Tag Archives: Risk Assessment

Emergency Management Magazine: The Ticking Rail Car

Repost from Emergency Management Magazine
[Editor:  An excellent online comment appears following this article: “Wultcom” writes, “As always it is heartening to see how first responders rise to the occasion to protect us all.  If only such heroism rubbed off just a little on the railroad industry.  The creation of courses for first responders is praiseworthy. But it does create a false sense of security, for when Bakken crude explodes, the force of the fire is too great to allow firefighters to get anywhere near it.  The first duty of government is to protect citizens, not shareholders.  The rail industry takes advantage of lax regulators, pro-business governments, frail labor unions, and our desire for oil independence to roll the dice on safety.  They run 150 ton tank cars on 8000 foot trains with skeletal crews, well dictated by the profit motive.  An alliance of railway workers, environmentalists, and blast zone citizens can force a safer method of transporting crude oil.”  – RS]

The Ticking Rail Car: First Responders Are Preparing for the Worst

Railways are now carrying highly explosive Bakken crude oil, making emergency managers’ jobs even tougher.

By Jim McKay | April 10, 2015
Train carrying Bakken crude oil
Millions of people are potentially at risk from trains like this one carrying Bakken crude oil. Flickr/Brewbooks

Emergency managers have been asked in recent years to do a lot more with fewer resources. That job got even tougher with the advent of oil shipments from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota via rail around the country.

Bakken is obtained by hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, which has increased since 2000 and can be highly explosive. And there have been several train derailments recently, including one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 that killed 47 people.

In the U.S., a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in West Virginia on Feb. 16, 2015, sending orange flames skyward for days. There have been other derailments, and there’s concern of a scene like the one in Quebec happening in a major U.S. city, including those in Pennsylvania. A report by PublicSource said 1.5 million people are potentially at risk if a train carrying crude oil derails and catches fire there.

Emergency managers are concerned and doing what they can to mitigate a derailment and possible explosion in their backyards. There’s training available but questions remain: Do emergency managers have all the information they need? Can one locale handle an explosion caused by a 30,000-gallon oil tanker incident?

“From a people standpoint, the worst-case scenario is if you have one or more of these cars breach and start on fire,” said Rick Edinger, assistant chief of the Chesterfield County, Va., Fire and EMS Department and a hazardous materials expert. “There’s an ongoing debate about how volatile crude oil is. The feds and industry are coming to realize now that it really depends on where the oil comes from.”

Because of that and other reasons, it’s important to understand the nature of the product, according to Robert Gardner, technological hazards coordinator for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Emergency managers should study lessons learned and best practices and have safety data sheets. This information should be part of a risk assessment that lets first responders develop agency-specific response protocols that ensure responder safety and accounts for those exposed to potential fire.

Regional planning groups such as local emergency planning committees should review the routes that trains may use and identify sensitive receptors like water supplies, fisheries or agricultural areas.

Good to Know

There’s ongoing debate about what information communities and emergency managers should know about train routes and shipments of crude.

“Flow studies have been around for a long time and that’s an old tool that could be applied to figure out what’s going through your community,” Edinger said. “You may not have it down to the gallon and the day, but you have a great sense of what’s coming through and frankly, from a hazmat standpoint, I don’t need to know a specific time, I just need to know the worst-case scenario.”

Gardner said that in terms of actual shipments, there’s never enough information available. “We may know when a unit over a million gallons may be coming or where they are traveling, but those trains carrying fewer than 30 cars become unknowns,” he wrote in an email.

Some railroads have systems in place that allow for real-time knowledge of what any particular train may be carrying and the tanks’ location in the train.

Gardner said planning for Bakken crude oil transport is no different from any other hazardous material or even natural gas because you have an assessment and understand what you’re planning for and the role of those involved. But he acknowledged that the volume of the product is a concern.

The biggest concern for many is that one or more cars loaded with crude breach can start a fire. “Once you get past anything the size of a 9,000-gallon oil tanker, very few departments have the resources or capability to mitigate anything bigger,” Edinger said. “If you’re talking about a 30,000-tank car incident, even that would be beyond the capabilities of most departments in the initial stages, anyway.”

New federal rules instituted last year require carriers to notify state emergency response commissions about the transport routes of cars carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude from Bakken. But some emergency managers say that doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t include the typical load of 30,000 gallons.

Training is available for mitigating such a circumstance, but managing the volume of an incident that size could be daunting, Edinger said. “With the exception of a couple of departments, most can’t afford to stock and maintain the resources you would need to even approach doing something with one of these incidents.”

Gardner said the local Maine railroads have worked to educate first responders on rail safety. “This is of particular importance as rail employees have the specific knowledge of cars and engines that not all responders have, but need [in order] to have a safe response.”

Need Some Help

Gardner said it would help if the railroads could assist with the cost of the “gap pieces” of response equipment that have been identified as needed through the assessments. “It would be an immense help to many of the small volunteer agencies that we have in Maine and throughout the nation,” he wrote.

An examination of the tank car fleet that carries flammable liquids may be necessary as well. Canada has banned certain cars that are known to be unsafe in crash situations, but the U.S. has lagged. Part of the reason is the price. It would cost up to $1 billion to retrofit all of the 300,000 DOT-111 tank cars in use and take years.

“The dialog is going in a good direction,” Edinger said. “There seems to be agreement within public safety and the rail industry that we can do better with the construction of cars and that will improve, and perhaps prevent some incidents from happening.”

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    Concerns of communities heard at meeting of the Cal Energy Commission in Crockett CA

    Repost from The Contra Costa Times

    Contra Costa residents pushing for more information on crude by rail

    By Karina Ioffee, Bay Area News Group,  03/27/2015 05:22:01 PM PDT

    CROCKETT — With plans in the works to transport crude oil by rail through Contra Costa County cities to a Central California refinery, local residents say they want assurances that state and federal agencies are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

    Less than 1 percent of crude that California refineries received in 2014 came by rail, but the negative perception of transporting oil by train has grown sharply because of highly publicized accidents. A derailment in Quebec in 2013 killed 47 people and destroyed parts of a town; another in West Virginia contaminated local water sources and forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

    Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez on May 6, 2013.
    Tanker cars sit on railroad tracks near the Shell Refinery in Martinez on May 6, 2013. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

    If the Phillips 66 plans are approved, an estimated five trains a week, each hauling 80 tank cars, could travel through Contra Costa cities, then Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose along the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, before arriving at the refinery in Santa Maria.

    At a community meeting here Thursday, residents peppered a representative from the California Energy Commission about what kind of emergency plans were in place should a train derail and explode, what timelines the federal government had for new and improved tanker cars, and whether railroad companies have enough insurance in case of a catastrophic event.

    Many came away unsatisfied with what they heard, saying they were terrified by the prospect of rail cars filled with Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is lighter and more combustible than most types of petroleum.

    “The oil companies are getting all the benefits and the communities who live near them are taking all the risk,” said Nancy Rieser, who lives in Crockett and is a member of Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, a community organization.

    Her group is pushing the railroad industry to release its risk-assessment information, required for insurance purposes, to better understand what kind of plans companies have in an event of an emergency and whether their insurance policies would cover a large incident. Railroad companies have so far declined to release the information.

    “You need to have hospitals at the ready, you need to have first responders, so if you keep it a secret, it’s as if the plan didn’t exist,” Rieser said. “You can’t be coy with the communities.”

    Regulations about rail safety are written and enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration, and the California Public Utilities Commission focuses on enforcement in the state, employing inspectors to make sure railroads comply with the law. There is also an alphabet soup of state agencies such as the Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR).

    But to what extent the agencies are working together to prepare for crude-by-rail transports and how they’re sharing information remains unclear. Last year, an Interagency Rail Safety Working Group, put together by Gov. Jerry Brown, produced a report recommending that additional inspectors be hired to evaluate tracks, rail cars and bridges; more training for local emergency responders; and real-time shipment information to local firefighters when a train is passing through a community. According to the report, incidents statewide involving oil by rail increased from three in 2011 to 25 in 2013.

    Many at Thursday’s meeting said the only way to prevent future accidents was to ban the transport of crude by rail completely, until all rail cars and tracks had been inspected.

    “These trains are really scary because we live so close to them and we feel the effects deeply through emissions and air pollution,” said Aimee Durfee, a Martinez resident. Statewide, Californians use more than 40 million gallons of gasoline each day, according to the California Energy Commission.

    Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said railroad companies are already shifting to new cars — outfitted with heat shields, thicker tank material and pressure-relief devices — although the process is gradual because of the sheer volume of the fleet, estimated at more than 25,000. New rulings specifying tanker car standards and timelines about phasing in updated technology are also expected this May.

    “No human activity is completely risk-free,” Weinstein said, adding that the spill rate for trains transporting crude was roughly four times higher than accidents involving pipelines.

    “Communities are resistant to crude by rail and they are against pipelines, but they also want to go to the pump and be able to fill up their car.”

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      Former Albany Council Member: State has power to halt oil trains

      Repost from The Albany Times Union

      State has power to halt oil trains

      By Dominick Calsolaro, Letters, March 18, 2015

      A recent article (“More oil train crashes predicted,” Feb. 23) by The Associated Press says it all: “The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.”

      Crude oil transport by rail must be stopped in New York state, immediately. In light of the report by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the recent crude oil train derailments and explosions in Illinois and West Virginia, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and Gov. Andrew Cuomo can no longer hide behind the mantra that crude oil transport by rail is the federal government’s problem and the state has no authority in the matter.

      The governor and commissioner are legally required to protect the health, safety, welfare and property of citizens. U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., as well as Larry Mann, principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, have publicly stated crude oil by rail is dangerous and potentially deadly. A summary abatement order by Martens to ban all rail transport of crude oil until it is proven that such transport is safe is well within Martens’ power.

      The people cannot wait for another catastrophe before our leaders take action.

      Dominick Calsolaro
      Albany
      Former Albany Common Council member
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        Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

        Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
        [Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues.  The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback.  This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are.  For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo.  – RS]

        Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

        By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
        With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

        They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”

        This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

        The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

        Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

        The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

        Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

        While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

        While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

        Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

        What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”

        While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,

        “All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”

        It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

        See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone: tinyurl.com/NYS-derailment-risks.

        Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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