Tag Archives: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

#StopOilTrains – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb train

Repost from The Ecologist
[Editor:  An excellent cheeky overview.  I’d like to see this documented: “This phenomenon [catastrophic oil train explosions] has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains.”  – RS]

#StopOilTrains – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb train

Stephyn Quirke, 9th July 2015
Two things are new in the Pacific Northwest, writes Stephyn Quirke: abnormally hot, dry weather that has even killed Chinook salmon on their run upriver to spawn; and ‘bomb trains’ a mile or more long carrying thousands of tonnes of oil, with just a single sleep-deprived driver on board. What could possibly go wrong?
StopOilTrains demo Ticonderoga NY 2015-07-07
More than a hundred people converged in Ticonderoga, NY on 7th July for a flotilla and symbolic blockade to ‪#StopOilTrains. Photo: Rising Tide Vermont.

Is our weather getting funny?

Some bushes and flowers started to bloom near the end of January this year, and in the spring cherry blossoms were blooming weeks early. This capped a winter with extremely low snowfall in the Cascade Mountains.

The abnormal heat, combined with the drought now covering 80% of Oregon, has actually raised temperatures in the Willamette River above 70 degrees, recently killing Chinook salmon as they made their way up-stream to spawn.

In March, tribal leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians converged in Portland to discuss this ongoing phenomenon of strange weather, which they cannily dubbed ‘climate change’. These changes, they said, were related to a pattern of global warming, and were creating unique hardship on Northwest tribes.

In 2013, the ATNI also passed a resolution opposing all new fossil fuel proposals in the Northwest, citing harm to their treat rights, cultural resources, and land they hold sacred. Now the Affiliated Tribes are discussing plans for adaptation and mitigation, and asking how to undermine the root causes of climate change.

And that’s not all. Now there’s mile-long oil trains

In addition to the sudden onset of strange weather, Portland has also seen the abrupt arrival of strange, mile-long trains loaded with crude oil – a very unusual sight in the Northwest until just two years ago.

In the event of a derailment or crash, these trains are known to increase the temperature of surrounding areas by several hundred degrees – a strange weather event by any standard. This phenomenon has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains”.

While the danger of unplanned explosions is universally recognized, the risks of strange weather, and the planned explosions that take place in our internal combustion engines, are typically less appreciated. But the connections are becoming more obvious as the figure of the oil train valiantly pulls them together.

The sudden appearance of oil trains in the Northwest is one effect of the unprecedented crusade for oil extraction in North America – one that has produced a massive wave of opposition from residents and elected officials.

In Washington state alone, nine cities representing 40% of the state’s population have passed resolutions that oppose oil trains. In Alberta resistance to oil politics recently replaced a 44-year ruling party with socialists. And in Portland, anger against oil trains just smashed a city proposal to bring propane trains into the port.

In recent months rail workers have become increasingly vocal about the industry-wide safety problems that lead to fiery train accidents. They are also critical of the latest safety rules that allegedly protect the public from accidents.

Rail Workers United, a coalition of rail workers and their unions, says that the best way to make trains safer is to increase worker control and self-management; they propose a host of reforms that profit-obsessed rail companies are not interested in hearing.

For many rail-side communities there is a parallel interest in community control over the railroads: no fossil fuel trains are safe for them as long as trains derail and the climate unravels.

Together, the two movements are calling for a better future for our railroads and our environment, and demanding more public influence to safeguard both.

Who’s in control? A retrospective.

A little over two years ago on 6th July 2013, an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. After the accident the CEO of Rail World, Edward Burkhardt, told the media that he blamed the single employee his company had charged with moving 2 million gallons of crude oil.

Armed with his very best talking points, Burkhardt told the media: “I think he did something wrong. It’s hard to explain why someone didn’t do something.”

According to reports, the lead locomotive’s engine had problems in the past, but had been rushed back into circulation to save the company money on a standard repair. That engine caught fire the night before the disaster, and a local fire chief shut off the engine to stop fuel from flowing into the fire, inadvertently cutting the power to the train’s air brakes in the process.

The company told the lone crew member not to come back to the site, and instead sent two workers who did not have experience with the braking system to confirm that the train was safe. Later that night, while the engineer was asleep in a nearby hotel, the train rolled down-hill from where it was parked, hurtling toward the city.

The impact of the explosion incinerated half the city’s downtown, and contaminated most of the remaining buildings with 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.

‘One man crews are safer – less distraction’

For CEO Burkhardt, the explanation was simple – the engineer should have set more brakes that did not rely on the engine. When asked if the crew was adequate for the cargo the following week, Burkhardt told a press conference that “one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction.”

Under financial pressure, the company had made the switch to one-person crews three years before, replacing on-board conductors with remote control systems, and saving about $4.5 million every year. One month after the tragedy in Lac Megantic, the company filed for bankruptcy. Later that month Burkhardt expressed bewilderment when the police raided his corporate offices in Quebec.

In March, a coalition of rail workers held a conference on rail safety in Olympia, Washington, where they taught audience members (including myself) that the average train operator today suffers from chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

Many workers in attendance attributed this to inaccurate train-lineups that do not allow for proper rest. Due to the uncertainty of when they are called to work, a train crew can be assigned to move a train full of hazardous materials without the chance to achieve needed rest from their last assignment. And with full knowledge they will be penalized for refusing a train, workers can go over 24 hours with no sleep by the time a shift ends.

This exhaustion is a chronic background problem for rail workers, and when combined with the near-constant dismissal of safety hazards from their managers, workers are left with waning confidence in their own safety – a development that should raise red flags for rail-side communities.

One man crews on long and heavy trains – a recipe for disaster

According to Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of Rail Workers United, “There’s no such thing as a safe one-person train.” Looking back over some recent derailments, the facts appear to back him up.

On 14th May an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing 8 passengers and sending over 200 people to the hospital. It was staffed by one person, and accelerated to over 100 miles per hour shortly before hitting a curve whose speed limit was 50.

On October 28th last year, a sleep-deprived engineer in the Bronx fell asleep at his controls, causing his one-crew train to hit a curve at 82 miles per hour when the speed limit was 30. The derailment killed four people and injured more than 70.

On July 24th, 2013 a single crew-member train derailed in Santiago, Spain, killing 79 people and injuring 139. The train was traveling at 100 miles per hour when it headed into a curve where the speed limit was 50.

Public officials commenting on these incidents have often focused on the technology that could have stopped the trains remotely if installed – something US railroads are already required to utilize under federal law, despite constant extensions on their legal deadlines.

According to rail workers, this is just part of the problem. Rapid attempts at cost-cutting, they say, have created both technological and human shortages, and when it comes to safety there is no question which one matters most.

“There is no technology available today that can ever safely replace a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive”, says a statement from the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions after the Philadelphia derailment.

Obama administration sitting on proposed two-man rule

Prior to 1967, Washington state actually required 6 crew members on all trains. That law was repealed in 1967 after the rail corporations ran an initiative campaign that wiped it out. In the 1980s, the standard train crew was still five or six people across the country.

But this was widdled down to two people by the 1990s – with just one conductor and one engineer. This has been the standard ever since. Now, through the use of new technology, the rail corporations have attempted to break down that number to one or even zero.

According to Herb Krohn, the Washington State Legislative Director for Smart UTU, the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad is already using one-person crews to run trains loaded with hazardous materials – like the one that blew in Lac Megantic – including trains full of explosive gas. This line operates in Washington State between Centralia, Grays Harbor and Shelton.

In the aftermath of Lac Megantic, the Canadian Minister of Transport mandated two-person crews for trains carrying dangerous goods. In January the US Federal Rail Administration proposed a rule on two-person crews, but the Obama administration has so far declined to consider the proposal.

Train lengths doubled in eight years

In addition to cutting crew sizes, the biggest rail companies have doubled train lengths since 2007, routinely moving trains a mile long or even greater. This decreases labor costs, but also weakens tracks and causes exceptional wear on rail infrastructure. Factoring in this extra length and tonnage, a two person crew today represents one-sixth the number of workers that was standard in the 1980s.

Despite running trains that have never been longer or heavier, with quantities of hazardous material that are totally unprecedented on our rail lines, the railroads insist that an individual worker’s behavior, and not the hazards they have built in to the system, are the main reason that accidents occur.

“The BNSF is not genuinely concerned about safety”, says Geoff Mirelowitz, a former BNSF employee. “It is concerned about legal and financial liability. Every oil train that derails, every rail worker who is hurt on the job is a potential liability to the company.

“They are on a massive public relations campaign to ‘prove’ that if anything does go wrong it is not the BNSF’s responsibility. They frequently claim the primary safety problem is ’employee behavior’ in order to distract attention from the unsafe conditions and hazards that the BNSF itself is responsible for correcting.”

Geoff was fired from BNSF three years ago, after working as a switchman for almost 18 years in Seattle. His entire three-person crew was fired shortly after they pressed safety complaints about switch maintenance with BNSF management. The crew has filed a Whistleblower complaint with OSHA, charging the company with a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act.

Although OSHA has agreed that their firing deserves an investigation, the crew is still waiting for it to begin.

Pipelines on wheels, protests on stilts

By any metric, the volume of oil by rail has skyrocketed in recent years, with 1,000 of these trains now coming through the Columbia Gorge every year. According to Karmen Fore, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor for Governor Kate Brown, there were around 3,000 oil shipments by train in 2006, but 493,126 in 2014.

In 2013 alone the railroads shipped over 11 billion gallons of crude oil, which has led to a commensurate rise in oil spills. Over a million gallons spilled in 2013 – more than the previous four decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2014 there were 141 spills reported – setting yet another record.

The US Department of Transportation completed an analysis earlier this year predicting an average of 10 oil train derailments every year for the next 20 years.

According to an analysis of industry data by OPB, hazardous material trains spill 0.01% of the time, so if the 1,000 oil trains coming through the Gorge are any representation of the larger problem, we could expect 10 of these to derail and spill each year.

The public database at the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis shows that 15 trains actually did derail and released hazardous materials in Multnomah County between 2011 and 2014.

Cut oil trains not conductors!

Abby Brockway learned about these statistics first-hand after an incident in her own neighborhood. On July 24th last year a train loaded with 100 oil cars derailed in downtown Seattle.

“The derailment under the Magnolia bridge was just a little too close to home – just a mile away from my daughter’s school,” Abby said in a phone interview. “I’ve spent years worrying about climate change, wondering why our leaders were doing nothing about it. After that day I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer – I needed to take action.”

On September 2nd, Abby and a group of activists with Rising Tide Seattle entered the Delta rail yard, not far from the derailment. There, Abby scaled an 18-foot tripod directly on top of the train tracks, and stayed there all day to talk to the media about the danger of oil trains, and to invite others to stand up for their communities. She waved two bright flags – one in each hand – while sporting a giant sign that read “Cut oil trains not conductors!”

After eight hours on the tripod, Abby and four other people were arrested. They now have a trial set for October 19th. Jen Wallis, a conductor with over 10 years of experience with the BNSF railroad, was fired from BNSF after reporting an injury, but re-instated in 2014 after six years of litigation. She would later write:

“When my co-workers saw that tripod up in Everett with the sign that said ‘Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors’, they were blown away.” She added: “We understand completely now that we are fighting an industry that cares as much about us as they do the environment, which is not at all … “


Stephyn Quirke works with Bark and Portland Rising Tide, and contributes to Earth First! Newswire, CounterPunch, The Ecologist and other media.  This article was originally published on Earth First! Newswire.

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    Pipeline that spilled oil on California coast badly corroded

    Repost from SFGate

    Pipeline that spilled oil on California coast badly corroded

    By Michael R. Blood and Brian Melley, Associated Press, Wednesday, June 3, 2015 10:50 pm
    FILE - This Friday, May 22, 2015 file photo shows signscmarking the beach closed to fishing and harvesting while cleanup crews in the background shovel and rake contaminated sand into bags at El Capitan State Beach, north of Goleta, Calif. Two weeks after an underground pipeline broke on May 19, 2015, crews continued to clean up oil-covered beaches along California’ Central Coast. Photo: Michael A. Mariant, AP / FR96689 AP
    FILE – This Friday, May 22, 2015 file photo shows signs marking the beach closed to fishing and harvesting while cleanup crews in the background shovel and rake contaminated sand into bags at El Capitan State Beach, north of Goleta, California two weeks after an underground pipeline broke on May 19, 2015. Crews continued to clean up oil-covered beaches along California’ Central Coast. Photo: Michael A. Mariant, AP

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — A pipeline rupture that spilled an estimated 101,000 gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara last month occurred along a badly corroded section that had worn away to a fraction of an inch in thickness, federal regulators disclosed Wednesday.

    The preliminary findings released by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration point to a possible cause of the May 19 spill that blackened popular beaches and created a 9-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean.

    The agency said investigators found corrosion at the break site had degraded the pipe wall thickness to 1/16 of an inch, and that there was a 6-inch opening near the bottom of the pipe. Additionally, the report noted that the area that failed was close to three repairs made because of corrosion found in 2012 inspections.

    The findings indicate 82 percent of the metal pipe wall had worn away.

    “There is pipe that can survive 80 percent wall loss,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc., which investigates pipeline incidents. “When you’re over 80 percent, there isn’t room for error at that level.”

    The morning of the spill, operators in the company’s Houston control center detected mechanical issues and shut down pumps on the line. The pumps were restarted about 20 minutes later and then failed, prompting another shutdown of the line.

    Restarting the pumps could have led to a rupture, or a break in the line could have caused the pumps to fail, but Kuprewicz cautioned it’s still too soon to determine what caused the failure.

    In either case, a hole that size would have leaked at a high rate — even with the pumps off — and may not have been quickly detected by remote operators.

    The agency documents said findings by metallurgists who examined the pipe wall thickness at the break site conflicted with the results of inspections conducted May 5 for operator Plains All American Pipeline. Those inspections pinpointed a 45 percent loss of wall thickness in the area of the pipe break, meaning they concluded the pipe was in far better condition.

    Government inspectors “noted general external corrosion of the pipe body during field examination of the failed pipe segment,” the report said.

    Investigators found “this thinning of the pipe wall is greater than the 45 percent metal loss which was indicated” by the recent Plains All American inspections.

    The agency ordered the company to conduct additional research and possible repairs on the line, which has been shut down indefinitely.

    Plains All American said in a regulatory filing that there is no timeline to restart the line, which runs along the coast north of Santa Barbara. A company spokeswoman said there’s no estimate yet of the cost of cleanup, which involves nearly 1,200 people.

    The agency also ordered restrictions on a second stretch of pipeline, which the company had shut down May 19, restarted, then shut down again on Saturday.

    That second line had similar insulation and welds to the line that spilled oil last month. It cannot be started until the company completes a series of steps, including testing.

    The company said in a statement that it is committed to working with federal investigators “to understand the differences between these preliminary findings, to determine why the corrosion developed and to determine the cause of the incident.”

    Plains said it won’t know the cause until the investigation, including the metallurgical analysis, is concluded.

    The company has come under fire from California’s U.S. senators, who issued a statement last week calling the response to the spill insufficient and demanding the pipeline company explain what it did, and when, after firefighters discovered the leak from the company’s underground 24-inch pipe.

    A commercial fisherman sued Plains in federal court Monday, alleging the environmental disaster would cause decades of harm to the shore. He is seeking class-action status and damages for business owners who have lost money because of the spill.

    As of Tuesday, 36 sea lions, 9 dolphins and 87 birds in the area have died, officials said. Another 32 sea lions, 6 elephant seals and 58 birds were rescued and were being treated.

    Popular state beaches and campgrounds polluted by the spill are closed until at least June 18.

    Plains All American and its subsidiaries operate 17,800 miles of crude oil and natural gas pipelines across the country, according to federal regulators

    The spill is also being investigated by federal, state and local prosecutors for possible violations of law.

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      THE BASICS: Why oil trains (don’t have to) explode: Everything you need to know

      Repost from The Oregonian

      Why oil trains (don’t have to) explode: Everything you need to know

      By Rob Davis | April 02, 2015 at 1:22 PM
      Oil Train Derailment Illinois
      Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of an Illinois oil train derailment March 5, 2015. Safety experts say regulators have ignored steps that would make oil trains less likely to go off like a bomb when they derail. (AP/Jessica Reilly)

      Crude oil was never supposed to explode.

      Then a train pulling 72 cars of it derailed in a tiny town in Quebec in July 2013. The oil turned into a mushroom cloud of flame. It looked terrifying. Watch the first minute of this video:

      Forty-seven people were killed that night.

      Since then, eight more trains hauling oil have derailed and erupted in flames, drawing scrutiny to a new phenomenon: Crude oil, which once primarily moved in ships and pipelines, is being hauled around North America by rail in unprecedented volumes. More than a million barrels a day now move that way.

      The federal government, which regulates train safety, has slowly moved to make oil trains more secure. Regulators are focusing on strengthening the tank cars carrying the oil.

      But safety experts say regulators have ignored steps that would make oil trains less likely to go off like a bomb when they derail.

      Depending on where it is produced, oil can be dark and thick or light and free flowing. Different amounts of highly flammable gases like propane and butane can be dissolved in it, affecting its volatility. (These are what your backyard gas grill uses.)

      Much of the oil moving by rail comes from North Dakota. And what’s coming out of the ground there has been unusually volatile. North Dakota crude moving in Oregon contains far higher levels of propane than similar types of oil.

      Some North Dakota crude has been more volatile than gasoline. So when the trains have derailed, the flammable gases within have fueled those sky-high fireballs.

      That doesn’t have to happen.

      Michael Eyer, a retired Oregon hazardous materials train inspector, said federal regulators could impose a cap on the amount of flammable gas allowed in the oil.

      “You would have a fire,” Eyer said. “But you would not have the mushroom cloud in the sky.”

      Producers can strip out those highly flammable gases before the oil is loaded for shipment. The process is called stabilization. North Dakota oil regulators estimate it would add $2 to the cost of every barrel.

      Less volatile oil could still burn in a derailment, Eyer said. But nearby residents and firefighters responding to train accidents would be safer: Those fireballs don’t just shoot up. They spread, too.

      State regulators in North Dakota have set the first ever limit to tame the most volatile crude. It went into effect April 1. It requires a less-intense treatment process that North Dakota regulators estimate will cost 10 cents per barrel.

      But Eyer and a crude oil expert say the limit is too high to have widespread impact. The oil that exploded in Quebec in 2013, for example, wouldn’t have been affected.

      Harry Giles is a retired federal official who used to oversee crude oil quality for the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. He said North Dakota’s limit should be set lower.

      “It would increase the safety and lessen the risk,” Giles said. “Fires would be less intense.”

      Compare this fire during a May 2011 derailment northwest of Portland near Scappoose. That’s ethanol — pure grain alcohol — burning. It’s far less volatile than North Dakota crude.

      The fire was still dangerous. But firefighters were able to get close enough to put water on the cars. That’s a fire hose spraying at the top of the photo.

      Now see what happened after a December 2013 derailment with crude oil in North Dakota.

      Look close. That’s a train down there at the bottom.

      Stricter limits would reduce the dangers faced by millions of people who live next to rail lines nationwide, Eyer said.

      That includes Oregonians like Jamie Maygra, a retired ironworker who lives in Deer Island, along the state’s primary oil train route. He said he worries about the oil’s volatility every time he drives near an oil train with his 2- and 3-year-old granddaughters.

      He said he’s frustrated that neither industry nor safety regulators have moved faster to keep people like his granddaughters safe.

      “I think about that all the time,” Maygra said. “The chances of that happening are slim, but it’s a lot more with this oil. They don’t care about nothing but money. That’s what’s aggravating. They put profit before people.”

      Federal safety regulators say they’re studying what makes the oil so flammable and what could be done. Tim Butters is the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency with authority to set limits. He recently told a Congressional committee his agency, known as PHMSA, is looking at ways to remove flammable gases from crude.

      But the methods for doing that are already well known. They’re currently used in Texas oil fields, where flammable gases are separated and piped to nearby plants.

      Eyer said the agency should move faster.

      “The industry needs to figure out what the hell this stuff is and regulators need to say ‘We’re going to act now,’ ” he said. “How many rivers on fire and deaths are needed? What is the price?”

      If federal regulators forced North Dakota producers to emulate what happens in Texas, those producers would have to burn or ship the gases they stripped from the oil. Currently, though, North Dakota does not have enough pipelines to move those flammable gases nor a market for them.

      Susan Lagana, a PHMSA spokeswoman, said her agency is concerned about the volatility of oil moving by rail. But research is needed to determine exactly what makes the explosions so severe, she said, and what could be done to minimize them.

      Eyer and Giles agreed that North Dakota’s volatility limits were too high, but they didn’t agree about what the right level is.

      “That’s what we need to know,” Lagana said. “We are willing to consider all options to address making the product safer in transportation.”

      The relevant research, being done by the federal Energy Department, should be finished this summer, Butters told Congress. But he didn’t promise any next steps once it’s done.

      In the meantime, allowing producers to leave those flammable gases in the oil gives them more profit, allowing them to slightly bulk up the volumes they ship. It’s one reason the oil industry is fighting suggestions to stabilize North Dakota oil.

      Don’t blame the oil for explosions, the industry argues. Blame the derailing trains.

      “Keeping the trains on the tracks is the only way to ensure that crude… will be transported in the safest possible manner,” Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers recently wrote.

      Solely focusing on tank cars and trains “is not enough,” Eyer said. “The starting point is always what are you putting into the car?”

      A bill introduced recently in the U.S. Senate by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Dianne Feinstein and Tammy Baldwin proposes limiting the volatility of oil moving by rail. They want the rules in place within two years.

      It’s a sign that political leaders have realized the North Dakota oil poses unique risks that could be reduced. A spokeswoman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said he is tracking the issue and continues talking to federal transportation officials to find ways to address it.

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