Repost from The Wall Street Journal
[Editor: This is a must-read. IMPORTANT – See the Wall Street Journal site for an excellent video report and an interactive U.S. map showing the weekly average number of crude oil trains from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota that pass through each county. – RS]
Oil Trains Hide in Plain Sight
Rail Industry’s Secret: Volatile Crude Routes Often Kept From Cities and TownsBy Russell Gold, Dec. 3, 2014
NEWARK, Del.—Early last year, a new kind of pipeline full of volatile oil appeared in this college town, halfway between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
If it had been a traditional pipeline, there would have been government hearings and environmental reviews. There would be markers or signs along the line’s route and instructions for nearby residents on how to react in an emergency. A detailed plan for responding to a spill would be on file with the federal government.
None of that happened here in Newark. In fact, nobody initially notified the city’s fire chief about the new line, which can carry more than a hundred thousand barrels of oil a day along Amtrak’s busiest passenger-rail corridor.
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This was possible because the oil here is transported by a virtual pipeline: mile-long strings of railroad tanker cars that travel from North Dakota to a refinery in Delaware. In Newark, the cars are especially easy to spot as they often sit for hours on tracks 10 feet away from passing passenger trains, waiting for an opening at the nearby PBF Energy Inc. plant.
While the existence of this virtual pipeline is obvious to its neighbors—trains are visible from homes, the local commuter rail station, a park and a popular jogging trail—it is officially secret. Delaware Safety and Homeland Security officials contend that publicizing any information about the oil trains parked there would “reveal the State’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks,” according to a letter to The Wall Street Journal.
Finding the locations of oil-filled trains remains difficult, even in states that don’t consider the information top secret. There are no federal or state rules requiring public notice despite several fiery accidents involving oil trains, including one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
The desire for secrecy seems wrongheaded to some experts. “If you don’t share this information, how are people supposed to know what they are supposed to do when another Lac-Mégantic happens?” asked Denise Krepp, a consultant and former senior counsel to the congressional Homeland Security Committee.
She said more firefighting equipment and training was needed urgently. “We are not prepared,” she said.
In May, federal regulators ordered railroads to tell states about the counties traversed by trains carrying combustible crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota so local first responders could be notified.
The Journal submitted open-records requests to all 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia and received at least some information from all but 14: Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia.
Mapping data received from the disclosing states, the Journal found a lot of other cities in the same situation as Newark. On its way to refiners on the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico, oil often sits in tank cars in railroad yards outside Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, Penn., and passes through Cleveland, Chicago, Albany, Seattle and a dozen other cities.
Bakken oil is flowing in two directions from North Dakota: west toward Portland and the Puget Sound; and east through Minneapolis, then southeast through Chicago, and across the northern edge of Indiana and Ohio. There it splits into three routes: One heads to Albany; another goes to Yorktown, Va., where the crude is transferred to barges for trips up and down the East Coast. The third heads to Philadelphia through Ohio, which is one of the states that doesn’t disclose data, but the Journal was able to deduce the routes by following available maps.
Other oil trains run south from Oregon to California, from Minnesota to Texas, and from Wisconsin toward the Gulf Coast.
Maryland previously had attempted to release oil-train information, but was successfully sued by Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp. Norfolk argued that these trains were carrying “highly volatile cargo” that could be a target for terrorists.
Railroads have continued to press for secrecy; in August, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association wrote a confidential letter to the federal government asking that routing information be kept from the public. The request was denied.
“The rail industry is concerned making crude oil route information public elevates security risks by making it easier for someone intent on causing harm,” said AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg. The group said it supports sharing information with local officials.
Neither the oil nor the railroad industry anticipated the rapid and dramatic rise of oil shipments by train. In 2009, U.S. railroads transported about 21,000 barrels a day of oil; today they carry 1.1 million barrels a day, according to data from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulator. Last year, railroads generated about $2.15 billion in revenue from moving crude.
Shipments of hazardous material, especially crude oil, have soared recently, even for railroads whose routes are far from the oil fields of North Dakota. Norfolk Southern and CSX, which serve the East Coast, moved 53,001 carloads of oil in the three months ended September, compared with just seven carloads during the same period of 2009, according to data from the federal Surface Transportation Board. They transported 156,731 carloads of industrial chemicals, some of which are hazardous, in the third quarter of this year, up 8% from five years ago.
Trains are the new pipelines, and have become a vital link in the energy infrastructure, said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern. “We are the keystone, the bridge, between the source of where the energy is extracted and where it is refined,” he said. Moving hazardous material like crude, he added, is “safe and getting safer.”
Trains offer the energy industry flexibility to move oil where it can fetch the highest prices. Building the needed loading and unloading terminals is fast and inexpensive, and an extensive rail network connects the Midwest to the East and West coasts.
While these virtual pipelines can be created in months, traditional pipelines have become increasingly difficult to install as environmental groups seek to block permits for new energy infrastructure.
“What we are seeing on rail is largely due to opposition to and uncertainty around building pipelines,” said Brigham McCown, who was the chief pipeline regulator under President George W. Bush . Pipelines, he adds, are far safer than trains.
Since Lac-Mégantic, several trains have derailed and exploded. Most of these accidents have happened in relatively rural areas like Casselton, N.D., a town of about 2,500 people 24 miles west of Fargo. But one occurred in downtown Lynchburg, Va., forcing the evacuation of much of the downtown in a city with 78,000 residents.
In response, railroads agreed to slow oil trains to 40 miles an hour in urban areas, and federal regulators have proposed a broader speed limit for older tank cars carrying volatile crude oil.
The rules don’t apply to other freight trains or Amtrak trains that share tracks in Newark with oil trains; about 85 Amtrak trains run through Newark every day, according to a spokesman, at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. In addition to Norfolk Southern, which operates on the outskirts of town, CSX runs oil trains on a wholly separate track heading north toward refineries near Philadelphia.
Without oil trains, the local PBF Refinery might not be operating. Opened in 1956 on the Delaware River, the refinery handled imported oil that arrived by water from overseas; it was mothballed in 2009 as the economics of importing crude oil soured and demand for gasoline slumped.
PBF bought the refinery in 2011, reopened it the next year and began adding facilities to unload crude from trains. The company owns or leases 4,000 tank cars, has 1,900 more on order and said it is committed to using the safest cars available.
The refinery built a double loop that can accommodate two trains, each holding 70,000 barrels of crude. It can take workers 14 hours to unload each train by connecting hoses to drain out the cargo.
The Bakken crude contains a lot of butane, making it volatile but useful for mixing with heavier oils or as a refined byproduct, said refinery manager José Dominguez. On a recent afternoon, the refinery was running mostly Bakken oil, along with some diluted crude from Canadian oil sands and a ship’s worth of light sweet oil from Basra, Iraq.
When Norfolk Southern began routing crude trains through Newark, it didn’t notify the local emergency officials. Last March, a year after trains started turning up, Fire Chief A.J. Schall sat down with officials from the railroad and refinery to discuss the crude shipments.
“It shows a lack of communication,” he said. By the summer, Norfolk Southern and PBF paid for Mr. Schall and another local fire chief to fly to Colorado and attend a three-day class on crude-by-rail trains.
Some people who live and work along the tracks say that they are disquieted by the increased traffic and especially of the new presence of mile-long strings of black tanker cars, but unaware of any new accident-preparedness plans.
Demitri Theodoropoulos, who manages a record store facing the intersection, said that since 2004 his security cameras have recorded 14 collisions, including one in 2012 when a train smashed into a large truck.
“We have major, major freight traffic here,” he said. “I see trains with crude every day or so. I don’t like it, but this is the way it is.”