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Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

Repost from The Boston Globe

Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, March 22, 2015
Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill.
Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill. Mike Burley / Telegraph Herald via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly train crashes, a pair of angry US senators stood in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal four months ago to denounce the Federal Railroad Administration as a ‘‘lawless agency, a rogue agency.’’

They said it was too cozy with the railroads it regulates and more interested in ‘‘cutting corners’’ for them than protecting the public.

In the past two months, photos of rail cars strewn akimbo beside tracks have rivaled mountains of snow in Boston for play in newspapers and on television.

But the reaction by Congress to the railroad oversight agency’s performance has been extremely positive recently.

Accolades were directed at its acting head, Sarah Feinberg, even though her two-month tenure in the job has coincided with an astonishing number of high-profile train wrecks:

  • Feb. 3: Six people were killed when a commuter train hit an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y.
  • Feb. 4: Fourteen tank cars carrying ethanol jumped the tracks north of Dubuque, Iowa, and three burst into flames.
  • Feb. 16: Twenty-eight tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in West Virginia.
  • Feb. 24: A commuter train derailed in Oxnard, Calif., after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing.
  • March 5: Twenty-one tank cars derailed and leaked crude oil within yards of a tributary of the Mississippi River in Illinois.
  • March 9: The engine and baggage car of an Amtrak train derailed after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing in North Carolina.

At first glance, Feinberg seems an unlikely choice to replace Joseph Szabo, the career railroad man who resigned after five years in the job. She is 37, a former White House operative, onetime spokeswoman for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and, most recently, chief of staff to the US Department of Transportation secretary.

Nothing on her résumé says ‘‘railroad.’’

‘‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who got a call from Feinberg immediately after the Feb. 3 crash in Valhalla. ‘‘She’s smart, she’s a quick study, she knows how to bring people together. I think she’s the right person for the job.’’

‘‘Whether she’s had a lifetime experience riding the rails or working on the rails, she knows how to get to the crux of things and move things forward,’’ said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who arrived at the Feb. 16 crash shortly before Feinberg did. ‘‘I was very impressed.’’

Schumer calls Feinberg ‘‘hard-nosed’’ and says she isn’t worried if she ruffles some in an industry grown accustomed to a more languid pace of change.

After the Valhalla crash, Feinberg pulled together a team to come up with a better way to address an issue that kills hundreds of people at grade crossings each year.

‘‘We’re at a point where about 95 percent of grade-crossing incidents are due to driver or pedestrian error,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘While I don’t blame the victims, this is a good example of a problem that needs some new thinking.’’

A month later, she called on local law enforcement to show a greater presence at grade crossings and ticket drivers who try to beat the warning lights. Next, the railroad agency says it plans ‘‘to employ smarter uses of technology, increase public awareness of grade crossing safety, and improve signage.’’

‘‘When it comes to the rail industry, that is lightning fast, and it’s really impressive,’’ said a congressional aide who focuses on transportation.

Grade-crossing deaths pale in comparison to the potential catastrophe that Feinberg says keeps her awake at night. ‘‘We’re transporting a highly flammable and volatile crude from the middle of the country, more than 1,000 miles on average, to refineries,’’ she said.

All of the recent crude-oil train derailments happened miles from the nearest town. But little more than a year ago, a CSX train with six crude-oil tank cars derailed on a river bridge in the middle of Philadelphia. And an oil-fueled fireball after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 left 47 people dead.

The number of tank-car trains has expanded exponentially since the start of a production boom centered in North Dakota. Seven years ago, 9,500 tank cars of Bakken crude traveled by railroad. Last year, the number was 493,126. In 2013, an additional 290,000 cars transported ethanol.

Mindful of the potential for disaster, the White House tasked the Office of Management and Budget and the Transportation Department with figuring out how to safely transport the oil. At DOT, that fell to Feinberg, who had just signed on as chief of staff to Secretary Anthony Foxx.

‘‘We found her to be very hands-on, firm but fair, and ready to work with all stakeholders in making fact-based decisions,’’ said Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads. ‘‘She is someone who has quickly recognized the challenges in moving crude oil by rail. And the freight rail industry is ready to work with her” in her new role at the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

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    SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT: Oil Train Roulette

    Repost from The Santa Barbara Independent

    Oil Train Roulette

    Oppose Bringing Dangerous Cargo Through

    By Arlo Bender-Simon, February 22, 2015

    Russian roulette is a dangerous game of chance. A bullet is placed into a revolver, and the chamber is revolved. You’ve got a one in six chance that when you pull the trigger a bullet will come out. Be careful where you point that thing!

    Allowing oil trains to pass through a community is like playing a game of Russian roulette. Granted, your chances are exponentially better than 1 in 6, but if a disaster were to happen, it would not be just you who gets hurt.

    Right now, Phillips 66 (an oil refining company that recently spun off from ConocoPhillips) would like to be allowed to expand its refinery in Nipomo so that it can process shipments of crude oil delivered by trains. The tar sands crude is thick and shipped as “diluted bitumen” — in other words, with chemicals added to make it more fluid and easier to transport. A highly flammable byproduct even remains in the tank cars after they’ve been emptied.

    Nipomo is in San Luis Obispo County, so our local officials can do little about this. But they can do something! They can join officials up and down the train route and pass a resolution, or send a letter, in opposition. This has been done by Ventura County, and the cities of Oxnard, Moorpark, Camarillo, Simi Valley, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and many others.

    This refinery may be in a neighboring county, but this is a big deal for Santa Barbara. Trains will be allowed to arrive at this refinery on the coast from either the north or the south. If this project is approved, oil trains will be passing through Santa Barbara County.

    The proposal from Phillips 66 would allow 260 mile-and-a-half-long trains to offload crude oil at the Nipomo refinery every year. This translates to 520 trips up and down the California coast by crude-carrying trains that will shut down intersections, blare their horns, rumble through our communities, and spew gaseous contamination into the air. The inconvenience, air deficits, and upset are nothing compared to the real threats the loads pose to the health of our communities.

    The Phillips 66 tanker fleet is composed entirely of model DOT-111 tanker cars. In July 2014, the US Department of Transportation decided that DOT-111s are extremely failure prone and outmoded; the newer, thicker-walled DOT-117 is recommended. Unfortunately, even the train-car builders warn no amount of extra metal or engineering can protect against breakage during a high-speed derailment.

    The reality of oil train derailments is horrifying. With the jump in crude produced by fracking, the shipment of crude oil by rail has also jumped by thousands of percent. Unsurprisingly, the number of oil train derailments has also accelerated rapidly. So much so that in 2014, more crude oil was spilled in the U.S. from train derailments than in any year since data has been collected.

    In just the past week there have been two major oil train accidents in North America. A train derailed in Ontario, Canada — pretty much directly north of Ohio — the night of February 14. Several tank cars caught fire, and the remote location made it difficult for emergency teams to arrive.

    Two days later, midday on February 16, another train pulling DOT-111 cars derailed, exploded [Editor: no, they were the “improved” CPC-1232 tank cars], and leaked oil into the Kanawha River amid a snowstorm in West Virginia. At the time of this writing, roughly 15 tanker cars were still burning, hundreds of families have been evacuated from their homes, and two water treatment plants downriver from the spill have been shut down.

    The question you have to ask the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors is this: If an oil train explosion is not currently a serious possibility in our part of North America, why would we do something to change that?

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