Tag Archives: Sacramento River

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

Repost from The Contra Costa Times
[Editor:  The issue of bridge safety is important here in Benicia for two reasons.  Locally, we understand that Valero’s proposed oil trains would roll PAST the refinery in order to back into the offloading racks, thus coming to a stop near enough to the Benicia-Martinez bridge that, in the event of an explosion, the bridge itself could be severely impacted if not destroyed.  Beyond Benicia, our little City’s decision would impact rail lines all the way from Alberta and North Dakota, including bridges of questionable security all along the way.  – RS]

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

By Matthias Gafni, 09/12/2014
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

As concerns grow over aging rail infrastructure, earthquake readiness and a dramatic increase in crude oil shipments by train, state railroad regulators are scrambling to hire their first-ever railroad bridge inspectors — two of them.

Once they are hired, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to create a state railroad bridge inventory to determine which are most at risk. That’s right — neither the state nor federal government has a list of railroad bridges for California or the rest of the country. Until that happens, the safety of California’s thousands of railroad bridges — key conduits that carry people and hazardous materials over environmentally sensitive ecosystems and near urban areas — is left up to rail line owners and a single federal inspector who splits his time among 11 states.

An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

“Two more inspectors is better than none, but it’s really a Band-Aid,” said Suma Peesapati, attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group fighting the oil rail influx. “I think there should be no crude by rail over those bridges until there’s a comprehensive look at all of them.”

No California rail bridges have failed in recent memory, but the 6.0 earthquake that rattled the Napa area on Aug. 24 provided a reminder that California must monitor its aging rail infrastructure.

Following the quake, the Federal Railroad Administration worked with Caltrans to contact railroads within a 100-mile radius and ensure bridges and tracks were inspected for damage before resuming normal operations. The Napa Valley Wine Train, which was closed for two days after the quake, had its own private inspector go over the tracks and numerous bridges, including one traversing Highway 29. The inspector gave the green light to continue running Aug. 26.

Caltrans employs 120 inspectors and 80 specialty personnel to inspect the state’s public automobile highway bridges to ensure the integrity of the elevated structures, in comparison to the one federal inspector for all of California’s rail bridges, most of which are privately owned.

Those railroad bridges are inspected, maintained and regulated by company personnel, but watchdogs say that’s far from adequate.

In its annual Railroad Safety Activity Report to the state Legislature in November, the CPUC identified the state’s railroad bridges as a “potential significant rail safety risk.”

“There are many unknown questions regarding bridge integrity that need to be answered to ensure public safety,” the report found.

The Benicia-Martinez Rail Drawbridge, built in 1930 and tucked between the automobile spans, carries hazardous material shipments across the Carquinez Strait to East Bay refineries, along with 30 Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger trains each weekday. The bridge is owned by Union Pacific and is safe, the company’s spokesman said.

“We regularly inspect all of our bridges in California,” said Union Pacific’s Aaron Hunt. “We perform necessary maintenance required to assure the safe use of our bridges. Bridges and culverts are a critical part of our 32,000-mile network.”

Union Pacific has spent more than $42 billion on infrastructure, Hunt said, not specifying what portion of that was devoted to bridges, including $4.1 billion scheduled for this year. “These are private investments, not taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, the state report found many bridges are owned by smaller short-line railroads that “may not be willing or able to acquire the amount of capital needed to repair or replace degrading bridges.”

Crude by rail

Concern has grown about bridge safety and rail safety in general with the increase of crude oil shipments by rail. They’ve jumped 158 percent in California from just September to December 2013, according to the state energy commission.

This year, the CPUC created the Crude Oil Reconnaissance Team to monitor the oil-by-train boom to ensure federal and state safety laws are followed.

In June, federal rail chief Joseph Szabo spoke to an Indiana newspaper about the crude-by-rail boom: “The movement of this product is a game changer. We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.”

In response to the increase and some deadly accidents, including a derailment last summer in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed tank car safety upgrades.

As of now, about 100 rail cars of crude roll through populated areas of the East Bay each week along the BNSF line from Stockton to Kinder Morgan’s rail depot in Richmond. The route traverses the 1,690-foot-long, 80-foot-high Muir Trestle, above Alhambra Avenue in Martinez. The trestle was constructed in 1899 and rebuilt 30 years later. Those rail cars rumble through Antioch, Pittsburg, Bay Point, Martinez, and Hercules, said Contra Costa Hazardous Materials chief Randy Sawyer.

Aging

Based on total track miles and federal estimates of a bridge occurring every 1.25 miles of track, the CPUC estimates there are about 5,000 California railroad bridges.

Most are old steel and timber structures built more than 100 years ago, and “actual railroad bridge plans or records are either absent or unreliable,” the CPUC report found.

“It’s part of the infrastructure that’s dilapidated, not only in California, but across the country,” Peesapati said. “Bridges are really an example of the problem.”

American Society of Civil Engineers past President Andy Herrmann, a bridge consultant, said companies balk at releasing bridge data for competitive reasons, but he believes bridges are maintained safely.

“There’s a very strong profit motive to keep the bridges open,” Herrmann said. “Detours will cost them a fortune.”

However, the 2007 Government Accountability Office report also found that “Because bridge and tunnel work is costly, railroads typically make other investments to improve mobility first.”

Are they safe?

In 1991, a freight train traversing steep switchbacks in Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, derailed, sending rail cars tumbling off a bridge and resulting in 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a concentrated herbicide, leaking into the upper Sacramento River. The accident killed all vegetation, fish and other aquatic animals 45 miles downstream, rendering some invertebrate species extinct. Several hundred people exposed to the contaminated water required medical treatment in what’s still considered the worst inland ecological disaster in the state.

Although the accident was not caused by bridge failure, it led the railroad to build a derailment barrier on the Cantara Loop bridge to prevent it happening again. And the Federal Railroad Administration expressed concern about the condition of bridges generally in a wide-ranging review after the crash.

“The review was prompted by the agency’s perception that the bridge population was aging, traffic density and loads were increasing on many routes, and the consequences of a bridge failure could be catastrophic,” according to a report published in 1991, the same year as the crash.

From 1982 to 2008, records show there were 58 train accidents nationwide caused by the structural failure of a railroad bridge, causing nine injuries and about $26.5 million in damages.

State hires

As of July 2010, new federal rules require rail companies prepare bridge management programs — including annual inspections, maintenance inventories and more — that are made available to federal inspectors when asked. The Federal Railroad Administration can levy fines up to $100,000 for failure to comply.

Federal inspectors audit railroad bridge inspections done by the companies and personally perform observations of 225 to 250 bridges each year. Based on those CPUC calculations, it would take the California inspector 20 years to visit and observe all of the state’s estimated 5,000 bridges, if that was all he had to do. But in reality, it would take much longer because California’s inspector splits his time among 11 states, leaving the CPUC to conclude in its 2013 report that the feds “cannot provide adequate oversight.”

That shortfall prompted state regulators to hire their own bridge inspectors, and they have already designed a bridge evaluation form and experimented with performing inspections.

“Railroad bridges carry thousands of cars of hazardous materials and thousands of passengers daily,” said CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow. “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has new, general bridge regulations … but employs only five inspectors for the entire U.S. The CPUC’s bridge inspectors will be able to augment the FRA’s efforts.”

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    KQED: Routes revealed for BNSF trains hauling volatile crude oil in California

    Repost from KQED Science
    [Editor: Of great interest for many in California, but lacking any comment on the Union Pacific rail line that transports freight to Benicia and over the Benicia Bridge to Contra Costa County and the East Bay.  Latest on the Union Pacific line as of 6/27/14: The Riverside Press Enterprise reports that “Union Pacific submitted a letter May 29 to the state office, saying the company was “compiling and reviewing the data.”  – RS]

    Revealed: Routes for Trains Hauling Volatile Crude Oil in California

    Molly Samuel, KQED Science | June 25, 2014
    A BNSF train carrying crude oil passes through downtown Sacramento. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)
    A BNSF train carrying crude oil passes through downtown Sacramento. (Jake Miille)

    State officials have released routing information for trains carrying a volatile grade of crude oil through California.

    The newly released information reveals that tank cars loaded with oil from the Bakken formation, a volatile crude that has a history of exploding, rumble through downtown Sacramento and through Stockton about once a week. Before they get there, they travel along the Feather River, a major tributary of the Sacramento and a key source of drinking water. They pass through rural Northern California counties — Modoc, Lassen, Placer, Plumas, Yuba and Butte — before reaching their destination in Contra Costa County.

    This is the first time that information about the trains’ routing in California and their frequency has been made public. About once a week, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train enters the state from Oregon, headed for the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond. Each train is carrying a million gallons or more of Bakken crude.

    “The purpose of the information is really to give first responders better awareness of what’s coming through their counties,” says Kelly Huston, a deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

    The notifications (shown below) provided by BNSF to the state list the counties through which the trains pass, and the average number of trains per week. They’re retrospective, reporting what’s already happened, rather than looking ahead to what trains could be coming.

    “Right now the information, because it’s not very specific, is being used as an awareness tool,” said Huston.

    An emergency order issued by the federal Department of Transportation requires railroads to notify emergency responders about large shipments of Bakken crude. BNSF had asked the OES to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which state officials refused to do. After keeping the notifications secret from the public for a few weeks, the state decided to release them on Wednesday, following the lead of other states that had already done so.

    “We think it is very important that those responsible for security and emergency planning have such information to ensure that proper planning and training are in place for public safety,” Roxanne Butler, a spokeswoman for BNSF, wrote in an email. “But we also continue to urge discretion in the wider distribution of specific details.”

    The DOT issued the order after a series of fiery derailments involving Bakken crude in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia, among other states. Last July, a train carrying oil from the Bakken exploded in a town in Quebec, killing 47 people.

    MAP: State officials have confirmed that crude is traveling by rail in the counties shaded gray on the map, below. Also shown are rail lines owned by California’s two major railroads, BNSF and UP, which share some of the lines. Click on the rail lines or counties to see identifying information. Not all lines shown in the shaded areas carry Bakken crude. (Map produced by Lisa Pickoff-White)

    California Crude-by-Rail Shipments by KQED News

    “We want the rail companies to do everything they can to ensure public safety,” said Diane Bailey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says there are three things that would help assuage her concerns: safer rail cars, slower speed limits, and making sure the trains are always staffed.

    Butler said the railroads themselves have also pushed to phase out the DOT-111 railcars that have been involved in the accidents. “The rail industry also implemented a number of additional safety operating practices several months ago to reduce the risk of moving crude by rail,” she wrote, “including lower speed limits and had addressed the train securement issue in August of 2013 as part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s emergency order.”

    California lawmakers have introduced bills that would provide more money for oil spill response, and require more information from railroads about hazardous materials. The recently-passed California budget includes a fee on oil entering California by rail, which would help fund the state’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. It also provides more money to the California Public Utilities Commission for rail safety inspectors.

    Transporting crude oil by rail is a burgeoning business, thanks to an oil boom in North Dakota. In 2013, more than 6 million barrels of crude oil came into California by rail. In 2008, there were none.

    California Crude-by-Rail Weekly Tracking

    Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Davis in the list of cities the trains pass through.

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      Expert analysis: SoCal refinery plans for crude oil trains to pass over the Benicia railroad bridge

      By Roger Straw, BenIndy Editor
      With expert analysis by Dr. Phyllis Fox

      martinezrailbridge350
      Union Pacific Railroad bridge, the first bridge at this location, built between April 1929 and October 1930 by Southern Pacific. It is used by Union Pacific and BNSF (trackage rights) freight trains and 36 scheduled Amtrak passenger trains each weekday. Passenger trains include the long-distance trains California Zephyr and Coast Starlight and short-haul Capitol Corridor trains….It is the second-longest railway bridge in North America, and the longest railway bridge west of the Mississippi River. [Wikipedia]
      On March 21, The Benicia Independent posted news that Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio would approach the Berkeley City Council with a resolution “Opposing transportation of hazardous materials along California waterways through densely populated areas, through the East Bay, and Berkeley.”  The resolution was passed unanimously on March 25, 2014.

      In her background materials and in the resolution, Vice Mayor Maio made the extraordinary claim that Phillips 66 was seeking a permit to ship extreme crudes by rail from “Donner Pass, through Auburn, Rocklin, and Roseville, proceed along the Sacramento River through Sacramento and Davis to Benicia and along the San Francisco Bay through Martinez, Richmond, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland.  From Oakland the trains would use the Coast Line via Hayward, Santa Clara, San José, Salinas and continue along the Pacific Coast into San Luis Obispo County.”

      Railroads are notably secretive about routing of hazardous materials, so I asked Maio to clarify exactly how she determined that these crude oil trains would pass through Benicia and across the 85-year-old Benicia rail bridge (built in 1929) to Martinez, along the Carquinez Strait and down through the East Bay.

      Vice Mayor Maio asked her “subject matter expert,” Dr. Phyllis Fox, to be in touch, and below is her detailed and I think rather conclusive explanation.  It looks like Benicians are facing not only the offloading of 100 train cars of crude each day, but another 100 cars passing through on tracks shared by Amtrak.The following is by Phyllis Fox, Ph.D, PE, BCEE, QEP, Environmental Management, Rockledge, Florida:

      I’m the subject matter expert that ferreted out the route of the Santa Maria trains for the CBR Berkeley Resolution.

      I reviewed the full DEIR for the Santa Maria Rail Spur Project for the Sierra Club. The DEIR (and my comments) are at: http://www.slocounty.ca.gov/planning/environmental/EnvironmentalNotices/railproject.htm

      The DEIR fails to disclose the route the trains will take from their entrance to California to San Jose, a fundamental flaw in the DEIR. However, there are important clues.

      First, the DEIR on p. 4.12-7 suggests the Mulford line out of Oakland to Santa Clara would be used. The only way to get to Oakland is through Richmond and Berkeley.

      Second, on p. 4.12-22, the DEIR notes “However, north of San Jose through the Bay area there are areas of multiple mainline tracks, and a large number of commuter trains. Therefore, it is unclear how much the crude oil unit train would overlap with the Coast Starlight. Given this uncertainty, the EIR has limited the analysis to the Coast Line.” (e.g., the DEIR only discusses the route from San Jose to Santa Maria, leaving the reader to guess which East Bay cities will be affected.) The implication is that any route with capacity is fair game.

      Third, throughout the DEIR, interference between “commuter” trains and the crude unit trains is discussed. See, e.g., Sec. 4.12. The Union Pacific Coast Starlight line is apparently a key option. Figure 4.12-3 shows it passes through Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and down the East Bay.

      Fourth, finding no clear statement in the DEIR as to the East Bay route, I did an exhaustive survey of railroad maps. This work indicates that rail lines go either: (1) down the Central Valley, roughly parallel to I-5, or through Benicia, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and down the East Bay. There is no connection between these two routes except for the Altamont Corridor Express or ACE commuter line from Stockton, over the Altamont Pass into Livermore, Pleasanton, and Fremont. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamont_Corridor_Express.  The ACE line would be an unlikely choice given the challenges posed by the Altamont Pass in handling unit trains with 80+ cars weighing up to 18,000 tons that are a mile long. The line has significant operating limitations including limited capacity, single track for much of the route, slow average operating speeds, and service limitations. Further, the line alarmingly, passes through the Niles Canyon, which also contains the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct, carrying the water supply for San Francisco. The DEIR is silent on the ACE line. Thus, the only route that appears viable, coming from northern California, is through Sacramento (Roseville), the refinery towns and into Berkeley, Oakland etc. The most likely route is from the northern part of CA, as both Bakken crude and tar sands crude come from the far north and will most likely be sent first west into WA or OR into northern California or through Reno.

      Finally, the DEIR suggests Union Pacific would be the carrier and it includes a map of the UP rail lines in CA. This map is on p. 4.12-7. It shows what I describe above in item #4, two parallel rail lines with the only connections leading into the East Bay through Benicia, or out of Stockton over the Altamont Pass. See also the UP Gross Weight Map: http://www.up.com/cs/groups/public/@uprr/documents/up_pdf_nativedocs/pdf_gross_weight_full_up_maps.pdf

      There are no other connecting rail lines between the Central Valley route and the East Bay. Thus, by process of elimination, I (and others who did similar analyses) concluded the most likely route is through the East Bay.

      Regardless, the DEIR does not restrict the route. Thus, any route can be used, so the East Bay cannot be eliminated.

      Phyllis Fox, Ph.D., PE

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        California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

        Repost from the Sacramento Bee:

        California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

        By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau
        Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 – 11:17 pm
        sacbee.com/2014/01/10/6062524/california-expects-more-crude.html

         

        Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware.   Curtis Tate / MCT
        Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware. Curtis Tate / MCT

        WASHINGTON   Wary of a series of fiery train derailments elsewhere in North America, California officials are bracing for a huge increase in the amount of crude oil transported by rail into the state and the dangers it brings with it.

        The state budget plan Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled this week bolsters the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, increasing its budget by $6.7 million and adding 38 staff members, “to address the increased risk of inland oil spills.

        The move comes as California’s Energy Commission projects that rail deliveries of crude oil could increase to as much of a quarter of the state’s total by 2016. In 2012, only 0.2 percent of the 598 million barrels of oil received by state refiners came by rail, according to the commission. Nearly two-thirds arrived by ocean-going vessels, and another third by pipeline.

        Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which includes the oil spill unit, said the state is preparing for a shift in deliveries by more traditional modes to rail, and the risks associated with it.

        “We’ve exceeded pipeline capacity, and that distribution is now shifting to rail,” he said. “In California, that change means we may see less of our oil coming in through marine terminals and more by rail into the state.”

        The volume of crude oil shipped by rail has increased exponentially in just the past few years, and many state and federal agencies are scrambling to adjust their emergency response plans. Trains brought about 3 million barrels of oil to California last year. In two years, it could be 143 million.

        Especially worrisome is oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, which federal officials have come to believe is more flammable than the more conventional oils California produces or imports. And most of the railroad tank cars that carry it to California and other states have proved vulnerable to ruptures or punctures in a derailment.

        In July, an unattended crude oil train derailed and exploded in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. A similar train derailed in Alabama in November, followed by another in North Dakota last month. Though both accidents resulted in spectacular fires and limited evacuations, no one was injured or killed.

        The rail industry and its Washington regulators insist that railroads have a good safety record. The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, says 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipped by rail reach their destination without incident. The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation’s rail network, said 2012 was the industry’s safest year on record.

        Initially, rail was a stopgap measure taken as proposed pipeline expansions encountered delays. But producers discovered its advantages. Though it costs more to ship by rail than by pipeline, it’s faster, has more capacity and can go pretty much anywhere pipelines don’t.

        Crude oil is already moving into California by rail. BNSF Railway, the nation’s largest rail carrier of crude oil, now hauls entire trainloads from North Dakota to refineries in Richmond and Bakersfield. Though the shipments are infrequent, plans are in the works to enable six more locations in California to refine oil brought in by train or transfer it to ships or pipelines. If all are completed, five or six 80- to 100-car trains a day would supply about 25 percent of the state’s oil needs.

        Bonham said the 245-member oil-spill unit is adapting to a shifting risk. To fund its expansion, the agency will begin collecting a fee of 6.5 cents a barrel to all crude oil shipped to refineries. Currently the fee only applies to marine shipments. Bonham predicts rail will largely displace tankers coming from Alaska or foreign countries.

        The largest chemical spill in state history was the result of a rail accident. In July 1991, a Southern Pacific freight train derailed near the northern California town of Dunsmuir, with one tank car spilling 19,000 gallons of a pesticide into the Sacramento River. The toxic green chemical created a vapor cloud that made residents ill and killed a million fish in a 42-mile stretch of contaminated river.

        One tank car can carry about 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Canadian authorities estimate that the train that derailed in Quebec spilled 1.5 million gallons, leaving an environmental catastrophe as well as a human one.

        BNSF and Union Pacific, the state’s other major railroad, plan to increase their shipments of crude oil to the state in unit trains. Both railroads operate trains through downtown Sacramento and the state’s other major population centers and along its major waterways, creating new potential hazards for communities and the environment.

        “It’s not going to be just one car,” said Tom Cullen, administrator of the state oil-spill unit. “We know it’s going to be more.”

        California officials say they’ve dealt with large amounts of oil spilled from marine vessels and inland wells.

        “We’re not going through this blindly,” Cullen said. “We appreciate what we’re taking on.”

        What does worry them, however, is Bakken crude’s flammability.

        The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last week warned that the oil is more hazardous than others and should be handled with extra care. The tendency of older, less protected tank cars to fail in derailments has compounded the concern. Some members of Congress and the rail industry are pushing regulators to move faster on new standards for tank car construction.


        Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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