Tag Archives: Sen. Maria Cantwell

NPR: Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

Repost from National Public Radio (NPR)

Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

By David Schaper, June 19, 2015 3:30 AM ET

A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.
A train carrying crude oil derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February, causing a large fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. Steven Wayne Rotsch/Office of the Gov. of West Virginia/AP

The federal government’s new rules aimed at preventing explosive oil train derailments are sparking a backlash from all sides.

The railroads, oil producers and shippers say some of the new safety requirements are unproven and too costly, yet some safety advocates and environmental groups say the regulations aren’t strict enough and still leave too many people at risk.

Since February, five trains carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil have derailed and exploded into flames in the U.S. and Canada. No one was hurt in the incidents in Mount Carbon, W.Va., and Northern Ontario in February; in Galena, Ill., and Northern Ontario in March, and in Heimdal, N.D., in May.

Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains.
Stephanie Bilenko of La Grange, Ill. (from left), Paul Berland of suburban Elgin and Dr. Lora Chamberlain of Chicago, are members of a group urging more stringent rules for the oil-carrying trains. David Schaper

But each of those fiery train wrecks occurred in lightly populated areas. Scores of oil trains also travel through dense cities, particularly Chicago, the nation’s railroad hub.

According to state records and published reports, about 40 or more trains carrying Bakken crude roll through the city each week on just the BNSF Railway’s tracks alone. Those trains pass right by apartment buildings, homes, businesses and even schools.

“Well just imagine the carnage,” said Christina Martinez. She was standing alongside the BNSF tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a long train of black tank cars slowly rolled by, right across the street from St. Procopius, the Catholic elementary school her six-year-old attends.

“Just the other day they were playing soccer at my son’s school on Saturday and I saw the train go by and it had the ‘1267’, the red marking,” Martinez said, referring to the red, diamond-shaped placards on railroad tank cars that indicates their contents. The number 1267 signifies crude oil. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Can you imagine if it would derail and explode right here while these kids are playing soccer and all the people around there?”

New federal rules require stronger tank cars, with thicker shells and higher front and back safety shields for shipping crude oil and other flammable liquids. Older, weaker models that more easily rupture will have to be retrofitted or replaced within three to five years. But Martinez and others wanted rules limiting the volatility of what’s going into those tank cars, too.

Oil from North Dakota has a highly combustible mix of natural gases including butane, methane and propane. The state requires the conditioning of the gas and oil at the wellhead so the vapor pressure is below 13.7 pounds per square inch before it’s shipped. But even at that level, oil from derailed tank cars has exploded into flames.

And many safety advocates had hoped federal regulators would require conditioning to lower the vapor pressure even more.

“We don’t want these bomb trains going through our neighborhood,” said Lora Chamberlain of the group Chicagoland Oil by Rail. “Degasify the stuff. And so we’re really, really upset at the feds, the Department of Transportation, for not addressing this in these new rules.”

Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway's tracks in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
Oil trains sit idle on the BNSF Railway’s tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. David Schaper/NPR

Others criticize the rules for giving shippers three to five years to either strengthen or replace the weakest tank cars.

“The rules won’t take effect for many years,” said Paul Berland, who lives near busy railroad tracks in suburban Elgin. “They’re still playing Russian roulette with our communities.”

A coalition of environmental groups — including Earthjustice, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club — sued, alleging that loopholes could allow some dangerous tank cars to remain on the tracks for up to a decade.

“I don’t think our federal regulators did the job that they needed to do here; I think they wimped out, as it were,” said Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Ill., a city of 200,000 about 40 miles west of Chicago that has seen a dramatic increase in oil trains rumbling through it.

Weisner is upset the new rules provide exemptions to trains with fewer than 20 contiguous tank cars of a flammable liquid, such as oil, and for trains with fewer than 35 such tank cars in total.

“They’ve left a hole in the regulations that you could drive a freight train through,” Weisner said.

At the same time, an oil industry group is challenging the new regulations in court, too, arguing that manufacturers won’t be able to build and retrofit tank cars fast enough to meet the requirements.

The railroad industry is also taking action against the new crude-by-rail rules, filing an appeal of the new rules with the Department of Transportation.

In a statement, Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said: “It is the AAR’s position the rule, while a good start, does not sufficiently advance safety and fails to fully address ongoing concerns of the freight rail industry and the general public. The AAR is urging the DOT to close the gap in the rule that allows shippers to continue using tank cars not meeting new design specifications, to remove the ECP brake requirement, and to enhance thermal protection by requiring a thermal blanket as part of new tank car safety design standards.”

AAR’s President Ed Hamberger discussed the problems the railroads have with the new rules in an interview with NPR prior to filing the appeal. “The one that we have real problems with is requiring something called ECP brakes — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” he said, adding the new braking system that the federal government is mandating is unproven.

“[DOT does] not claim that ECP brakes would prevent one accident,” Hamberger said. “Their entire safety case is based on the fact that ECP brakes are applied a little bit more quickly than the current system.”

Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg disagreed. “It’s not unproven at all,” she said, noting that the railroads say ECP brakes could cost nearly $10,000 per tank car.

“I do understand that the railroad industry views it as costly,” Feinberg adds. “I don’t think it’s particularly costly, especially when you compare it to the cost of a really significant incident with a train carrying this product.”

“We’re talking about unit trains, 70 or more cars, that are transporting an incredibly volatile and flammable substance through towns like Chicago, Philadelphia,” Feinberg continues. “I want those trains to have a really good braking system. I don’t want to get into an argument with the rail industry that it’s too expensive. I want people along rail lines to be protected.”

Feinberg said her agency is still studying whether to regulate the volatility of crude, but some in Congress don’t think this safety matter can wait.

“The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to address the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”

Cantwell is sponsoring legislation to force oil producers to reduce the crude’s volatility to make it less explosive, before shipping it on the nation’s rails.

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    Senator Cantwell: “The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll. It does nothing…”

    Senator Cantwell Press Release
    [Editor:  For the full text of the 395-page rule, see http://www.dot.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/final-rule-flammable-liquids-by-rail_0.pdf.  – RS]

    Cantwell Statement on DOT Crude-by-Rail Safety Rules

    May 1, 2015

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) issued the following statement on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new rules governing the safety of oil train tank cars.

    “The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll. It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars. It’s more of a status quo rule than the real safety changes needed to protect the public and first responders.”

    In March following four fiery derailments involving oil trains, Cantwell introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The legislation requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to establish new regulations to mitigate the volatility of gases in crude oil shipped via tank car. It also would immediately halt the use of older-model tank cars at high risk for puncturing and catching fire in derailments, as well approving $40 million for first responder training programs to improve emergency response procedures.

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      Energy, Transportation departments to study volatility of oil moved by rail

      Repost from McClatchyDC

      Energy, Transportation departments to study volatility of oil moved by rail

      By Curtis Tate, April 28, 2015
      The federal government will conduct a two-year study of how crude oil volatility affects the commodity’s behavior in train derailments, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a Senate panel Tuesday.The Energy Department will coordinate the study with the Department of Transportation, Moniz told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

      After a series of fiery train derailments, the Transportation Department concluded early last year that light, sweet crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region is more volatile than other kinds.

      But derailments involving ethanol and other types of crude oil have cast doubt on whether Bakken is likely to react more severely than other flammable liquids transported by rail.

      The petroleum industry has been citing its own studies and a recent report from the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratory to support its position that there’s no difference. But it’s clear that more crude oil is moving by rail, and an increase in serious accidents has come with that increased volume.

      Moniz said the Sandia report was “the most comprehensive literature survey in terms of properties of different oils” but showed the need for more research to determine their relevance in train derailments.

      The joint Energy-Transportation study would look at other kinds of crude moving by rail, such as light crude from west Texas and heavy crude from western Canada.

      Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Energy panel who requested the departments work together on a study, noted that there had been four derailments of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada since the beginning of the year.

      “A number of high-profile incidents have underscored major safety concerns,” she said.

      On April 1, North Dakota began setting vapor pressure limits for crude oil loaded in tank cars at no more than 13.7 pounds per square inch.

      But the crude oil tested in many serious derailments had a lower vapor pressure than the new standard…..  [MORE]

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        Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains

        Repost from High Country News

        Washington’s Swinomish sue to halt Bakken oil trains

        Many communities fight transport of crude oil through their towns; some find legal footing to succeed.

        By Kindra McQuillan, April 16, 2015, Web Exclusive

        To the Coastal Salish people living on Washington’s Swinomish Reservation, water remains an important aspect of daily life. Their ancestors fished for salmon at the mouths of Northwestern rivers and gathered shellfish on Pacific tidelands; modern Swinomish people still pursue these activities from their small reservation on the Puget Sound. Many fish for their own subsistence, and many work as employees of the Swinomish Fish Company, which serves international markets.

        The Swinomish Reservation is surrounded by water. Swinomish Channel and Swinomish Reservation. Photograph courtesy of Joe Mabel

        Even so, for more than 20 years, the Swinomish have consented to strictly regulated use of a railroad that crosses waters on either side of their island reservation. The track, operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, crosses a swing bridge over Puget Sound’s Swinomish Channel, passes several Swinomish businesses, and then crosses a trestle over Padilla Bay, originally on its way to Anacortes, where it historically delivered lumber. A legal agreement between the tribe and the company limited the amount of traffic that would cross the reservation and waterways to Anacortes and required the company to inform the tribe about its cargo.

        In the 1990s, the last section of railroad to Anacortes was removed, and the tracks ended on March Point, which houses two oil refineries. Burlington Northern fell behind on their annual reports, and the tribe assumed the trains were carrying supplies to the refineries.

        But in 2012, reservation residents began to see 100-car trains—four times as long as the agreed maximum length. Then an Anacortes newspaper reported that the trains were carrying Bakken crude, a volatile oil that has figured in numerous train explosions in recent years, some of them deadly.

        Burlington Northern had not informed the tribe that the cars carried this new, dangerous cargo, and ignored tribal requests to desist. So last week, the tribe filed a lawsuit in federal court. The suit asks the court to reinforce the original car limit and to prohibit the transport of Bakken crude via rail across the reservation.

        “It’s not a matter of if another train will blow up; it’s a matter of when,” Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish tribe, recently told me. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen in our backyard.”

        Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the day a Bakken oil train derailed, killing 47 people in 2013. Photograph courtesy of Sûreté du Québec.

        But while many Western communities are grasping for protection against dangerous shipments of crude oil, the Swinomish tribe has a unique instrument for getting it done.

        The instrument has to do with the way tribal trust lands work. Tribal trust land, unlike much off-reservation land, requires consent from both the federal government and the tribe before utilities and railroad companies can build infrastructure. But for a century, Burlington Northern and its predecessor companies broke this law by maintaining a railway on the Swinomish reservation without consent from either. In the late 1970s, the tribe sued the company for a century of trespass, reaching a settlement in 1991 that gave the company an easement for continued use of the railway, albeit with a few restrictions: No more than one train could cross the reservation per day in each direction, none could have more than 25 cars, and Burlington Northern would have to inform the tribe of the trains’ cargo at least once per year.

        Then came the Bakken boom, and with it a dramatic increase in traffic as trains rushed to carry oil from the Bakken to the West Coast, where ports could take the fuel to international markets. After seeing the traffic increase on their reservation, “the tribe had conversations with Burlington Northern,” says Stephen LeCuyer, director of the office of tribal attorney. “But in the meantime the tribe was seeing explosive derailments of Bakken oil trains, and reached the conclusion that they would not consent to an increase of over 25 cars per day.” After the tribe brought their concerns to Burlington Northern, the company said it wanted to negotiate. Meanwhile, the oil trains kept rolling.  That led to last week’s suit.

        Burlington Northern has yet to file their case, but in a statement, company spokesperson Gus Melonas argues that it has a legal obligation to carry the oil.  “As a common carrier, we are obligated under federal law to move all regulated products, which ensures the flow of interstate commerce,” he said in a statement.

        “The Easement Agreement includes a mechanism to address rail traffic volumes to meet shipper needs, and we have been working with the Swinomish Tribe for several years to resolve this issue.” The mechanism Melonas refers to is a stipulation in the agreement, wherein the tribe agrees not to “arbitrarily withhold permission to increase the number of trains or cars when necessary to meet shipper needs.”

        To the tribes, this mechanism is null. Given the dangerous nature of Bakken crude, the tribe is confident it’s not making an arbitrary decision “in any way,” LeCuyer says.

        Their complaint was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and was formally served on April 10. Burlington Northern must now file a response within 21 days of the formal complaint. At that point, the court will issue a schedule for hearings, and the case will eventually be decided by U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik.

        Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group that has handled many cases related to oil transportation, said the Swinomish argument appears “airtight.”

        “BNSF made an agreement with them, and it violated that agreement,” he said. But Hasselman added that the case wouldn’t likely set a precedent for other communities. “Their agreement is pretty unique,” he said. “But this is yet another example of communities all across the country in different ways rising up to the threat of crude oil transportation.”

        Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued urgent recommendations calling for the improvement of unsafe oil-tank train cars. Politicians like Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, D, are calling for greater oil train safety.

        Earlier this year, Washington’s Quinault tribe was able to slow shipping of crude-by-rail near their reservation by challenging oil terminals that were being built without an environmental impact statement.

        Meanwhile, the Swinomish Tribe is also testifying against a Canadian pipeline that would carry crude oil to ports in the Salish Sea, the body of water that encompasses the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Puget Sound. Alternative forms of oil transportation, like pipelines and barges, may be safer to human communities, but they would still put fisheries at risk.

        “We, of course, always have concern about tankers hitting our reefs,” Cladoosby says. “Thank God that has never happened. We live on an island surrounded by water. We’ve lived here since time immemorial, and the Creator has blessed us with every species of wild salmon. We work very hard to take care of it.”

        Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby and his father. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Ecotrust.
        Kindra McQuillan is an editorial intern with

        High Country News.

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