Tag Archives: San Luis Obispo

KTVU News: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

Repost from KTVU 2 News, Oakland, CA
[Editor: an excellent investigative report, much of which was filmed here in Benicia.  Apologies for the video’s commercial ad.  – RS]

 2 Investigates: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

By Simone Aponte, Nov 17, 2014

RICHMOND, Calif. – California used to receive all of its crude oil imports by ship and pipeline, but trains loaded with tanker cars full of oil are rolling through Bay Area neighborhoods with increasing frequency. And it’s a growing safety concern among experts who say rail imports will become much more common in the next few years, bringing millions of gallons of crude to local refineries.  Much of that crude is a more volatile type of oil that has been linked to multiple derailments, fires, and deadly accidents.

2 Investigates followed trains rolling through neighborhoods in Richmond carrying millions of gallons of crude oil, in tanker cars that have been deemed unsafe by the federal government. And the railroad is not required to tell local officials how many of those cars are carrying a more volatile oil from the Bakken shale formation, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada.

The transport of Bakken crude by rail has been at the center of federal investigations and calls for increased safety standards. It’s delivered to the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond, but local officials complain that they receive no notification of which trains are carrying Bakken crude.

Increased deliveries and increased danger

“These are trains that have up to 100 tank cars and those are filled with Bakken crude,” said Kelly Huston, Deputy Director with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). “That’s an entire train full of a much more volatile type of crude oil than we typically see on rail.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a warning that Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil is prone to ignite at a lower temperature than traditional crude oils. Experts say lighter crudes contain more natural gas, and the vapors given off by the oil can ignite at much lower temperatures.

But the oil industry pushed back with its own study that disputed the government warning. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 oil companies operating in North Dakota and Montana, commissioned a $400,000 study of Bakken crude. It determined the oil’s characteristics are within the safety margin for the current fleet of rail tankers.

However, the state’s Rail Safety Working Group –convened by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) – wasn’t convinced. It released a report that warns about the dangers of increasing the shipments of Bakken crude to California refineries. The report points to at least eight major train accidents involving Bakken crude trains in 2013 and 2014 alone.

Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press / AP“Incidents involving crude oil from the Bakken shale formation have been particularly devastating,” the authors warn.

Some of the most notable accidents include a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. Sixty-three tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 42 people. Five other people were also presumed to be dead, but were never recovered.

In 2012, about one million barrels of crude oil were delivered to California by rail. But by 2013 that number had jumped to about 6.3 million barrels.  The California Energy Commission estimates that volume could increase by up to 150 million barrels, or 25% of total crude imports, by 2016.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the primary source of the crude oil coming into California was from North Dakota, in early 2013. But by the end of that year, the state was receiving a dramatic increase in imports from Canada.

Old tanker cars

For more than twenty years, the federal government has been aware of major flaws in one of the most common tanker car designs used to transport crude oil across America.

According to a 1991 safety study from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the DOT-111 tanker has a steel shell that is too thin to resist puncture during an accident, is vulnerable to tearing, and has exposed fittings and valves that can easily snap off during a rollover.

Torn DOT-111 Tanker Car And DOT-111s make up nearly 70 percent of oil tanker cars currently in use in the U.S., according to the NTSB. Critics say that shipping volatile Bakken crude in these tankers poses an “unacceptable risk” to public safety.

In his Congressional testimony in February, NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt cited multiple train accidents and derailments involving Bakken crude transported in DOT-111 tanker cars.

“The NTSB continues to find that accidents involving the rupture of DOT-111 tank cars carrying hazardous materials often have violent and destructive results,” Sumwalt said.

“Federal requirements simply have not kept pace with evolving demands placed on the railroad industry and evolving technology and knowledge about hazardous materials and accidents.”

This past summer, the DOT announced that it would propose stricter rules for transporting flammable materials by rail car, including Bakken crude. The plan calls for DOT-111 tanker cars to be phased out, unless they can be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

Last month, Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that his group and the Association of American Railroads would jointly ask the DOT for six to 12 months for rail tank car manufacturers to prepare to overhaul tens of thousands of cars, and another three years to retrofit older cars.

But critics say the government’s plan doesn’t act swiftly enough.
Devora Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, said the group has multiple concerns about Bakken crude trains coming into California, in particular in regards to the age of DOT-111 fleet.

“It is extremely alarming and the public should be concerned,” said Ancel. “It’s being carried in rail cars that are unsafe. They were designed in the 1960’s. They were not meant to transport highly volatile crude.”

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice submitted a petition to the DOT seeking an emergency order to ban the transportation of Bakken crude in DOT-111 tank cars. The petition acknowledges that the DOT’s proposal for stricter rules is a step in the right direction, but stresses that two years is too long to phase out the DOT-111 cars.

“The last few years have witnessed a surge in shipments of highly flammable crude from the Bakken region, mostly in unit trains with dozens and often more than 100 tank cars carrying explosive cargo. The growth in the number and length of trains carrying crude oil is staggering,” the petition said.

Modified DOT-111 Tanker Car in RichmondTwo trainloads of Bakken crude roll into the Richmond Rail Terminal every month, according to the city’s fire department. But the fire officials tells KTVU that they’ve been reassured by Kinder-Morgan that the DOT-111 tank cars that make deliveries to Richmond have undergone additional safety modifications. Every individual tanker car carries more than 28,000 gallons of crude oil.

Tracking routes

Trains entering the Bay Area carrying crude oil from Canada and North Dakota must pass through parts of California that are considered hazardous routes, according to Huston.  In the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) annual railroad safety report, released in July, the agency said California has had 58 train derailments in the last five years, and primary cause has been a problem with the track at so-called “hazard sites.”

MAP: Rain Lines and Hazardous Areas in California

The state’s OES report on rail safety also voiced concerns about risky routes being used to transport Bakken crude.  The Rail Safety Working Group complained that crude oil rail transportation is not regulated adequately.

The report states that crude oil is “not transported with the level of protection mandated for the degree of hazard posed,” and also stressed there are “inadequacies in route planning to avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas, and a need for auditing rail carriers to ensure adequate response.”

One of OES’s biggest concerns is that it receives very little information about the Bakken crude trains’ schedules, and none of the data it does receive is in real time.

“Just like you would know where an Amtrak train is and whether is late to a station or not,” said Huston. “We should be able to know that about volatile substances like Bakken crude coming across our rail lines.”

Emergency response

The growing worries over the volatility of Bakken crude are particularly important for firefighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with derailments and possible fires.
According to the OES, the biggest areas of concern lie in the rural areas of Northern California, where emergency response crews are far from remote rail lines and wouldn’t be able to respond to a spill or fire quickly.

The OES report states that while there are emergency crews prepared to handle a crude tanker disaster in urban areas, “none are located near the high hazard areas in rural Northern California.” And HazMat teams that are located in more remote regions “are equipped to perform only in a support rather than lead role during a major chemical or oil incident.”

“If you get one of those trains derail and that stuff goes into the river that could affect an entire population’s water supply, which is, in some cases, worse than having a derailment in a population center,” said Huston.

Valero-Benicia refinery firefighters simulate a leak on an oil tanker car and practice using foam to quell the vapors.Last month, the Valero-Benicia refinery Fire Chief Joe Bateman led a training session with local fire departments that focused on tanker car fires. They simulated a leak on an oil tanker car and practiced using foam to quell the vapors. A small group of Richmond firefighters will attend a similar training in December, according to the Richmond Fire Marshall.

The Valero-Benicia refinery is seeking a permit to bring in crude-by-rail shipments. They would join Richmond and a planned refinery in San Luis Obispo that would also be supplied with crude carried by train through the Bay Area.

But the idea is meeting resistance from worried neighbors.
Benicia’s city council must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on the proposal. The $70 million terminal would receive two 50-car trainloads, carrying a total of about 70,000 barrels of crude oil, every day. The company has said that it will use newer tanker cars instead of the aging DOT-111s that have been involved in past accidents.

Chief Bateman insists that his crews are prepared if the worst should happen with a trainload of Bakken crude traveling through the Bay Area.

“I understand that it’s a big increase. I understand the public is concerned by that,” Chief Bateman said. “If you look at some of the other rail cars that are already on the tracks today… we’ve been shipping commodities for a long time.” Bateman points out that some of those other substances are more volatile than crude oil, such as liquefied petroleum gas.

Placard 1267 Signifies Crude OilWhen first responders arrive at chaotic train accident scene, all the black tanker cars essentially look the same. The contents are distinguished by a red, diamond-shaped placard on the side of the car that displays a four-digit code. The code for crude is 1267, but there is no way for emergency crews to tell if the oil inside is the volatile Bakken variety.

In April, Canada banned the older tanker cars and ordered the controversial design be phased out within three years. Last month, another train carrying crude oil derailed in Saskatchewan, involving the same kind of rail cars. There were no casualties in that accident.

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    CA Fish & Wildlife wants new emergency regulations by September

    Repost from The Los Angeles Times, Business
    [Editor:  Significant quote: “Plans also call for safety drills and, possibly, the placement of safety equipment at potentially dangerous rail ‘pinch points.’  …These points include spots along rail routes through the Feather River Canyon and Donner Pass in Northern California, the Tehachapi Pass and San Luis Obispo in the central part of the state, and urban rail corridors in Southern California, officials said.”  Hmmm … how about urban rail corridors in Northern California??  – RS]

    State moves to improve safety in transporting oil by rail

    Marc Lifsher, July 7, 2014
    1889739_FI_0603_Crude_By_Rail_IK
    A year after rail tanker cars carrying crude oil in Canada exploded and killed 47 people, California is stepping up efforts to prevent a similar disaster on tracks crisscrossing the state. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

    A year after rail tanker cars carrying crude oil in Canada exploded and killed 47 people, California is stepping up efforts to prevent a similar disaster on tracks crisscrossing the state.

    In recent weeks, the state began pumping more money into a new rail safety program, the Legislature approved new fees on oil being carried by train, and the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department started planning how to better protect inland waterways from oil spills.

    “We have a clear and present risk to Californians right now from potential spills,” said Chuck Bonham, Fish and Wildlife director. “We’re moving fast per the Legislature to best prepare California for that risk.”

    There’s good reason for rushing, Bonham warned. Crude oil shipments to California last year rose to 6.3 million barrels, up 1.1 million barrels from the 2012 total. Imports could rise to 150 million 42 gallon barrels, a quarter of the state total, by 2016, the California Energy Commission estimates.

    The Fish and Wildlife Department, which oversees the state’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, is set to hire 38 technicians to boost a current crew of 250 people, previously funded to deal mainly with coastal oil spills.

    Top Fish and Wildlife officials already are meeting with other federal, state and local government agencies to set priorities and schedule a series of emergency response drills at high-risk stretches of rail lines, such as in the mountains, marshlands and densely populated urban neighborhoods.

    The new hires and expanded responsibility will be paid for by a fee of 6.5 cents per barrel of crude oil transported through the state by rail or pipeline. The fees were approved by the Legislature in mid-June after a heated battle between California’s powerful oil industry, the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown and environmentalists.

    The governor basically got what he wanted: a dedicated source of money to help respond quickly to both maritime spills and potential and actual accidents involving pipelines and rail tanker cars bringing crude oil to refineries from in-state wells and fields in the Great Plains and Canada.

    But that’s just part of the state’s response to the threat posed by train wrecks involving crude oil cargoes. The state Public Utilities Commission is hiring seven additional track inspectors to work with federal government counterparts to keep oil trains with up to 100 tank cars rolling safely.

    And lawmakers still are considering even more measures to require railroads to provide greater information about oil trains passing through communities, establish round-the-clock emergency communications, and levy per-tank-car fees for emergency response activities.

    “The funding in the budget is an important step,” said Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), author of one of three tank-car-safety bills, “but more actions can be taken to help prevent and respond to accidents.”

    The Brown administration’s goal is to set up a comprehensive system for safeguarding an estimated 7,000 rail and 5,000 pipeline crossings over inland waters.

    With that in mind, Fish and Wildlife already has hosted a number of meetings with state and federal government agencies, including the State Fire Marshal and the U.S. Coast Guard, that also deal with oil spills. State officials are reaching out to railroad companies and tank car manufacturers, who are working on more crash-resistant rolling stock.

    “The folks who transport oil and store oil in appreciable volume need to develop contingency plans for how to protect sensitive sites,” said Thomas Cullen, a former Coast Guard captain, who runs the state’s prevention and response program.

    Plans also call for safety drills and, possibly, the placement of safety equipment at potentially dangerous rail “pinch points.”

    These points include spots along rail routes through the Feather River Canyon and Donner Pass in Northern California, the Tehachapi Pass and San Luis Obispo in the central part of the state, and urban rail corridors in Southern California, officials said.

    “We’ve got to go shoulder-to-shoulder working with industry,” Cullen said.

    One of the first steps, he said, will be issuing emergency regulations for rail and pipeline oil transportation, which he hopes can happen by September.

    Officials said permanent regulations should be ready about a year later, after Fish and Wildlife holds hearings to get input from railroads, oil companies, environmentalists, local government agencies and neighborhood groups.

    Oil companies, which had opposed some parts of the governor’s program, including the fee for inland shipments, say they want to cooperate with the state’s expanding safety efforts.

    “It’s going to add some additional expense to getting California energy to consumers,” said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn., a trade group.

    “Our primary concern,” he said, is to see that state money goes to first responders “to give them the equipment and training necessary so people can have confidence that this is a safe transportation mode.”

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      New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

      Repost from The Sacramento Bee
      [Editor: This interactive OES map, “Rail Risk and Response” is an incredibly detailed resource – as you zoom in, additional features appear.  Hazards shown on the map include geologically unstable areas, proximity to dense population centers, proximity to waterways, schools and hospitals, pipelines, sensitive species or habitat, etc.  The story in the Sacramento Bee does not contain a link to the map.   Here’s the intro page for the interactive map.   And here’s the map itself.  – RS]

      New map shows California emergency teams not in best position for oil train response

      By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Newspapers, Jul. 4, 2014

      A map put together by multiple state agencies in California shows that the location and capability of emergency response teams don’t always align with the biggest risks presented by an expected increase in crude oil shipments by rail in the coming years.

      The map shows that the state’s largest population centers, including Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles, have the most robust emergency response capabilities.

      But rural stretches of California’s rail network, including locations with a history of derailments, have the least equipped and least trained emergency response teams, according to the map produced by the Interagency Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety.

      The map shows large concentrations of hospitals, schools and neighborhoods around many rail lines through California cities. Additionally, it shows that the state’s rail network frequently intersects with fault lines, rivers and streams and sensitive wildlife habitats.

      California has some of the best-trained and best-equipped emergency response teams in the country, according to some experts, but they’re not always where they’re needed.

      “Proximity matters,” said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services.

      Since Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a shift in state oil spill and prevention resources in his budget in January, members of the California Legislature have held hearings and offered legislation to improve the state’s preparedness.

      “Everyone recognizes this is a critical need throughout the state,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills.

      Starting next year, California will begin imposing a 6.5-cent-a-barrel fee on oil transported to the state by rail to fund oil spill response and prevention efforts. State lawmakers have introduced another bill to levy an additional fee to train and equip firefighters who may be called to respond to a rail incident.

      California officials soon expect the state to receive as much as a quarter of its oil supply by rail, which means more frequent train movements through the state’s highest-risk areas.

      “It makes what we’re doing that much more important,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

      The map was presented last week by the state Environmental Protection Agency at a workshop on crude oil trends at Berkeley City College. It shows a dearth of response capability in locations where derailments have occurred more frequently, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

      These include the Cantara Loop on the upper Sacramento River, the site of a 1991 train derailment that released thousands of gallons of pesticide, killing fish along a 40-mile stretch of the river.

      They also include the Feather River Canyon, which according to documents released last week by OES, is the route of a twice-monthly train of Bakken crude oil. The trains, operated by BNSF, pass through Sacramento on their way to a rail terminal in Richmond.

      “A spill into these sources of water makes it even more problematic,” Pavley said.

      Another vulnerable site: Cuesta Grade, a steep, serpentine stretch of track north of San Luis Obispo. A proposed crude-by-rail terminal at the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria, south of San Luis Obispo, would bring five 80-car oil trains a week over the line, operated by Union Pacific.

      Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said that the railroad had reached out to fire departments across California in the communities where it operates and has offered “comprehensive” hazardous materials training to first responders around the state.

      “We annually train local, state and federal first-responders on protocols to minimize the impact of a derailment in their communities,” he said.

      BNSF, the railroad that hauls more crude oil than any in North America, is offering hazardous materials training for hundreds of firefighters, including some in Sacramento, according to spokeswoman Lena Kent.

      Trains transporting crude oil are not new in California. From 1983 to 1997, Southern Pacific Railroad operated one such train every day between Bakersfield and South Los Angeles over the Tehachapi Pass.

      But that oil was thicker California crude that doesn’t ignite easily, and it was also transported in specially designed tank cars. Much of the crude oil coming into the state today is lighter and more flammable, and it’s loaded into a fleet of tank cars with a long record of failure in derailments.

      “In light of new risks, it’s essential for first responders to have the right training and equipment to prepare for and respond to accidents,” said Curtis Brundage, a hazardous materials specialist with the San Bernardino Fire Department, in a state Senate hearing last month.

      The worst accident occurred a year ago, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. An unmanned Bakken crude oil train broke loose and derailed in the center of town. Massive fires and explosions killed 47 people and leveled entire blocks of buildings.

      More derailments followed, though none fatal, as the railroads and the federal government initiated a series of safety improvements. Emergency response officials from all over the country have testified in Washington in the past few months that local fire departments lack the resources to confront large fires from trains carrying 3 million gallons of oil.

      In a report last month, OES made a dozen recommendations to improve the safety of California communities, including increased track inspections, stronger tank cars, more funding for emergency response and better notification of hazardous shipments from the railroads.

      Hill gives the railroads credit for taking the issue seriously with stepped-up track inspections, new operating procedures, orders for stronger tank cars and offers to train emergency personnel. But he added that state lawmakers and agencies were right to push for more before a trickle of oil shipments by rail to California turned into a steady stream.

      “We saw what happened elsewhere,” he said. “This is just to make sure California is prepared.”

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