Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle [Benicia Independent Editor: This analysis of a pipeline failure might also shed some light on the lack of adequate State and Federal oversight of crude by rail. No PHMSA administrator for 7 months?! Only 3 state inspectors!? Information not shared with first responders at the County level!? Gosh … where have we heard this before? – RS]
EDITORIAL: Did lack of oversight lead to Santa Barbara spill?
San Francisco Chronicle, May 31, 2015
All-too-familiar images of picture-postcard California beaches befouled with crude last month revealed that regulatory oversight is sadly lacking. But whom to blame? The accountable parties are missing in action.
First missing party: The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration has been without an administrator for more than 210 days, thus exceeding the legal limit for an acting director to serve. The May 19 rupture of the Plains All American Pipeline at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches in Santa Barbara County heightened concerns the federal regulators weren’t protecting the public safety or sensitive lands.
On Thursday, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, sent a letter to the pipeline administration, declaring the Santa Barbara oil spill response “insufficient,” and giving the agency two weeks to answer questions about spill response plans, legal authority to require automatic shutoff valves, and cleanup and response efforts that ignored local knowledge and expertise. On Friday, the Obama administration announced it had a nominee, lawyer Marie Therese Dominguez, for the pipeline administrator’s job.
Second missing party: Oil transport and spill oversight in California is overseen by the Office of the State Fire Marshal, but there are only three full-time inspectors. Inspectors would leave for higher paying industry jobs as soon as the state trained them. In 2012, the fire marshal requested the authority to pay inspectors more — inspectors are paid out of a state account funded with fees paid by the oil companies — but the Legislature said no, and state oil transport oversight was ceded to the federal agency in 2013.
Third missing party: Santa Barbara County had an agreement with the pipeline owner that was overridden by federal law. Pipeline operators must file oil spill response plans with the federal agency, but due to terrorism concerns, they aren’t available to the public (including first responders who would have needed local knowledge).
Clear lines of oversight, more inspectors, and a requirement to update spill response plans would help build trust with communities over transport of this necessary energy resource.
Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity
Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015
Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.
Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.
The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.
It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.
“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.
Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.
Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.
A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.
“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.
The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.
Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.
The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.
Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.
“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.
The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.
An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.
Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.
Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.
“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.
One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.
Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.
“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.
Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.
“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.
Sens. Schumer, Blumenthal, Feinstein, Boxer and Gillibrand propose shorter extension of PTC deadline
Responding to recent fatal passenger train crashes and crude-oil train derailments, U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) yesterday announced new legislation that would require railroads to install positive train control (PTC) technology by 2018.
The senators said their Positive Train Control Safety Act (S. 1006) also would require railroads to report on their PTC implementation status and require trains carrying crude oil to run on tracks installed with PTC.
The bill would extend the federal government’s PTC deadline by three years by allowing one-year extensions, on a case-by-case basis, until 2018. The current deadline is Dec. 31. Recently, other legislation has been introduced to extend the deadline by five years.
The senators said they believe their legislation is necessary “to ensure railroads are moving forward swiftly” to install the crash-prevention technology. The bill would also improve rail inspection practices, in addition to enhancing safety at grade crossings and work zones in response to reports of lax inspection and oversight and numerous fatal accidents, they said.
“The Positive Train Control Safety Act will require railroads, including both passenger and freight trains, to implement PTC by 2018 and the legislation makes sure railroads are transparent about their efforts and requires regular status updates on implementation,” said Schumer.
Also sponsoring the bill are Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
“This bill will hold railroads’ feet to the fire and ensure they’re moving forward to install PTC, receiving deadline extensions only on a case-by-case basis and year-by-year, and only if factual evidence shows a valid, credible need for more time,” Blumenthal said.
Christopher McKenzie, the LCC’s executive director, already has sent a letter March 6 on behalf of its board of directors to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx, asking that his department make LCC’s recommendations part of federal policy in governing rail safety.
“The continued increase in the transport of crude oil by rail, combined with recent rail rail accidents involving oil spills and resulting fires, have served to heighten concerns about rail safety among many of our member cities,” McKenzie wrote.
Rail safety, particularly in transport of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, has become a growing concern nationwide and elsewhere.
The California Environmental Protection Agency has been presenting a series of forums on the matter, one of which took place March 26 in Crockett, a meeting attended by several Benicia residents who oppose delivery of oil by train.
In another development this week, WesPac Midstream has dropped the crude-by-rail component of its intent to transform a Pacific Gas and Electric tank farm into a regional oil storage site.
In explaining the move Project Manager Art Diefenbach cited uncertainties about prospective changes in regulations of oil shipping by rail, a series of protests and falling crude prices that have made shipping by train less attractive. Should the project be completed, oil would arrive either by ship or pipeline, which Pittsburg Mayor Pete Longmire suggested would make the operation safer and less controversial.
In his letter, McKenzie cited incidents that prompted the LCC to express its own safety concerns and to offer recommendations that might reduce the potential for accidents.
“Specifically, two derailments accompanied by fires involving unit trains (100 or more tank cars) carrying crude oil in West Virginia and in Ontario, Canada, earlier this month have greatly increased public anxiety about what steps the relevant federal regulatory agencies are taking to improve rail safety and on what timetable,” he wrote.
He said the LCC wanted to make three points: First, that improvements that are required of participating industries should be mandates, not recommendations; second, that the mandates should have a hard deadline for implementation; and third, that the Department of Transportation should include the LCC’s recommendations in the final rule for Safe Transportation of Crude Oil and Flammable Materials.
McKenzie wrote that the LCC wants all federal agencies involved in regulating crude-by-rail shipments to require electronically controlled braking systems on trains carrying the sweeter crude from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields, and to set a sooner date for phasing out or retrofitting the older DOT-111 tanks.
More federal money should be directed toward training and equipment for first responders who are sent to hazardous materials accidents, he wrote, and how the funding is to be distributed needs to be defined. In addition, trains should have maximum speed limits in all areas.
His letter said the LCC wants the number of tank cars that trigger a California Energy Commission and State Emergency Response Commission report lowered to 20 from 33, which in turn would lower the trigger point from shipments of 1.1 million gallons or more to those of 690,000 gallons or more.
Priority routes for positive train control, a technology that incorporates geopositioning tracking to slow or halt trains automatically to reduce collisions, should be identified, McKenzie wrote, and parking and storage of tank cards need regulating, too.
He further wrote that railroads should be forced to comply with their Individual Voluntary Agreements with the US-DOT, because currently there is no requirement for them to do so. Those pacts involve reducing speed limits for oil trains that use older tank cars and travel through urban areas; determining the safest rail route; increased track inspection; adding enhanced braking systems; improving emergency response plans and training; increasing track inspections; and working with cities and communities to address their concerns about oil transport by train.
“The League of California Cities understands that this area of regulation is largely preempted by federal law,” McKenzie wrote. “That is why we are urging specific and timely action by the federal agencies charged with regulatory oversight in this area. We do not expect that derailments and accidents will cease altogether, but we anticipate that stricter safety standards will reduce their numbers over time.”
The LCC also has supplied member cities with a sample letter patterned after McKenzie’s message, to customize before sending to Foxx.
In a report to Benicia City Council, City Manager Brad Kilger wrote, “The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rulemaking authority requesting that these measures be implemented.”
Since the preparation of the letter template, he wrote, the LCC has learned that any decisions on improved safety regulations would be made in the Office of Management and Budget.
“The mayor is requesting that the city send a letter on behalf of the Benicia City Council,” Kilger wrote.
Consideration of the letter won’t conflict with future consideration of a request by Valero Benicia Refinery to extend Union Pacific Railroad tracks onto its property and make other modifications so it can substitute rail delivery for tanker ship delivery of crude oil, a highly contentious proposition that is currently undergoing environmental review.
“In that the city is currently processing the use permit and EIR (environmental Impact Report) for the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project, I asked the city attorney to determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” Kilger wrote.
He said City Attorney Heather McLaughlin informed him there would be no conflict because the letter doesn’t take any position on the Valero project or the adequacy of the ongoing environmental review.
“The letter simply urges the adoption of more stringent federal standards for the transportation of crude by rail,” Kilger wrote.
If the Council agrees the letter should be sent to Foxx, it would be signed by Patterson as mayor, and copies would be sent to California’s two U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, all members of California’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Solano County Board of Supervisors, the Solano Transportation Authority, Kilger, McLaughlin and members of the Council.
The Council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 250 East L St.