Tag Archives: Pittsburgh PA

First National Conference on Oil Train Threats – excellent report by Justin Mikulka

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event.   Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo.  🙂  For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting.  – RS]

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
oil train conference
Oil Train Response 2015, 1st national conference on oil train threats, 11/14-15/15, Pittsburgh

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.

Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.

In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.

These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz FoundationFracTracker and ForestEthics.

The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.

What You Are Up Against

Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.

“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office.  BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’

The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”

This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.

Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.

We Need Not Be Polite

Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.

“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.

“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.

Millar’s presentation was enthusiastically received by the conference audience. As he delivered one of his many hard-hitting lines to applause, an audience member could be heard saying, “He’s like a preacher up there!” However, as repeatedly noted in his presentation, his opinion is that very little is being done to address the risks of oil-by-rail transportation.

They Are Our Children

Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”

As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.”  It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.

FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck

A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.

Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.

While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.

On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.

View from Amtrak train, photo by Justin Mikulka.

A National Movement Begins

The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”

And that is good news for the 25 million people currently living within bomb train blast zones. Because if there is one lesson learned from the long delay over the implementation of positive train control, it is that this battle is likely to be a long and difficult effort.

Blog image credit: Paul Anderson
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    Oil Train Response 2015 – activists gather in Pittsburgh

    Repost from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    [Editor:  The report below is the only mainstream media coverage of the Nov. 14-15 event “Oil Train Response 2015” that I could find.   Facebook users can check out photos and brief comments at Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition and IWW Environmental Unionist Caucus.  Tweeters can catch a few pics via past tweets by Ethan Buckner.  Here is the agenda, and here is a related 1-hour video “Oil Train Webinar” organized in advance of the event by ForestEthics.  – RS]

    Local officials tout alliances to push for stronger oil train regs

    By Daniel Moore / November 14, 2015 12:00 AM

    What Marilaine Savard remembers most is hearing the blast, seeing the flames out her window and a plume of black smoke dimming the sky — but being unable to do anything about it.

    It was July 2013 and Ms. Savard was visiting a friend in Lac-Mégantic, a town in rural eastern Quebec that serves as the central hub for about a dozen small communities. It had banks, post offices and bars. Now, she said, the downtown is a desert with all the buildings demolished and the soil contaminated.

    The town is now eponymous with the worst rail disaster since a boom in North American oil production put more of the commodity on the rails.

    Ms. Savard, who said she now lives and works in Lac-Mégantic to help the community rebuild, was one of dozens of people who gathered in Pittsburgh on Friday to hear from panels of elected officials and academics on what is being done to prevent and respond to derailments of trains carrying crude oil.

    The Heinz Endowments organized the daylong conference in a packed hotel ballroom in Oakland. Roughly 60 to 70 trains carrying crude oil — mainly extracted from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota and destined for refineries on the East Coast — travel through Pennsylvania each week.

    In February, a train carrying crude oil derailed and displaced 100 people near Charleston, W.Va.

    The two main carriers, Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp., were not present as organizers wanted to focus the conversation on community engagement with elected officials.

    “Individual communities are largely powerless,” said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, in an interview. “I think what you are beginning to see is momentum building nationally to address the issue.”

    Local officials who flew in from places like New York and Washington state stressed the importance of forming partnerships to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Transportation — the sole regulatory authority over the railroad industry — to enact stricter rules.

    Ben Stuckart, chair of the city council in Spokane, Wash., said he helped start the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, a coalition of local, state and tribal leaders across the Pacific Northwest united by concerns over traffic from coal and oil trains.

    “So then, when I go to D.C. and sit with Transportation Secretary (Anthony) Foxx, I’m not just representing citizens of Spokane. I say I’m representing SELA,” Mr. Stuckart said.

    “By us all acting together, we make a stronger case for it,” he said.

    The conversation was at times testy, as local and state emergency management officials sought to assure the audience they were prepared for a range of disasters.

    Environmental groups and others have demanded railroads publicly release specific information on what hazardous materials are being transported on what lines. Local emergency officials have insisted railroads provide them with enough information to respond to incidents, but that information has never been divulged publicly.

    Raymond DeMichiei, deputy coordinator for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, defended keeping the information private, citing the potential for acts of terrorism.

    “We have an obligation to make sure the bad guys don’t get the information,” Mr. DeMichiei said.

    During a later question-and-answer session, members of the crowd raised the question of secrecy again. “What advantage does it provide for you to know in Downtown Pittsburgh how many day care centers are within a mile on either side of the railroad tracks?” Mr. DeMichiei countered to a question about why such information is private.

    “Because this is a democracy,” responded one audience member.

    Ms. Savard, who was not on a panel, said most residents who haven’t been forced to relocate away from Lac-Mégantic, she said, are still in a state of shock. Without a downtown hub, the entire region is coping with where to go for basic services.

    She hopes, by sharing the struggles of residents two and half years after the explosion, that a movement can begin to influence real change.

    “They are not able to see the big picture right now,” she said. “They are trying to survive.”

    This story was updated on November 18, 2015 with the correct number of crude oil trains that travel through Pennsylvania.

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      Calculating percent of residents in danger zone for crude oil train derailment

      Repost from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
      [Editor: Someone with better statistician skills than me should verify this: take a look at NRDC’s Derailment Risk Zone Maps for California and do the math.  For instance, the population of Sacramento at risk according to NRDC, (using 2010 figures) is 256,299.  Divide that by the 2010 population of 466,488, and you find that 54.9% (!!) of Sacramento’s population is in the danger zone!  Could this be right?- RS]

      PublicSource: 40 percent of Pittsburgh, PA residents in danger zone for crude oil train derailment

      By Natasha Khan / PublicSource, August 17, 2014

      More than 40 percent of Pittsburgh’s residents live in areas at risk if a train carrying crude oil through the city derails and catches fire, according to a PublicSource analysis.

      That number does not include children at 72 K-12 schools inside those areas.

      PublicSource created a map using a perimeter of a half-mile on each side of the rail lines known to carry crude oil in the city. A half-mile is the federal evacuation zone recommended for accidents involving crude oil trains.

      Pittsburgh’s Office of Emergency Management Services and Homeland Security began doing a risk assessment of the trains after the federal government ordered railroads in May to turn over information about which rail lines carry a million gallons or more of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale at a time.

      “Nobody really knows that there is an explosive bomb driving through their neighborhood,” said Bill Bartlett of Action United, a Pittsburgh group that advocates on behalf of low- and moderate-income families.

      Dubbed “virtual pipelines,” these trains can carry millions of gallons of crude oil in more than 100 tank cars and can be a mile long. Many of them are on their way to Philadelphia refineries carrying increasingly large shipments of Bakken crude from North Dakota.

      It’s difficult to know exactly how many trains come through Pittsburgh carrying crude oil because the two major railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, don’t identify their routes to the public for security and business reasons.

      Crude-by-rail traffic has increased by more than 4,000 percent over the past five years. There have been at least 12 significant derailments involving crude oil in North America since May 2013. Lawmakers and public safety groups are concerned that residents near railroad tracks are exposed to more danger. And officials have said safety regulations aren’t keeping up.

      The July 2013 accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, was the most devastating in years. A train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying half the downtown.

      And, since January, Pennsylvania has had three derailments involving crude. There were no injuries in any of the accidents.

      While hazardous materials have traveled on railroads for years, trains have never carried this much crude oil, much of it Bakken crude, which is more flammable than other types of crude.

      Emergency response in Pittsburgh

      Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of Pittsburgh’s office of emergency management and homeland security, said his office decided to do the emergency assessment after receiving information in June from the state that trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude were going through the city.

      Mr. DeMichiei said his office didn’t have that information previously.

      “We’ll determine if we have enough training, equipment,” Mr. DeMichiei said. “If we don’t have enough, we’ll get more.”

      At least six states — Washington, North Dakota, California, Montana, Florida and Virginia — have made information publicly available about the amount of Bakken crude and the routes it is traveling.

      Pennsylvania did not.

      Mr. DeMichiei wouldn’t comment on how many crude trains come through the city daily, but said he generally sees a train along Route 28 on his way to work in the morning and then another one when he drives home.

      “We are aware of the issues and we are working to make everyone as safe as possible,” he said.

      Mr. DeMichiei said Pittsburgh doesn’t have a response plan specifically for Bakken crude and the railroads haven’t provided one. If an accident did occur, he said the city would base its response on U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines for accidents involving flammable liquids and establish a danger zone of a half-mile on either side of the track. That danger zone could expand depending on the scope of the accident, he said.

      Emergency response officials in major cities and small towns have testified before Congress that responders wouldn’t be prepared to handle a large-scale crude oil disaster like the deadly one in Quebec.

      Sixty-five percent of fire departments responsible for hazardous materials response haven’t trained all of their personnel for crude, a member of the International Association of Firefighters told Congress last month.

      New York fire officials asked Congress to direct $100 million in emergency funds for a national training program for firefighters to address risks from these trains. The money would be used to train firefighters and to put in place stashes of firefighting foam and equipment, according to McClatchy Newspapers.

      Alvin Henderson, chief of Allegheny County Emergency Services, said the rail industry has been very cooperative and first responders in the county are receiving training specific to crude oil.

      Mr. Henderson said he’s not “losing any sleep” over crude oil moving through Pittsburgh.

      A spokesman for Norfolk Southern said they’ll offer training in Pitcairn this month to first responders so they can get more hands-on experience with rail tank cars, equipment and information about crude oil shipments.

      Under a recent voluntary agreement with the DOT, the rail industry committed $5 million for training first responders.

      Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that, in case of an accident, the city could call on the PA Region 13 Task Force. The task force is an initiative that allows counties to pull resources from the region in an emergency.

      Trains rerouted in Missouri

      Safety groups have urged railroads to reroute crude oil trains around populous areas.

      In St. Louis, a city similar in population size to Pittsburgh, the fire chief and a group of residents said the Union Pacific Railroad has agreed to reroute crude oil trains around their neighborhood, and possibly the entire city.

      “We stayed focused on the one issue: Get these trains away from people, get them away from the heart of the city,” said Tim Christian, a member of St. Louis for Safe Trains.

      Residents of St. Louis’ Holly Hills neighborhood, where crude oil trains passed daily, held public meetings, lobbied experts and politicians and passed out pamphlets around St. Louis.

      “We made just the right amount of noise through the right channels,” Mr. Christian said. “It was community in action and it worked well.”

      St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson said he has a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the main railroad operator to reroute the trains around Holly Hills. There is no formal agreement, he said.

      “I think they rerouted because of a concerned [citizens] group,” Mr. Jenkerson said.

      Mr. Christian said he’s received more than a dozen phone calls from people across the U.S. asking how they can organize to reroute crude trains.

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        Latest derailment: dangling oil tank cars in McKeesport, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh)

        Repost from The Observer-Reporter
        [Editor: When you are done reading about this latest wreck (including light petroleum tank cars), check out this list: 29 derailments in North America Jan 1 – June 8 this year, an average of one every five days.  See also this list of the six notable derailments involving tank car explosions.  – RS]

        Derailed train cars dangle over Youghiogheny River

        Jun 8, 2014

        (Photo Credit: KDKA Photographer Chris Kunicki)

        PITTSBURGH (AP) – A couple train cars are hanging partly off a suburban Pittsburgh trestle above the Youghiogheny River after derailing, scaring people below who thought the train was ready to plunge into the river.

        CSX said about 12 cars of a train derailed around 11 p.m. Saturday in McKeesport while heading from New Castle to Connellsville.

        It said the 88-car train was carrying mixed freight, including carrying scrap metal and “light petroleum.”

        CSX spokesman Gary Sease says the petroleum didn’t leak. No injuries were reported.

        The McKeesport Marina was evacuated and McKeesport Deputy Fire Chief Don Sabol said there’s a lot of damage to the tracks. CSX said it’s not sure yet what caused the derailment.

        – – – – –

        MORE:
        29 derailments in North America 1 Jan-8 June this year, an average of one every five days.
        See also this list of the six notable derailments involving tank car explosions.

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