Tag Archives: Rail routing

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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Railroad lobbyists winning again, in FRA rulemaking

From an email from Dr. Fred Millar
[Editor:  Millar refers here to an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post, “Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying“, “Rail-safety deadline extension hitched to must-pass bill on transit funding” and “Senate passes transportation funding stopgap bill and rail-safety extension“.  Dr. Fred Millar is a policy analyst, researcher, educator, and consultant with more than three decades of experience assessing the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials.  – RS]

Railroad lobbyists winning again, in FRA rulemaking

By Fred Millar, October 28, 2015

This week’s excellent Washington Post reports by reporters Halsey and Laris outlined US railroad lobbyists’ ability to secure a three-year delay in implementing the key railroad safety equipment demanded on the original 2015 deadline by Congress in the Rail Safety Act of 2008.  There is a parallel and highly related story, so far unwritten, on how the railroads and allied interests relentlessly gain even more decisive and long-lasting ways to advantage profits over safety.

Even when Congress roused itself to demand more safety as in the 2008 RSIA, the seemingly permanent Reaganite legacy of “starving the beast” of government regulatory agencies grinds on to render the regulations pitifully weak.  Now the timid and under-staffed Federal Railroad Administration is quietly piddling away the once-in-a-generation opportunity from the 2008 law to impose a significant modern safety improvement regime [already seen in many industries] on the mighty railroads.

The public and Congressional alarm at several high-profile fatal rail disasters that led to the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act prompted Congress to include a strong mandate on the Federal Railroad Administration to impose a 20th Century type of Risk Reduction Program regime on the railroads.

This surprising loss by railroad lobbyists in Congress – although they secured some weakening amendments – led to strenuous railroad efforts to prevent the FRA from crafting any strong regulations.  The out-gunned FRA effectively suffered a regulatory failure of nerve, and buried the rulemaking process out of sight for four years, gaining only a weak-tea and partial consensus from railroads and rail labor in FRA’s own ad hoc Working Group of industry insiders.  A couple of ill-attended public hearings drew no public attention.

The resulting proposed rule in 2015 had two major safety-weakening features: first, it gave the railroads a new secrecy pot to hide railroads’ own safety risk information from discovery in court proceedings on railroad negligence.  Trial lawyers, citizens and some officials alarmed about the appalling secrecy already granted to railroads, for example in their decisions to route ultra-hazardous crude oil trains through major cities, filed comments opposing this new secrecy grant.

More importantly, FRA proposed to impose on the railroads only “a streamlined version” of a modern Risk Reduction Program regime.  The comprehensive and robust one mandated by Congress would have required significant new efforts by FRA to approve and oversee railroads’ Risk Reduction Programs, and to ensure compliance.  FRA staffers no doubt felt they were not up to that task, so punted the responsibilities —  to each covered railroad to create its own safety regimes and to decide how to measure their own effectiveness, with no federal guidance.

As FRA then-Administrator Joseph Szabo declared shortly after the Lac-Mḗgantic Quebec crude oil train disaster killed 47 in July 2013,  “The movement of this product is a game changer,” [referring to] the sharp rise in trainloads of volatile crude oil from North Dakota and other places. “We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.” 

Undermining the most significant Congressional rail safety mandates we may ever see is hardly the new beginning we need.

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Minnesota Governor Pens Scathing Letter To BNSF President Over Oil Trains In Twin Cities

Repost from CBS Minnesota
[Editor:  Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton learned about new routing of oil trains in a major metropolitan area AFTER THE FACT.  That is how the railroads notify the public of major changes in crude by rail transport.  It is important to have a sitting Governor join the chorus of voices on this highly significant issue of rail routing and notification.  See the TV news video below, and read Gov. Dayton’s full letter  here.  – RS]

Dayton Pens Scathing Letter To BNSF President Over Oil Trains In Twin Cities

By Jennifer Mayerle, October 21, 2015 10:34 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Mark Dayton says he’s deeply concerned about an increase in the number of oil trains traveling through heavily populated areas of the Twin Cities.

In a letter to the President of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Dayton estimates an additional 99,000 people are living within an evacuation zone. The areas include spots where thousands gather at a time, like Target Field and the University of Minnesota.

Kathy Harrell-Latham lives in downtown Minneapolis with her family.

“We chose this neighborhood because it’s accessible and the risks were relatively limited,” Harrell-Latham said.

She was concerned to learn 11 to 23 crude oil trains per week are being transported on the Willmar-Minneapolis-St. Paul rail line. And it goes by Target Field, Target Center, the U of M and downtown Minneapolis.

“There are people that live here and work here all day and we need the safety measures to go above and beyond,” Harrell-Latham said.

Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a scathing letter to the President of BNSF Railway citing safety concerns and outrage over not being informed of the “significant change in operation, which puts an additional 99,000 Minnesotans at risk.”

That brings the total number in the state to roughly 425,000.

“The Governor is absolutely right there should not be these dangerous oil and ethanol trains being routed through population areas,” DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein said.

Hornstein championed last year’s crude oil transport response bill. He applauds the Governor’s request for the railway to: issue a public statement about the temporary route, to not operate under Target Field during events and to extend first responder training to affected communities, among others.

It’s in an effort to prevent accidents like this BNSF train that derailed in Montana in July, and a 2013 accident in Quebec that killed 47.

“We need to have a much stronger safety protocol for these trains as they come through but the railroads are not cooperating and now we have more evidence of that,” Hornstein said.

In response, BNSF issued this statement:

“BNSF has multiple routes in the metro area that we utilize for hauling a variety of commodities. We comply with the law and report to the state crude volumes of a certain size and their routes and when they change by 25 percent. That occurred in this case where we have a major expansion project occurring and are rerouting some traffic to accommodate that construction work. Crude oil was already being shipped on the route in question. Volumes and routes can fluctuate for a number of reasons. In all areas of the metro region where we move crude oil and other hazmat, we take a number of steps to reduce risk. We’ll be talking directly with the Governor on his concerns and our ongoing efforts to safely move all commodities by rail.”

 Gov. Dayton has asked BNSF to provide a progress report by the end of the month, and urges them to inform him and the public about changes.

Read Gov. Dayton’s full letter here.

 

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