Tag Archives: Olympia WA

Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

Repost from teleSUR

Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk

By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013.
Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013. | Photo: Reuters

The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.

Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.

Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.

Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.

This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise.  But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.

Buffett’s Bomb Trains

The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.

Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers).  Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.

Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.

Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.

Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”

A Contested Permit

CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented

In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”

Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s.  Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.

Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet

In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists.  They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.

“As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”

One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.

Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.

RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”

Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.
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    Washington Governor Inslee says state will act on oil trains

    Repost from The Olympian, Olympia Washington

    Inslee says state will act on oil trains

    By Andy Hobbs, November 21, 2014
    Representatives from Washington and Oregon gather at Olympia City Hall for the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance summit on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. TONY OVERMAN

    The number of oil trains running across Washington is unacceptable, and the Legislature will consider bills in the upcoming session that mandate advance notification of oil shipments by rail as well as more funding for railroad crossings and emergency response training, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.

    King County Executive Dow Constantine added that oil companies are raking in profits while “the rest of us are picking up the costs.”

    “Those who are profiting should shoulder the financial burden,” Constantine said.

    They were speaking to the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance that met Friday at Olympia City Hall to address the surge of oil and coal trains passing through Washington.

    The alliance is a coalition of local, state and tribal leaders from the Northwest who say the trains threaten the environment, economy and public safety.

    As shipments of oil increase in the Puget Sound region, so does the likelihood for spills and accidents. The Department of Ecology reports that 19 fully loaded oil trains crisscross the state every week, with the number expected to reach 59 oil trains if current refinery proposals are approved. Each train hauls about 3 million gallons of crude oil in 100 tanker cars. Between 11 and 16 trains pass through rural and suburban areas of Thurston and Pierce counties every week, according to reports from BNSF Railway.

    Participants in Friday’s meeting included elected officials from across the state along with Oregon and Canada.

    “It is clear that we have to take significant action including being better prepared to handle an oil train explosion or large scale spill,” Inslee said.

    Although the federal government is the main regulator of the railroads, Inslee said there are some actions the state can take now, such as lowering speed limits of the trains.

    “We don’t want vehicles speeding through school zones, and we shouldn’t let oil trains speed through Washington cities,” said Inslee, noting that changes in state permits are at least a year away.

    Friday’s meeting included a detailed report on the coal industry by Tom Sanzillo, finance director of the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis. Sanzillo encouraged states and cities to keep putting pressure on the coal industry, which has seen demand and prices decline worldwide in the past few years.

    “The U.S. coal industry is shrinking,” said Sanzillo, adding that the industry needs “robust growth” to meet its potential and compete in the global market despite record demand for coal by nations like China. “Hooking your wagon to the coal industry is not a particularly promising outlook right now.”

    At the local level, Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said the City Council will seek a resolution next week to add Olympia to the list of cities that oppose the increase in crude oil transport.

    “We are at a crossroads,” Buxbaum said Friday. “We could see up to 60 trains a day and 4,000 supertankers in our waters.”

    As for the coal issue, Buxbaum recently co-authored a guest column titled “You might be surprised by Puget Sound Energy’s coal power supply” that ran Nov. 19 in The Seattle Times. Also signing the article were Bainbridge Island Mayor Anne Blair and Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett, and all three mayors’ respective city councils endorsed it.

    The article urges Puget Sound Energy to take immediate action and plan for a “post-coal future.” About one-third of PSE’s power supply comes from coal that’s shipped from out of state, according to the article. The mayors also cite Gov. Inslee’s recent executive order to reduce pollution and transition away from coal power.

    “The bottom line is that we don’t need coal,” the article states. “The potential is there for Washington to meet its energy needs with efficiency programs, wind, solar and other technologies. We just need to rise to the occasion.”

     

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      Seattle: More than 750 turn out for meeting on oil-train study

      Repost from The Seattle Times

      More than 750 people turn out for meeting on oil-train study

      Hundreds of people concerned about the increasing number of oil trains traversing the state came to a Thursday evening meeting in Olympia to comment on the preliminary findings of a state study on oil-train safety and spill response.
      By Hal Bernton, October 30, 2014

      State officials are proposing more funding and more regulatory authority to step up oversight of the surging numbers of oil trains carrying crude through Washington, and to better prepare for any possible spills.

      The proposals are included in the preliminary findings of a state Department of Ecology study, which was reviewed at a Thursday evening meeting that drew more than 750 people, the vast majority of whom are opposed to increased oil train traffic in the state.

      The report — in an interim form — is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in December. The draft findings already are spurring state agencies to prepare legislation, according to Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

      The report includes a dozen measures that could be taken up by the Legislature to try to improve safety and spill response. They include modifying the railroad regulatory-fee structure so that more rail inspectors are hired, providing new state authority to monitor the safety of rail crossings on private roads and launching a new state grant program to finance firefighting equipment.

      The report is being prepared by a team of consultants along with the state Ecology Department, Utilities and Transportation Commission and other state agencies. It examines the public health, safety and environmental risks posed by the movement of crude oil by rail as well as by vessel through Washington waters.

      The oil trains moving through Washington reflect a fundamental shift in sourcing of Pacific Northwest oil as Alaska North Slope crude production declines and the Bakken fields of North Dakota boom.

      In 2011, almost no oil trains traversed Washington.

      Now, state officials say, some 19 trains carry crude across the state each week. Over a year’s time, those trains move some 2.87 billion gallons of oil. After they unload their crude, some of the Bakken oil is transported by tug and barge to Puget Sound-area refineries

      In the aftermath of a July 6, 2013, oil-train derailment and explosion in Canada that killed 47 people, crude trains have raised public concern and prompted state officials in Washington and elsewhere to increase scrutiny of such trains.

      There were eight other “notable crude oil derailments” in North America in 2013 and 2014, and the report says that Bakken crude “may present significant risks with respect to public safety due to its higher volatility and flammability.”

      By 2020, in Washington, the crude-oil traffic through the state could more than triple to 59 trains a week if expansion plans for terminals are actually completed,

      “We felt it was important to lay out what is in the realm of the possible, “ said Scott Ferguson, a Department of Ecology official who has assisted with the report.

      The increasing numbers of oil trains have caused plenty of unease to roil through the state. Some 200 people signed up to speak Thursday evening, and Department of Ecology officials listened to hours of passionate testimony from people upset about tanker cars filled with crude.

      Those who testified spoke about the potential for spills that could foul tribal fisheries in the Columbia River, drinking water aquifers for Olympia and sensitive coastal waters near Bellingham.

      They talked about the potential for exploding tanker cars that would kill people living in a “blast zone” along the rail lines.

      Many were veterans of the movement to try to block development of coal terminals in Washington state, wearing red shirts that declared “Power Past Coal.” They frequently waved signs that declared oil and coal are bad for Washington.

      “Our state is at a crossroads with proposed increases in crude oil and coal transportation, testified Kathryn Chudy, a therapist who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “Adding more crude oil and coal trains to this risk jeopardizes their safety, and can in no way be justified.”

      Frank Gordon, a Grays Harbor County Commissioner, fears what an oil spill would do to the salmon runs in his area and said he opposes a proposal to develop a new oil terminal at Hoquiam.

      “We don’t need oil trains coming to Grays Harbor. It’s just not worthwhile,” Gordon said.

      Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, in an interview before the hearing, said that BNSF has a strong safety record in transporting crude oil by rail.

      He said that BNSF has assisted with firefighter training and taken other steps to improve safety. To help reduce the risks of a derailments, for example, the crude oil trains move at speeds of less than 20 miles an hour through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

      “We have invested nearly $500 million in the past three years in track upgrades in Washington,” Melonas said

      BNSF also is focusing on crew compliance with railway rules, as well as inspections to improve safety as trains move along the rails.

      “As a common carrier we are obligated to move all types of freight,” Melonas said. “We don’t control what we haul, but we control how we haul it.”

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