Tag Archives: Sacramento Bee

KQED: As More Crude Oil Rolls In, a Push for Better Track Inspection

Repost from KQED Science
[Editor: Excellent Mina Kim audio interview with Tony Bizjak below.  New information on Union Pacific derailment frequency, bridge inspection and other issues.  – RS]

As More Crude Oil Rolls In, a Push for Better Track Inspection

By Mina Kim and Molly Samuel | KQED Science | October 22, 2014 
Union Pacific owns the tracks that would deliver crude oil to the Valero refinery in Benicia. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Union Pacific owns the tracks that would deliver crude oil to the Valero refinery in Benicia. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

Shipments of crude oil by rail are expected to increase in the Bay Area and the rest of the state in the near future. BNSF Railways is already transporting crude oil into Richmond, including the kind of oil that exploded from a derailment and killed 47 people in a Quebec town last year.

In response to concerns about the risks of crude by rail, the state’s other large rail company, Union Pacific, began to boost its rail inspection program by dispatching vehicles with lasers that can find tiny track imperfections, as the Sacramento Bee reports:

The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, Union Pacific officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.

The Bee’s Tony Bizjack spoke with Mina Kim about the program, which began last month. Bizjack explained that Union Pacific is particularly worried about California’s mountain passes because they’re considered more high-hazard areas, “often because they’re curving, they’re on slopes, and they have to deal with more extreme weather,” he said.

Bizjak rode on one of the track inspection vehicles. He said they’re equipped with ultrasound to look into the rails to find weaknesses and lasers to measure variations in rail height and alignment.

In the last five years, Union Pacific has had about 180 derailments in California, Bizjack said. “Derailments are surprisingly frequent, but generally very minor,” he said. “Most of those derailments, however, the train cars ended up standing up, not falling over.”

About half of all derailments are caused by track problems, said Bizjack. Others are caused by human and equipments errors. “So tracks are important, that’s sort of the front-line of defense — PUC and FRA think — in reducing the chance these new crude oil shipments can derail, explode.”

Union Pacific is not yet bringing volatile Bakken crude to California. But there are plans in the works for Union Pacific to bring crude oil both to and through the Bay Area, Bizjak explains. A project at the Valero refinery in Benicia would bring two 50-car trains a day through Sacramento and along the I-80 corridor. Another proposal in Santa Maria, by Phillips 66, would bring trains through Sacramento, the East Bay, San Jose and down the coast.

“If you ask anybody in the Office of Emergency Services here in California, or first responders, fire departments, there is a real level of concern about the safety with more crude oil coming in,” Bizjak said.

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    Benicia DEIR downplays risks in marked contrast to NRDC assessment

    Repost from AllGov California

    This Is Where Deadly Crude Oil Trains May Be Rolling Through California

    By Ken Broder, June 20, 2014
    (graphic: Natural Resources Defense Council)

    Although this country’s oil boom has been accompanied by an explosion of dangerous crude-carrying trains―literally and figuratively―a much-anticipated environmental impact report (Summary pdf) says the spill threat from Valero Refining Company’s proposal to run 100 tanker cars a day through Roseville and Sacramento to its Benicia refinery is negligible.

    The draft EIR, written by Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco for the city of Benicia and released on Tuesday, singled out air pollution, “significant and unavoidable,” as the sole danger among 11 “environmental resource or issue areas.”

    The next day, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released seven maps detailing the rail routes through the “Crude Oil Train Derailment Risk Zones in California,” which stretches from the Bay Area to the Central/San Joaquin Valley and encompasses 4 million people.

    The NRDC’s assessment of risk was markedly different than in the EIR. Noting that “California has seen a dramatic increase of crude by rail, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million barrels in 2013” without any new safety measures or emergency response put in place, the NRDC report said the aging “soda cans on wheels” are not built to handle the particularly volatile crude being fracked out of the ground in America’s rejuvenated oil fields like those in North Dakota, and shipped to refiners.

    Tracks would run within half a mile of 135,000 people in Sacramento and 25,000 people in Davis.

    The NRDC wants old tanker cars removed from service, lower speeds for trains, rerouting through less-sensitive areas, disclosure of what kind of crude is being carried, more visible emergency preparedness, fees on shippers to pay for emergency response, high-risk designations for oil-trains and more comprehensive risk assessments.

    The EIR was a bit more upbeat.

    It concluded that oil spills between Roseville and Benicia would occur about once every 111 years. The project would have no impact on agriculture and forestry resources or mineral resources. It would also have less-than-significant impacts on aesthetics, population and housing, public services, recreation and utilities and service systems.

    In other words, the assumption is there won’t be anything like the tragic accident in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 72 tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town’s core. As Russell Gold and Betsy Morris explained in the Wall Street Journal, “Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a wide body jetliner.”

    The Sacramento Bee said the risk assessment’s author, Christopher Barken, previously worked for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association.

    Barken’s website at the University of Illinois, where he is a professor and executive director of the Railroad Engineering Program, says, “Our strong relationship with the rail industry means our research has an impact.”

    In describing the twice-a-day snaking of 50-car trains through heavily populated areas, the report offered far more information than has generally been made available by rail companies to state and local governments, as well as disaster first-responders. But the EIR did acknowledge Benicia would not reveal seven Valero “trade secrets” (pdf) at the oil company’s request.

    That “confidential business information” included the specific crude Valero would be shipping in by rail and the properties of crude it refined now or in the past. That lack of information would be complicating factors in accurately assessing pollution and risk.

    California, like states and localities across the nation, are scrambling just to get a handle on how much crude-by-rail is coursing through their jurisdictions, much less assessing what regulations and safety measures need to be put in place. They are working blind.

    A study by Politico analyzed 400 oil-train incidents nationally since 1971 and found a dramatic escalation the past five years. Property damage from 70 accidents through mid-May this year is already $10 million, triple the year before.

    “It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said.

    They must. Because the trains are already rolling and Valero would like to get its California project finished by the end of the year. America is waiting.

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      California imposes 6.5-cent fee on oil companies for every barrel of crude that arrives by rail or pipeline

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee
      [Editor: Significant quote: “The resulting funds, estimated at $11 million in the first full year, will be allocated for oil spill prevention and preparation work, and for emergency cleanup costs. The efforts will be focused on spills that threaten waterways, and will allow officials to conduct response drills.”  Of course, we won’t need this fund if we simply STOP crude by rail and move toward clean energy.  – RS]

      California to impose fee on crude oil rail shipments; funds to be used for spill prevention, cleanup

      By Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee  |  Jun. 16, 2014
      A crude oil train operated by BNSF travels just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills into the Sacramento Valley. Jake Miille / Special to The Bee

      California leaders have included several safety provisions in this year’s state budget with the aim of preventing toxic spills and fires as oil companies ship more crude oil on trains through cities and wildland areas.

      Beginning in the coming fiscal year, the state will apply a 6.5-cent fee on oil companies for every barrel of crude that arrives in California on rail, or that is piped to refineries from inside the state. The resulting funds, estimated at $11 million in the first full year, will be allocated for oil spill prevention and preparation work, and for emergency cleanup costs. The efforts will be focused on spills that threaten waterways, and will allow officials to conduct response drills.

      The budget also separately includes funds to hire seven more rail safety inspectors for the California Public Utilities Commission, PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.

      The 6.5-cent shipping charge will be administered by the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “We consider this a great victory,” office administrator Tom Cullen said Monday. Until now, the office’s scope has been confined mainly to coastal areas. “We weren’t positioned in California to prepare for and respond to oil spills on the interior of the state.”

      Cullen and others negotiated the shipping charge over the weekend with oil industry officials. The charge, an extension of an existing marine fee, may be the first of several steps California officials take in coming months to improve the state’s ability to minimize oil spills and handle them more effectively when they happen.

      Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said his organization will work with the state on the issue.

      “The new revenues, the first place they should go, is to make sure local responders are adequately equipped,” Hull said. “We recognized from the beginning that this is a legitimate issue.”

      The safety efforts have taken on urgency as oil companies reveal plans for hundreds of crude-by-rail shipments in California, including a proposal by the Valero Refining Co. to ship 100 crude oil tank cars a day through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to Benicia. Details of that plan are expected to be released by Benicia officials Tuesday.

      Federal officials have warned that one of the crude oils being shipped into the state, from the Bakken region of North Dakota, appears to be more flammable than typical crude oils. Three recent train crashes and explosions, including one that killed 47 people in the Canadian city of Lac-Megantic last year, prompted federal transportation officials last month to require that railroads notify state emergency officials of large Bakken shipment times and routes.

      Central to the state’s safety efforts will be keeping a closer watch on the tracks themselves. The state budget includes seven new rail inspector positions to help the California Public Utilities Commission fulfill its mandate to inspect every mile of rail in the state annually. PUC deputy director of rail safety programs Paul King said his agency has failed in that task some years because of lack of personnel.

      With rail crude oil shipments on the rise, it’s critical that the state steps up now, King said. “The Bakken crude in particular is a big problem. This is a lot of volatile material coming in on routes where it hasn’t come in before.”

      The state Senate on Monday passed a resolution urging the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal agencies to write tougher standards for train tank cars and to “prioritize safety over cost effectiveness” in dealing with rail crude shipments. Federal officials have said they intend to improve design standards for rail cars hauling crude oil, but haven’t set a date.

      Sens. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, introduced a bill last week that would impose a second shipping fee on oil companies to be used to train and equip “first responders,” such as fire departments and hazardous materials crews, to deal with major spills and fires on railroad lines. The authors have not yet determined the fee amount.

      “It’s not a matter of will (a spill) happen, it’s when,” Hill said. “We have to be prepared. We need to provide the resources for first responders to address the emergency.”

      A recent state report found that 40 percent of local firefighters in the state are volunteers whose departments generally lack the training and equipment to deal with major hazardous materials spills.

      Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, also has authored a bill requiring rail carriers to communicate more closely with state emergency officials about crude oil rail movements.

      Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/06/16/6488137/california-to-impose-fee-on-crude.html#storylink=c

       

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        California cities’ crude-by-rail opposition makes national news

        Repost from The Miami Herald

        As oil shipments rise on rails, California cities fight to be heard

        By Curtis Tate and Tony Bizjak
        McClatchy  Newspapers                           
         A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, CA.
        A tanker truck is filled from railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, CA.        Randall Benton    /     MCT 

        SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As rail shipments of crude oil have risen in Northern California, so has opposition in many communities along rail lines and near the refineries they supply.

        Concerned about the potential safety and environmental hazards of 100-car trains of oil rolling through population centers, leaders from Sacramento to San Jose say they’re banding together to present a unified voice for “up-line” cities: communities that could bear some of the highest risks as California turns toward rail shipments to quench its thirst for fuel.

        “What I suspect will come out of this is more of a regional understanding and interest in the topic,” said Mike Webb, director of community development and sustainability in Davis.

        The federal government regulates rail shipments, but the rules haven’t caught up to the surge in oil traffic on the nation’s rail network. That’s left local leaders at the forefront of pushing for changes in state and federal laws.

        Last week, the city councils of Berkeley and Richmond voted to oppose crude shipments on rail lines through their towns. The resolutions call for state lawmakers and members of Congress to seek tougher regulations.

        Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit last week against pipeline operator Kinder Morgan and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The groups said the agency quietly issued a permit to Kinder Morgan for a crude-by-rail facility in February without reviewing potential environmental and health impacts.

        “We don’t accept that as a forgone conclusion,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups in the lawsuit.

        But it may be an uphill fight. State officials anticipate that within two years, California will receive a quarter of its petroleum supply by rail. That could potentially mean several trains of crude oil passing daily through Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis.

        The Sacramento Bee reported last week that crude oil had been transferred from trains to trucks at the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento since last year without the knowledge of local emergency response officials and without a required air quality permit.

        Webb said Davis’ goal is to be part of the review process to make sure the city’s concerns are heard.

        “Our primary objective and interest is in the health and safety of our community,” he said.

        A group of community activists in Benicia and Martinez has been trying to stop two oil refiners, Tesoro and Valero, from expanding their crude oil deliveries by rail. And they’re pressing local, state and federal officials to push for tougher oversight of crude oil shipments by rail following a series of derailments with catastrophic fires and spills.

        They’re focused on two types of crude oil that are moving by rail in the absence of new pipelines. First is tar sands, a thick, gritty crude that’s produced in western Canada. Tar sands production generates more carbon dioxide emissions, environmentalists say, and is more difficult to clean up when spilled in water because it’s heavy and sinks.

        The second is Bakken crude, extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. Most of the Bakken formation lies in North Dakota, and most of the oil produced there moves out of the state by rail. The oil has proved more volatile than conventional types.

        Since last summer, three major derailments have involved Bakken crude. The first, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people in an inferno that also leveled the center of the small lakeside town.

        Subsequent derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, though not fatal, showed that disaster could strike again.

        “People are afraid that anybody along the rail line could become the next Lac-Megantic,” said Andres Soto, a community activist in Benicia.

        Part of the frustration at the local level is the lack of information about how much crude oil is being shipped on rail lines. The companies involved in transporting and refining oil are not required to provide much information on the shipments and usually don’t.

        “There is so little oversight,” Bailey said. “This is a new area and people are scratching their heads, saying, ‘Wow, this isn’t covered.’”

        West Sacramento Fire Chief Rick Martinez, who has experience fighting oil fires, said national attention on the issue may provide a platform for cities to push for better real-time information on what materials are coming through town, so emergency responders know what to expect as they head to a call.

        “Is there way through technology to get more information to local agencies?” he asked. “We are trying to take advantage of the interest to pose the questions.”

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