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‘Flawed’ oil spill drill offers lessons to state, feds

Repost from The Poughkeepsie Journal
[Editor: Commentary received in an email from Dr. Fred Millar – “Reporter John Ferro in Poughkeepsie has relentlessly dug up the almost always hidden ‘after action’ documents from agencies which participate in emergency drills.   The reports are supposed to show gaps in preparedness revealed by the drills, but are usually whitewashed, scrubbed all together to get an official version of what happened that makes no one look too bad, with overall aim re ‘public perception’, as Ferro indicates, of reassuring the public.  ¶  Unlike oil-loaded ships and storage facilities [under the Oil Pollution Act mandates], crude oil-shipping railroads have offloaded all the responsibility for ER capabilities and planning onto local and state officials.”  – RS]

‘Flawed’ oil spill drill offers lessons to state, feds

Poughkeepsie Journal investigation offers the first detailed account of largest multi-agency drill along the Hudson River in at least a decade.
John Ferro, September 15, 2014
(Photo: File photo/AP)

In the aftermath of a high-profile, multi-agency oil spill drill in New Windsor last year, officials were pleased by the mostly positive news coverage.

“Thank goodness,” wrote one official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in an email.

“It was basically lucky that things turned out as well as it did for the public perception,” said a follow-up report from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

But beyond the relief, there were concerns about how the drill came together, communication during it, as well as other issues, a Poughkeepsie Journal investigation has found.

At a time when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has repeatedly sought to reassure the public about the state’s handling of the sudden rise in crude oil transport, the Journal’s report offers the first detailed account of the most comprehensive oil spill drill on the Hudson River in at least a decade.

“The drill was flawed, no question about that,” said Charles Rowe, a spokesman for the local Coast Guard sector. “The areas where it was flawed were planning and communication. However, it was flawed for all the right reasons.”

Indeed, experts and officials say drills are successful when they identify areas of improvement, as this one did. And no glaring deficiency in the local response capacity was identified, they said.

The drill was held Nov. 12 and involved railroad and in-river simulations, as well as a tabletop exercise. It was co-sponsored by the DEC and Global Companies, the private company that owns the New Windsor terminal.

“In our experience, drills do not turn out well by luck, but rather are based on sound preparation and planning,” DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said. “DEC believes that this drill provided an effective test of response activities.”

Still, the lessons learned from that test have gone largely unreported even as the public is being asked to comment on an update of the local area contingency plan. In fact, the DEC released its final report on the drill on Saturday, 10 months after the drill and nearly eight months after the Journal first requested it under the Freedom of Information Act.

Area contingency plans were mandated by federal legislation passed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez accident. They define roles, responsibilities, resources and procedures necessary to respond to spills and are updated every three years. The deadline for public comment on the local plan is Oct. 10.

Drill grew larger

The emails, reports and interviews paint a picture of a drill that began as a small exercise and grew into something much larger.

Owners of oil terminals such as Global Companies must conduct drills every year. They can range from tabletop exercises to much larger drills involving role-played scenarios.

The New Windsor drill came about a year after crude oil began moving down the Hudson River in large quantities by rail and vessel. And it followed an accident involving the very first oil tanker to leave Albany.

The Stena Primorsk ran aground about 6 miles south of Albany on Dec. 20, 2012. Though the ship’s outer hull was gashed open, the inner hull kept any of its 11.7 million gallons of crude from leaking.

In 2013, the DEC and the Coast Guard approached Global to request an expanded drill. The original drill called for a simulated leak of crude oil. It was changed to a catastrophic failure of a 50,000-gallon heating oil tank that leaked into the river.

DEC officials then added a train derailment to the scenario.

More participants added

The initial planning included representatives of the Coast Guard, DEC, the New Windsor Fire Department, Global Companies and oil-spill recovery organizations contracted by Global and DEC.

But in the end, more than 20 public and private entities either observed or took part in at least one of the simulations, including emergency response officials from Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties.

The additions created some headaches for drill planners. A DEC memo obtained by the Journal described the planning phase as being “pieced together in a Frankenstein-ish manner.”

“The increased level of participation led to last-minute changes in the scenario and to ad-hoc planning,” Rowe, the Coast Guard spokesman, said. “This complicated the exercise, but is good news for the Hudson River. It shows that agencies recognize the potential for an incident and that those agencies are willing to commit resources and assets to preparation and training.”

Constantakes, the DEC spokesman, said the decision to use fuel oil instead of Bakken crude was made because the New Windsor facility did not store Bakken crude in any of its tanks. The tank used in the drill was the largest in the Global facility, and stores fuel oil most of the time, he said.

“The physical properties of Bakken crude oil and diesel oil are similar, so this change did not significantly alter the simulated response actions,” he said.

Problems with hardware

Participants were hampered by a lack of simple hardware such as enough electric outlets, consistent Internet access and computer printers, the documents say. And a sudden overnight drop in temperatures caught some by surprise.

Experts say that these snafus can be a blessing in disguise, however, since they can mirror real-world situations.

“I thought that was a really interesting comment, that folks were cold,” said Brian House, chief executive officer of Moran Environmental Recovery LLC in Randolph, Massachusetts. “If this had been a real event, folks would have been a lot colder.”

House is a past-president of the Spill Control Association of America and was the spill-recovery industry’s representative on a federal review of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. Neither he nor his company was involved in the drill.

At the Journal’s request, House reviewed a detailed, bullet-point summary, called a “hot wash,” that was sent by a DEC’s regional spills engineer to about 15 private and public entities a few days after the drill. The military term has been adopted by first responders to describe a post-event debriefing. It is derived from the practice of soldiers who used hot water to clean weapons of dirt and residue.

“Nothing jumped out at me as being a catastrophic flaw,” House said. “I think any time you have a drill with a mix of public and private sector resources, it is a learning experience. I think the issues, for the most part, revolved around ways to enhance communication.”

Communication between commanders and the teams at the rail car was initially hampered because of the use of different radio frequencies, the hot wash summary said. The problems were quickly resolved.

The hot wash summary also highlighted concerns over whether private railroad officials from CSX were moving out of sync with the incident command system, or ICS. An ICS is a standardized, uniform response structure that allows people or departments to respond to incidents regardless of size.

“That can be as simple as five guys in a tent, or on large events, it can be hundreds of people,” House said.

‘Chaos’ within command system

The DEC memo indicated there was a “good deal of chaos” within the ICS.

“Emergency response events and drills are by their very nature chaotic and cannot be perfectly organized,” Constantakes said. “These situations are somewhat similar to hospital emergency rooms.”

Constantakes said that in the agency’s view, ICS staffing came together quickly, with people assigned to each of the units necessary to perform their assigned tasks.

Within an ICS are sections, or departments, such as planning, logistics and operations. At New Windsor, communication issues arose between the sections. In one instance, the planning section lacked information on what equipment had been deployed, making it difficult to plan the next operational phase.

There were smaller issues, such as responders not having the right tools when they performed an initial reconnaissance entry to the train.

Participants also expressed frustration that too many media representatives and other observers distracted them from doing their jobs.

Under a section headlined “Positives,” the hot wash summary indicated that public perception was good; the initial confusion took a while to clear but started to work at the end; and that there was a great deal of coordination between multiple agencies.

But the summary also indicated that some felt the drill may have been too big.

The DEC says all of those lessons, as well as others, will be incorporated into future drills. One lesson: Seek help when planning a comparatively complex event.

“The overall review of the drill indicated that the use of both a professional planner and professional facilitator would have been helpful for a drill of this magnitude,” Constantakes said.

Rowe said the drill was “not perfect by any means,” primarily because the total number of agencies that participated was considerably larger than was initially planned.

But, the Coast Guard spokesman said it revealed that the Hudson River has a larger response capability than initially had been thought, that responders “are serious” about the potential for oil and hazardous materials spills and that all participants understand the necessity of working together under an organized command structure.

“Obviously, there is work to be done,” Rowe said, “but there are many willing hands to do that work.”

 

 

 

 

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    Oil train risks push communities to prepare for worst – “Little Black Bullets”

    Repost from Poughkeepsie Journal
    [Editor: Significant quote: “The U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledged in its proposed rule that an another accident isn’t a question of if, but when.  “Absent this proposed rule, we predict about 15 mainline derailments for 2015, falling to a prediction of about 5 mainline derailments annually by 2034,” the department’s proposal stated. Reviews and lawsuits mean it could be years before the rule is implemented.”  – RS]

    Oil train risks push communities to prepare for worst

    Khurram Saeed   |   August 21, 2014
    The home of Doris Quinones is less than 100 feet away from the CSX railroad track, on which as many as 4 oil trains pass by every day, not to mention freight trains carrying other hazardous chemicals. An oil train is seen passing from the yard of Doris Quinones, July 31, 2014 in Haverstraw.(Photo: Tania Savayan/The Journal News)

    Little black bullets.

    That’s what Doris Quinones calls the dozens of outdated tank cars filled with crude oil that rumble yards away from her Haverstraw home every day.

    One train hauling oil can have up to 100 cars, and as many as 30 oil trains pass through Rockland each week on the way to refineries. That’s twice the number from just six months ago as demand continues to grow for the volatile crude oil drawn from the Bakken region in North Dakota.

    Those trains also pass through Ulster County.

    In Highland, the trains roll past a restaurant and a Hudson River waterfront park that is being outfitted with a new deep-water dock for tour boats.

    Ulster County’s vulnerable infrastructure includes drinking water intakes for Port Ewen and the Town of Lloyd.

    A 100-car oil train can carry 3 million gallons of crude oil, and because so many more are on the rails, the number of derailments and accidents is rising.

    The oil trains, which do not travel on a set schedule, roll through four of Rockland’s five towns on CSX Railroad’s River Line. Fully loaded trains run north to south, less than a mile from Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, Lake DeForest reservoir in Clarkstown, the Palisades Center in West Nyack and Dominican College in Blauvelt, not to mention dozens of neighborhoods, scores of schools and day care centers and right past key highways like the Thruway.

    Given her proximity to the tracks, Quinones said a derailed train would “land in my living room.”

    “We’re all realists,” Quinones said recently in her backyard, where she sometimes lounges in her swimming pool and tends to her cucumbers. “They got to get something somewhere. It’s got to go on the freight train but they got to take extra measures even if it costs them more money.”

    The oil trains are hard to miss, and the safety issues surrounding them, particularly their tank cars, have become harder to ignore. There have been a number of fiery explosions and accidents since 2013 that have caused officials at all levels to look closer at the dangers of shipping oil by rail.

    Just over a year ago, 47 people died when an unattended oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Rockland had a close call in December when an oil train transporting 99 empty tank cars from Philadelphia to North Dakota hit a truck stuck on the crossing in West Nyack, sending the truck’s driver to the hospital.

    Planning for worst

    Peter Miller, chief of the Highland Fire District, said firefighters took part in a drill in Kingston on May 30, along with other fire departments. The drill was sponsored by the Ulster County Emergency Services Department and CSX.

    He said the district’s response plans are constantly being updated, particularly now that the Bakken crude is rolling through.

    “We upgrade our training and our response plans to cover what we would do, depending on where the incident is,” he said.

    Even as federal transportation officials are proposing more stringent requirements for tank cars to make them safer, Rockland’s first responders are planning for nightmare scenarios and how to evacuate thousands of people quickly in a catastrophe or have them stay where they are.

    “Our job is to really plan for the worst,” said Chris Jensen, Rockland County’s hazardous materials coordinator.

    Rockland emergency officials are finishing the evacuation map for residents and businesses within a mile of the River Line.

    It covers a mile on either side of the rail line, broken into half-mile sections, from Bear Mountain to the New Jersey border.

    Gordon Wren Jr., director of Rockland’s Office of Fire and Emergency Services, said the map “allows us to make the decisions quicker, faster.”

    “Do you evacuate or not? If so, how far?” Wren said.

    The map identifies schools, day care centers, nursing homes and senior housing, among other landmarks.

    “(A police officer) can look at that and say, ‘Let’s get the people out of here,’ ” said Dan Greeley, assistant director of the county Office of Fire and Emergency Services. “It happens instantaneously.”

    The U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledged in its proposed rule that an another accident isn’t a question of if, but when.

    “Absent this proposed rule, we predict about 15 mainline derailments for 2015, falling to a prediction of about 5 mainline derailments annually by 2034,” the department’s proposal stated. Reviews and lawsuits mean it could be years before the rule is implemented.

    In 2008, just 9,500 carloads of crude oil moved by rail. Last year, the figure exceeded 400,000, the Association of American Railroads said.

    Rail industry officials note that 99.9 percent of all hazardous rail shipments reach their destinations safely and that only rail has afforded the nation the flexibility to move large volumes of oil so quickly and freely, letting the United States wean itself off foreign oil.

    Susan Christopherson, chair of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, said though pipelines are safer, oil shippers from western Canada and the Bakken shale region prefer trains because they provide flexibility from different points of origin to refineries nationwide.

    The problem, she said, is the Federal Railroad Administration has “little capacity” to regulate the rail industry or monitor rail infrastructure safety.

    “Costs for emergency preparedness have to be absorbed by state and local government,” Christopherson wrote in an email. “There is little or no compensation for these costs, which can be significant.”

    Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state has become increasingly proactive, carrying out inspection blitzes of rail yards and leveling fines.

    ‘Witches’ brew’

    The River Line, part of CSX’s rail network, runs from outside Albany. In February, the railroad told The Journal News that two oil trains used the line daily, or 14 a week. By June, the railroad fixed the number of trains hauling 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude at 15 to 30, or up to four each day, according to documents it had to file with the state.

    CSX spokesman Gary Sease said there have been incremental increases in crude oil volume over the past several weeks with likely more to come. The railroad recently completed double-tracking work in north Rockland to increase capacity on the track.

    “It is a result of market conditions and can fluctuate,” Sease wrote in an email.

    “We see customers investing in additional crude oil terminals over the next couple of years.”

    Bakken crude oil is just the latest dangerous substance to travel the line, Jensen said. Toxic substances such as chlorine, ethanol, propane and vinyl chloride have moved on the former West Shore line for decades.

    “It’s a witches’ brew of stuff,” Jensen said.

    But one big difference is the amount of Bakken crude that passes through Ulster, Rockland and, for that matter, 15 other counties in New York.

    Aside from CSX, Canadian Pacific Railway hauls Bakken crude from the Midwest to Albany, with an average of one train a day with a million-plus gallons.

    In May, CSX began a first responders training program by bringing equipment and experts to communities to teach them about incidents involving crude oil. More than 1,000 people have been trained, he said.

    That’s a good start but more needs to be done, said Jerry DeLuca, executive director and CEO of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

    “You don’t fight an oil fire with water. We need to have foam and a lot of it,” said DeLuca, whose group represents more than 11,000 professional and volunteer fire chiefs. “It’s not something we utilize every day, so you have to be trained.”

    Poughkeepsie Journal staff writer John Ferro contributed to this report.
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