s crackdown is only supposed to make sure that North Dakota oil shippers are following the same practices that other truck drivers and railroad operators across the country have to comply with every day.
Referencing this meeting in his email to rail supervisor Schroeder, Wills appeared to suggest the impetus for the fines came from agency superiors in Washington “Once the results came back and the Secretary of Transportation met with the energy companies and railroad CEO’s [sic], it left the control of field staff and became a larger issue,” he wrote. “In my mind, the solution is getting the bosses from both sides around the table and discussing feasible testing schedules, etc. I will be in North Dakota next week and I am hoping to have a lot more information from my own agency by then on what the [Notice of Proposed Violation] means and what we can do as far as working in partnership.”
Those bosses eventually did sit around the table. PHMSA spokesperson Gordon Delcambre tells In These Times that officials from the agency’s Hazmat Safety Office met with representatives from the North Dakota Petroleum Council on April 1 to discuss “joint interest in the safe transportation of crude oil.” The Council does not publicly disclose all of its members, but the board of directors includes Hess, Marathon, Whiting and other major energy companies such as Enbridge Pipelines and ConocoPhillips.
There have been no fines announced since February, although Delcambre says that Bakken Blitz is still ongoing.
Safety advocates say the emails illustrate a business-friendly regulatory approach that runs counter to the core mission of the agency.
“It’s telling that PHMSA has no interest in enforcement,” says Matt Krogh, Tar Sands Free West Coast campaign director at ForestEthics, an environmental group based in the Pacific Northwest. “Their goal appears to be to work together with industrial violators, not to provide the enforcement mechanism provided for in the law, and requested by higher ups in the Department of Transportation. Companies that routinely misclassify hazardous materials destined to transit America’s main streets and urban centers should be prosecuted, not coddled.”
It’s a familiar critique of what’s been referred to as a “sleepy, industry-dominated organization.” PHMSA routinely comes under fire for being too friendly with the energy industry that it regulates and for taking too long to issue much-needed rules. The small-budget agency also has oversight of the nation’s interstate oil and gas pipelines. Its 151 inspectors cover more than 2 million miles of pipeline across the country. And the unexpected shale-drilling boom has left the agency in charge of another daunting task—monitoring crude-by-rail shipments. Grappling with a dearth of pipelines, North Dakota oil producers have found rail to be the easiest, cheapest means of getting their product to market. Railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil last year, according to the Association of American Railroads—compared to only 9,500 in 2008.
As shipments have increased, so, too, have accidents. The industry’s safety practices—from the tank-cars and routes it uses to the way it tests and classifies its shipments—garner increasing national and international attention. Last week in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board convened a “Rail Safety Forum,” bringing together different government agencies and industry officials to discuss growing challenges. And in an unprecedented move, earlier this month, a United Nations panel on hazardous materials agreed to weigh in to the matter. The panel reportedly accepted a request from American and Canadian authorities to examine whether existing shipping rules in North America properly account for how dangerous and volatile Bakken-drilled crude actually is.
Washington may well be making moves to beef up safety practices and enforcement efforts. However, the emails obtained by In These Times raise questions about how successfully that message is being transmitted to inspectors on the ground.
Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times.
Sun, 2014-04-27 07:00Justin Mikulka Just as you aren’t supposed to try to put out an oil fire in your kitchen with water, you aren’t supposed to try to put out a crude oil fire with water either. But in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that is all firefighters…
NATCHEZ — A spokeswoman for Genesis Energy said the company is looking into what may have made a delivery of crude oil to its Natchez terminal last week particularly malodorous.
Genesis operates a crude oil unloading facility in the Natchez-Adams County Port. Unit trains — that is, large transport trains — bring the oil to the port area, where Genesis loads it onto barges destined for the Gulf Coast refinery markets.
When a train was unloaded April 19, the crude oil was unusually smelly, and the smell was logged at the Adams County Sheriff’s Office as a hazardous materials incident, and the Natchez Fire Department responded to the area.
“We are looking into what caused it, because it was a little more noticeable than normal, and we are looking into ways to mitigate it in the future,” Genesis Spokeswoman Jennifer Stewart said.
Stewart said the smell was that of an intensified odor associated with crude oil, while Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart said fire crews were looking for a natural gas leak based on the smell.
Chief Stewart said in addition to the fire department, Atmos Energy, which is also located in the port area, helped with the hunt for the smell with its leak-detecting equipment, he said.
Gene Perkins, who lives in the area, likewise said he smelled natural gas associated with the train. Perkins said last Saturday was not the only time that has occurred.
“The smell is so strong sometimes we get to where we can’t go outside,” he said.
“I am not trying to cause any problems for anybody. I would just like for the smell to go away.”
Perkins said based on conversations he has had with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, he believes the odor is associated with the cleaning of the tanks Genesis unloads.
Jennifer Stewart said that’s not the case because Genesis doesn’t clean the tanks in Natchez.
“They are unloaded, and then they are sent back to where they came from,” she said.
“We are strictly an unloading and loading facility.”
Jennifer Stewart said Genesis does not use any chemicals that smell like natural gas at the Natchez facility, but does use some natural gas in its operations.