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Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh…this sounds SO familiar….  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  – RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

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    5.7 Million children attend U.S. schools in an oil train blast zone – sign the petition

    Repost from ForestEthics

    Here’s a number you need to see: 57 MILLION CHILDREN

    Join ForestEthics in telling U.S. safety officials and railroad execs: No More Oil Train Secrets. The first step in making our schools safe from oil trains is to release critical documents that the rail companies are hiding from the public. (Click on the image and SIGN on the right side of the page.)

    Join ForestEthics in telling U.S. safety officials and railroad execs: No More Oil Train Secrets. The first step in making our schools safe from oil trains is to release critical documents that the rail companies are hiding from the public.

    5.7 Million K-12 age children attend U.S. schools in the oil train blast zone–the area that must be evacuated in case of a derailment or fire from an oil train.

    Massive growth of oil train traffic–over 5,000% since 2008 in the U.S.–means more derailments, oil spills into waterways, and massive explosions. 2015 alone has seen five explosive derailments in the U.S. and Canada. We now know that oil trains threaten 5,728,044 million children in 15,848 schools every day in the U.S. Our children deserve better.

    But we don’t even know the details on the dangers of these trains–and neither do our first responders or our elected leaders. We don’t know because oil train companies like BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National are keeping four critical types of information hidden:

    1. The routing choices they make through cities, towns and sensitive areas;
    2. The worst case scenario models they create for your town;
    3. The insurance amount they have to cover themselves; and
    4. Their emergency response plans when the unthinkable happens.

    We are calling these documents The Oil Train Secrets. The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency in the U.S. that is responsible for making the companies release these documents, isn’t doing its job–and neither is its boss, the U.S. Department of Transportation. But our future and our children are too important to let these critical documents stay secret.

    Join ForestEthics in telling U.S. transportation officials (and the Railroad Execs themselves): the next step in making our schools safe from oil trains is to release The Oil Train Secrets.


    To: US Safety Officials and Railroad Executives
    From: [Your Name]

    To: Anthony Foxx of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and Sarah Feinberg, Director of the Federal Railroad Administration
    Re: Request for Release of Documents

    Secretary Foxx and Director Feinberg:

    On Tuesday, September 8th, 2015, ForestEthics released its estimate of the number of K-12 age students in schools in the evacuation zone for oil trains: 5.7 million. 5.7 million K-12 age students are among the 25 million Americans living in this blast zone.

    Many local emergency planning and response agencies have testified in Congress and state and local legislatures that, in the absence of railroad risk analyses, they have been struggling to develop their own ability to respond to potential crude oil derailments. Local safety officials need information to protect our communities, especially schools. In the interests of public safety, we are formally asking your assistance in releasing the following documents:

    1. Rail Companies own calculated Worst Case Scenarios for a potential oil train emergency in urban and sensitive environmental locales. Local and state officials have stated that they have never seen this essential crude oil release scenario information.

    2. We also need to see rail company documentation on the levels of catastrophic insurance coverage each railroad company has been able to buy for potential serious releases in each jurisdiction. The insurers apparently have seen the railroads’ Worst Case Scenarios and have demonstrated a healthy and cautious concern about the scale of costly disasters that their companies might be responsible for covering. If the insurers can see it, so can the public.

    3. We require the rail companies’ internal Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans for high hazard flammable trains (oil trains), both generic and for specific typical locations, urban and rural.

    4. We also need rail companies’ up-to-now secret route analysis documentation and route selection results in each jurisdiction, pursuant to Congress’s 2007 Public Law 110-53, for urban hazmat safety and security routing for the currently covered cargoes of chlorine and ammonia, as well as for the newly-recognized “key trains” of crude oil and ethanol.

    We are publicly demanding that you promptly assist the rail companies, who will be receiving a copy of this letter, to provide these key risk documents, up to now withheld from public view. Not only because our first responders and governments need them, but because our communities have a right to know to what chemical disaster risks various hazardous operations are exposing them. It is our assessment that the publication of these documents would aid your agencies in protecting the public and assisting first responders. Our children deserve nothing less than the safest learning environment and the best-informed first responders.

    Sincerely,

    ForestEthics and the undersigned,

    ++++++++++

    Cc: Matt Rose
    Executive Chairman, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad

    Cc: John Koraleski
    CEO, Union Pacific

    Cc: Michael Ward
    CEO, CSX

    Cc: James Squires
    CEO, Norfolk Southern

    Cc: E. Hunter Harrison
    CEO, Canadian Pacific

    Cc: Claude Mongeau
    CEO, Canadian National

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      Half Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

      Repost from DeSmogBlog
      [Editor:  See the more detailed interactive map of schools by the Center for Biological Diversity.  Note Benicia’s Robert Semple Elementary School on the Center’s map, located just 0.88 miles from a Union Pacific train route which currently carries hazardous materials and is proposed for Valero Refinery’s Crude By Rail project.  Here’s a map of Robert Semple school and the tracks.  – RS] 

      Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

      By Justin Mikulka, September 7, 2015 – 04:58

      A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.

      “Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”

      Click for larger image

      Current safety regulations for first responders dealing with oil trains recommend evacuating everyone within a half-mile of any incident with an oil train. This wasn’t much of a problem for the most recent oil train accident in July in Culbertson, Montana because there were only 30 people within the half-mile radius area. However, in populated areas like California, potential scenarios could involve large-scale evacuations and casualties.

      In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released earlier this year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods.

      As more communities across the country become aware of the very real risks these oil trains pose, opposition is mounting to new oil-by-rail projects as well as challenges to existing facilities.

      This past week in California, the Santa Clara County board of supervisors voted to keep oil trains out, citing an “unacceptable risk to our community.”

      In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held a hearing on the subject and heard from concerned residents like Catherine Dorr, as reported by the local CBS station.

      We’re in the 100 foot blast zone,” Dorr said. “My house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there’s an explosion.”

      In Albany, New York which is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East coast, this week a coalition of groups announced their intentions to sue the oil company transporting Bakken crude through Albany and challenge the validity of the air quality permit the company received in 2012.

      And even in remote places like North Dakota, where much of the oil originates, the U.S. military is concerned about the proximity of the oil train tracks to nuclear missile facilities.

      With all of this concern about the dangers of oil trains, a new report by the Associated Press (AP) paints a troubling picture about the preparedness of populated areas to respond to an oil-by-rail incident. The report was based on interviews with emergency management professionals in 12 large cities across the U.S.

      It concludes, “The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail.”

      As noted on DeSmog, one of the reasons that the oil trains pose such a high risk is that the oil industry refuses to stabilize the oil to make it safe to transport. And the new regulations for oil-by-rail transport released this year allow for older unsafe tank cars to be used for another 8-10 years.

      While the regulations require modernized braking systems on oil trains in future years, the rail industry is fighting this and a Senate committee recently voted to remove this from the regulations.

      The reality is that unless there are drastic changes made, anyone living within a half mile of these tracks will be at risk for years to come.

      And while oil production isn’t increasing in the U.S. right now due to the low price of oil, industry efforts to lift the current ban on exporting crude oil could result in a huge increase in fracked oil production. In turn, that oil will be put on trains that will head to coastal facilities and be loaded on tankers and sent to Asia.

      Despite all of the opposition and the years-long process to complete new regulations, as the Associated Press notes, it isn’t like the emergency first responders are comfortable with the current situation.

      “There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”

      And even the federal regulators expect there are going to be catastrophic accidents. As reported by the AP earlier this year, the Department of Transportation expects oil and ethanol trains “will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.”

      With the known risks and the number of accidents, so far communities in the U.S have avoided disaster. But as Senator Franken pointed out, that has just been a matter of luck.

      We’ve been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we’ve not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don’t want this to be all about luck,” Sen. Franken said.

      As over 1,000,000 students in California start a new school year in schools where they can easily hear the train whistles from the oil trains passing through their communities, let’s all hope we keep this lucky streak going.

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