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.