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California lawmakers assail Feds for timid handling of rail oil shipments

Repost from The Ames Tribune, Ames, Iowa
[Editor:  The 3-hour California Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail  can be viewed here.  – RS]

State lawmakers assail Feds for timid handling of rail oil shipments

By Timm Herdt, Ventura County Star, June 20, 2014

SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers, concerned about the safety risks associated with a sixfold increase in crude oil shipments by rail into California, hoped on Thursday to get an update on what the federal government is doing.

But a regional official of the Federal Railroad Administration who had been scheduled to testify before a joint committee hearing regarding crude oil rail transport was a last-minute no-show.

Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said she received a call on the eve of the hearing from a high-level federal administrator in Washington, D.C., informing her that no one from the agency would testify.

It will take coordination between the state and federal governments to protect California from a spike in accidents that has led to fiery derailments and oil spills elsewhere, Pavley noted.

“We don’t have that cooperation yet,” she said. “There are a lot of things they can do. They need to step up to the plate.”

Other lawmakers — who are mostly powerless to act because they are pre-empted by federal law — shared her view.

A point of contention is the belief of many state and local officials that information about upcoming shipments of carloads of highly flammable crude oil should be publicly available. But railroads, citing national security concerns, have released that information only to emergency-response agencies, which must agree not to publicly disclose it.

“We’ve seen what happens when they explode,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. “It sure seems like in California our hands are tied. There’s so little we can do.”

Jackson asserted that security concerns should dictate public disclosure.

“National security means the security of people who live in the nation,” she said.

Under pressure from state officials in Montana, it appears federal officials may have decided to relent on that issue.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has ordered railroads to give state officials specifics on oil-train routes, and Montana officials intend to publicly release that information next week.

Rail-oil shipments have skyrocketed across the United States and Canada in recent months because there are no pipelines from which to ship oil extracted from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota.

In the last year, derailments have resulted in fiery explosions in three Canadian provinces and in Virginia, and there have been more rail accidents involving oil spills than over the previous 30 years combined.

In Northern California, the issue has become front-page news in recent weeks, as city officials in the East San Francisco Bay city of Benicia are considering a permit application from a Valero oil refinery that would enable the refinery to accept two, 50-car trains every day.

If that refinery expansion is approved, the trains would wind through a narrow mountain pass in the Feather River Valley, and then pass through the populated corridor from Sacramento to Benicia, passing within a quarter mile of 27 schools.

Similar scenarios could unfold elsewhere around the state, testified Gordon Schremp of the state Energy Commission. He said six refinery projects have been proposed to accommodate rail shipments — two in Bakersfield, and one each in Benicia, Pittsburg, Santa Maria and the Port of Stockton.

As those projects come on line, Schremp said the commission expects the percentage of oil coming into California by rail to increase from 1 percent today to 23 percent by 2016. Most imported oil now arrives in the state either via marine tankers or by pipeline from Alaska.

A report issued last week by the state’s Interagency Rail Safety Task Force lists thousands of miles of track it identifies as “areas of concern.”

The new state budget that Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign Friday includes a 6.5 cent per-barrel fee on refineries to fund an expansion of the state Office of Oil Spills and Prevention and also hire new rail, bridge and railcar inspectors at the state Public Utilities Commission.

State lawmakers, who are pre-empted from taking such steps as requiring trains to take specific routes and imposing state-based safety standards on tanker cars, agreed their primary focus needs to be on preparing emergency agencies to respond to rail accidents involving toxic materials such as crude oil.

“This is an unusually fast-growing development,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. “It’s really important to have emergency procedures in place.”

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    LA Times: Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail

    Repost from The Los Angeles Times
    [Editor:  The 3-hour California Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail  can be viewed here.  – RS]

    California safety officials ill-prepared for increasing oil imports

    By Patrick McGreevy  |  June 19, 2014
    Oil by rail
    A view of Union Pacific West Colton Yard Bloomington. California lawmakers considered a report that officials are not prepared to deal with increased oil imports by train. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

    California safety agencies are currently ill-prepared for a significant increase in transporting oil by rail through the state, but steps are being taken to catch up, experts told state lawmakers Thursday.

    Oil imports by rail to California have grown from 70 tank cars in 2009 to nearly 9,500 tank cars in 2013, and they could increase to up to 230,000 carloads by 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.

    The state needs to step in to address safety issues inadequately handled by the federal government, a California Interagency Rail Safety Group reported during a joint hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

    “In sum, while the federal actions taken to date are significant, they do not go far enough to address the risks of increased oil by rail transport,” the group’s report concluded. “The state should press both the federal government and the railroad industry to take additional safety measures.”

    The study group said trains transporting crude oil travel via the Feather River or Donner Pass to the San Francisco Bay Area, and via the Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield and into Los Angeles.

    The working group recommended the state strengthen its inspection and enforcement staff. There are only 52 positions to handle railroad operations and safety inspections, which the group’s study said is “seriously inadequate given current and projected numbers of oil shipments.”

    The state budget approved Sunday by the Legislature allows for the hiring of seven additional rail inspectors for the California Public Utilities Commission, which should meet the need, said commission spokesman Paul King. He added that better tank cars and clear markings are needed to increase safety.

    The working group also recommended more funding for local emergency responders, and better planning.

    “Emergency responders currently lack basic, critical information needed to help plan for and respond to oil by rail incidents, including what resources railroads can provide in the event of an accident, and how they would respond to potential worst case scenarios,” the group found.

    Lawmakers including Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) said they have introduced bills to improve the ability to prevent and respond to rail accidents involving oil.

    “It’s not acceptable for us to wait until something bad happens,” Pavley, chairwoman of the senate committee, said during the three-hour hearing at the Capitol. “Unless the locals have adequate resources to be prepared” and the state and federal officials cooperate, “we’re not going to be able to deal with it if a catastrophe strikes.”

    She noted that a Federal Railroad Administration official declined to attend the hearing.

    “We don’t have that cooperation yet,” she said.

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      KCRA: Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail

      Repost from KCRA 3 News
      Editor:  The 3-hour California Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on Transport of California Crude Oil by Rail  can be viewed here.  – RS]

      Lawmakers voice concerns over oil trains in California

      Jun 19, 2014

      KCRAvideoFreightTrainFears_2014-06-19png

      SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KCRA) —State lawmakers learned at a hearing Thursday that there is very little they can do to regulate the growing number of oil trains entering California, and even tracking their movements is proving difficult.

      “I almost feel like our hands in California are tied,” said Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democratic state senator from Santa Barbara, during a joint hearing of several Assembly and Senate committees.

      Watch report: State lawmakers voice concerns over oil trains

      Paul King, deputy director of the Office of Rail Safety at the California Public Utilities Commission, testified that the recently passed state budget will allow his agency to hire seven additional rail inspectors.

      However, he said public concerns about the shipments are justified.

      “The risks are very high,” he said. “These things explode when they derail with any force at all.”

      An official from the California Energy Commission told lawmakers the amount of crude oil imported into the state by rail has increased by more than 90 percent during the first four months of the year, compared to the same time last year.

      He said oil trains are headed to facilities in McClellan Park in Sacramento County and the Bay Area city of Richmond.

      He said five more terminal facilities are planned and a facility at the Port of Stockton that could receive 6,500 barrels per day was in the early stages.

      “Were there to be a derailment in the Sacramento railyard, a scant distance from here, everyone in downtown Sacramento, including the State Capitol, would be threatened,” said Assembly Member Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

      Lawmakers also expressed concern about the environmental impact and the potential effect on drinking water if a derailment were to happen near a major waterway or reservoir.

      Jayni Hein, a U.C. Berkeley law professor testified that regulating railroads is normally the job of the federal government and that states can intervene in only limited circumstances.

      Recently, the federal government ordered rail companies to begin sharing information about oil train shipments with state and local governments.

      However, state officials testified the reports they have received so far are for shipments that have already arrived.

      “That’s unacceptable. They need that information earlier than later.  I think the public has the right to know too,” said Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Aguora Hills, who chaired the hearing.

      Juan Acosta of BNSF Railway said his company would consider sharing shipment details with state officials but wanted assurance the information will not become public.

      If it does, he said, the trains might become targets.

      “That’s the danger, a terrorist or somebody who’s misguided or who has some bad intention.  I think that’s the concern we have,” Acosta told KCRA 3.

      Jan Rein of Midtown Sacramento testified at the hearing.

      She later told KCRA 3 she lives a few blocks from the tracks and used to love to hear the trains rumble by, but not anymore.

      “I don’t want to be incinerated in my own home,” she said.

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