Tag Archives: Rochester NY

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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    Map shows 100 schools along crude oil train tracks

    Repost from WestfairOnline, White Plains, NY

    Map shows 100 schools along crude oil train tracks

    By: Mark Lungariello, December 01, 2014

    On July 6, 2013, a train hauling more than 70 cars filled with volatile crude oil derailed in Quebec, Canada, after its engine caught fire and power to its air brakes was cut. Several DOT-111 oil tankers filled with crude mined from South Dakota’s Bakken Shale ignited, spilling oil and sending a fireball into the sky of the town of Lac-Mégantic that destroyed 30 buildings, according to reports.

    Forty-seven people died. Several thousand more were evacuated while oil seeped into the soil and local waterways. The Quebec derailment and several other disasters have brought increased scrutiny on the transportation of crude oil by rail as the amount of oil mined domestically continues to multiply.

    A map of schools in the Hudson Valley within a mile of crude oil train lines. (Click to go to interactive map page.)
    A map of schools in the Hudson Valley within a mile of crude oil train lines. (Click to go to interactive map page.)

    New maps from state environmental groups show there are more than 100 public and private K-12 schools within a mile of train lines used to transport crude oil through the region. Albany-based Healthy School Networks released the maps last month in partnership with a coalition of environmental and education activists.

    “They are crossing from Buffalo through Rochester and from the upper reaches of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the Port of Albany, then down along the Hudson River,” Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, said. “A catastrophic event, should it happen near an occupied school, could devastate a community for a generation or more.”

    From 15 to 30 trains carrying crude out of South Dakota travel through the Hudson Valley region each week. Each train can haul dozens or as many as 100 oil cars, each that carry tens of thousands of gallons of the Bakken crude, which experts say is more volatile and unstable than other forms of oil. Oil is also transported by barge on waterways through the region and plans are in the gestation phase to begin transporting other types of crude through the area by rail as well.

    The maps also included BOCES schools. Statewide, the maps identified 351 schools within one mile of train lines. In Monroe County alone, in the Rochester area, 63 schools were within the one-mile zone.

    Environmental group Riverkeeper prepared an additional several maps depicting the potential impact area of local crude oil accidents based on the 300-yard blast radius and 1,100-yard evacuation zone from the Quebec derailment and a Casselton, N.D., derailment that spilled more than 400,000 gallons of crude.

    “Based on the human consequences of these two accidents, it is clear that communities on both sides of the Hudson River could be impacted by a crude oil rail disaster,” said Kate Hudson, Riverkeeper’s Watershed Program director.

    A CSX Corp. rail line runs from Albany to the state’s border with New Jersey. Land trust organization Scenic Hudson said that 47.7 miles of that track are within yards of the Hudson River. The group estimates the risk area in the event of a derailment would be more than 200,000 acres and include 100,000 households and six drinking water intakes.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook recommends a half-mile evacuation zone for accidents involving rail cars with flammable liquids and a mile zone around any rail car filled with those materials if they are on fire.

    Environmental groups are calling for state and federal government reforms. These include asking government officials to provide emergency planning aid to schools, reduce speed limits for crude oil trains and impose stricter regulations and inspections for deteriorating DOT-111 tankers. The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering stricter regulations of the cars, but environmental groups have said the proposed laws don’t go far enough.

    The state has increased its inspection of cars in response to recent derailments, but oil industry experts look to continue to expand their processing capacities as the amount of crude mined through hydraulic fracturing surges. The amount of Bakken moving through the U.S. has risen from 9,500 rail carloads in 2008 to 415,000 rail carloads in 2013, according to the Department of Transportation.

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      Crowdsourced train-spotting in New York: The case of the disappearing crude-oil tank cars

      Repost from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
      [Editor: …with apologies for auto-loading video.  – RS]

      The case of the disappearing crude-oil tank cars

      Steve Orr, September 4, 2014

      Trains carrying crude oil pass regularly through the Rochester area these days. But which of two routes through Monroe County is CSX Transportation using?

      Readers helped us answer that question, and in the process, revealed something of a mystery about our oil-train traffic.

      The traffic is pretty much one way.

      Oil trains are big news these days. The volume of crude oil being transported by rail has skyrocketed, and there’s particular concern about the crude that’s being hauled every day across upstate New York. That oil, which originates in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and environs, is much more volatile than other crude and hence more dangerous in the event of a derailment or other accident. There have been several fiery incidents involving Bakken oil trains, including one last year in Quebec, Canada that claimed 47 lives.

      Between 20 and 35 oil trains travel across upstate each week, passing through Monroe County on their way to Albany, CSX reported to New York state not long ago.


      As we in turn reported wrote in July, there’s evidence that CSX prefers to send oil trains on a route through the suburbs south of Rochester versus the one that passes through the heart of the city. The railroad itself seemed to indicate as much on a map in its report to the state, and a Rochester fire officer said he’d been told the same. But a Henrietta fire chief said something different, and the railroad itself wouldn’t provide us verification when we asked.

      So we turned to crowdsourcing – asking readers to help by telling us where and when they observed oil trains moving through the county. In the ensuing weeks, we received about 40 reports of unique oil-train movements through Monroe County.

      The resulting data are unscientific, to be sure and probably don’t reflect the full picture. For instance, no one reported seeing an oil train earlier than 7:15 am or later than 10:30 pm. But that’s probably because most prospective witnesses are at home during those hours.

      Still, our reader reports were heavily skewed toward the suburban route known as the West Shore line. Seventy-four percent of the sightings of oil trains took place on the West Shore, with the other 26 percent in the more urban freight corridor, known as the Main Line.

      That fits with what we’d heard: Oil trains are routed onto the West Shore when that track is available. If it’s not, they use the Main Line. (That choice also makes some sense from a risk assessment standpoint; my calculations showed population density is twice as high along the Main Line as the West Shore.)

      But our crowdsourcing reports found something else interesting – 86 percent of the oil trains were headed east when our witnesses saw them. The balance were headed west.

      Why? Well, consider this: Inferring from the trains-per-county data that CSX included in its report to the state, most of the oil that crosses upstate continues south from Albany via rail, undoubtedly heading for refineries in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area or elsewhere in the East.

      But 15 to 25 percent of the trains terminate their runs in Albany, the CSX data show. Presumably, they’re taking advantage of the newly thriving (though controversial) business of floating crude oil in barge down the Hudson River and on to the refineries.

      That coincides quite nicely with our readers’ reports that only about 15 percent of the trains they saw were westbound, doesn’t it?

      So maybe that’s the deal: Trains that dump their volatile cargoes in Albany are hightailing it back to the Northern Plains to pick up more crude. But the tanker cars that travel south from Albany to unload their oil — if they’re returning to the Bakken for a refill, maybe they’re going a more roundabout way.

      Mystery solved?

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