Tag Archives: Senator Chuck Schumer

Benicia DEIR downplays risks in marked contrast to NRDC assessment

Repost from AllGov California

This Is Where Deadly Crude Oil Trains May Be Rolling Through California

By Ken Broder, June 20, 2014
(graphic: Natural Resources Defense Council)

Although this country’s oil boom has been accompanied by an explosion of dangerous crude-carrying trains―literally and figuratively―a much-anticipated environmental impact report (Summary pdf) says the spill threat from Valero Refining Company’s proposal to run 100 tanker cars a day through Roseville and Sacramento to its Benicia refinery is negligible.

The draft EIR, written by Environmental Science Associates of San Francisco for the city of Benicia and released on Tuesday, singled out air pollution, “significant and unavoidable,” as the sole danger among 11 “environmental resource or issue areas.”

The next day, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released seven maps detailing the rail routes through the “Crude Oil Train Derailment Risk Zones in California,” which stretches from the Bay Area to the Central/San Joaquin Valley and encompasses 4 million people.

The NRDC’s assessment of risk was markedly different than in the EIR. Noting that “California has seen a dramatic increase of crude by rail, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million barrels in 2013” without any new safety measures or emergency response put in place, the NRDC report said the aging “soda cans on wheels” are not built to handle the particularly volatile crude being fracked out of the ground in America’s rejuvenated oil fields like those in North Dakota, and shipped to refiners.

Tracks would run within half a mile of 135,000 people in Sacramento and 25,000 people in Davis.

The NRDC wants old tanker cars removed from service, lower speeds for trains, rerouting through less-sensitive areas, disclosure of what kind of crude is being carried, more visible emergency preparedness, fees on shippers to pay for emergency response, high-risk designations for oil-trains and more comprehensive risk assessments.

The EIR was a bit more upbeat.

It concluded that oil spills between Roseville and Benicia would occur about once every 111 years. The project would have no impact on agriculture and forestry resources or mineral resources. It would also have less-than-significant impacts on aesthetics, population and housing, public services, recreation and utilities and service systems.

In other words, the assumption is there won’t be anything like the tragic accident in July 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 72 tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town’s core. As Russell Gold and Betsy Morris explained in the Wall Street Journal, “Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a wide body jetliner.”

The Sacramento Bee said the risk assessment’s author, Christopher Barken, previously worked for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington, and does research supported by the railroad association.

Barken’s website at the University of Illinois, where he is a professor and executive director of the Railroad Engineering Program, says, “Our strong relationship with the rail industry means our research has an impact.”

In describing the twice-a-day snaking of 50-car trains through heavily populated areas, the report offered far more information than has generally been made available by rail companies to state and local governments, as well as disaster first-responders. But the EIR did acknowledge Benicia would not reveal seven Valero “trade secrets” (pdf) at the oil company’s request.

That “confidential business information” included the specific crude Valero would be shipping in by rail and the properties of crude it refined now or in the past. That lack of information would be complicating factors in accurately assessing pollution and risk.

California, like states and localities across the nation, are scrambling just to get a handle on how much crude-by-rail is coursing through their jurisdictions, much less assessing what regulations and safety measures need to be put in place. They are working blind.

A study by Politico analyzed 400 oil-train incidents nationally since 1971 and found a dramatic escalation the past five years. Property damage from 70 accidents through mid-May this year is already $10 million, triple the year before.

“It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said.

They must. Because the trains are already rolling and Valero would like to get its California project finished by the end of the year. America is waiting.

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    The dark side of the oil boom – analysis of federal data from more than 400 oil-train incidents since 1971

    Repost from Politico

    The dark side of the oil boom

    By Kathryn A. Wolfe and Bob King | 6/18/14

    Communities throughout the U.S. and Canada are waking up to the dark side of North America’s energy boom: Trains hauling crude oil are crashing, exploding and spilling in record numbers as a fast-growing industry outpaces the federal government’s oversight.

    In the 11 months since a runaway oil train derailed in the middle of a small town in Quebec, incinerating 47 people, the rolling virtual pipelines have unleashed crude oil into an Alabama swamp, forced more than 1,000 North Dakota residents to evacuate, dangled from a bridge in Philadelphia and smashed into an industrial building near Pittsburgh. The latest serious accident was April’s fiery crash in Lynchburg, Virginia, where even the mayor had been unaware oil was rolling through his city.

    (WATCH: News coverage of recent oil train spills)

    A POLITICO analysis of federal data from more than 400 oil-train incidents since 1971 shows that a once-uncommon threat has escalated dramatically in the past five years:

    • This year has already shattered the record for property damage from U.S. oil-train accidents, with a toll exceeding $10 million through mid-May — nearly triple the damage for all of 2013. The number of incidents so far this year — 70 — is also on pace to set a record.
    • Almost every region of the U.S. has been touched by an oil-train incident. These episodes are spreading as more refineries take crude from production hot spots like North Dakota’s Bakken region and western Canada, while companies from California and Washington state to Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida build or expand terminals for moving oil from trains to barges, trucks or pipelines.
    • The voluntary reforms that DOT and industry have enacted so far might not have prevented the worst accidents. For example, the department announced a voluntary 40 mph speed limit this year for oil trains traveling through densely populated areas, but DOT’s hazardous-incident database shows only one accident in the past five years involving speeds exceeding that threshold. And unlike Canada’s transportation ministry, DOT has not yet set a mandatory deadline for companies to replace or upgrade their tank cars.

    Starting this month, DOT is requiring railroads to share more timely information with state emergency managers about the trains’ cargoes and routes. But some railroads are demanding that states sign confidentiality agreements, citing security risks.

    Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says each step is a move in the right direction.

    “There’s been such exponential growth in the excavation of this crude oil that it’s basically outrun our normal systems,” Foxx said in an interview. But Foxx, who became secretary four days before the Quebec disaster, added: “We’ve been focused on this since I came in. … We’re going to get this right.”

    Defending the voluntary speed limits, Foxx said: “You have to understand that all these pieces fit together. So a stronger tank car with lower speeds is safer than a less strong tank car at higher speeds.”

    Members of Congress are joining the call for more action.

    “The boom in domestic oil production has turned many railways and small communities across our country into de facto oil pipelines, and the gold-rush-type phenomenon has unfortunately put our regulators behind the eight ball,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been pushing for stricter safety and disclosure rules. “It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste.”

    Sierra Club staff attorney Devorah Ancel said the rising damage toll should “ring alarm bells in the minds of our decision-makers, from cities all the way up to Congress and the president.”

    “Our fear is that the regulators are being pushed over by the industry,” she said.

    Like the oil boom itself, the surge in oil-train traffic has come much faster than anyone expected. Meanwhile, the trains face less onerous regulations than other ways of moving oil, including pipelines like TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.

    Keystone, which would carry oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, has waited more than five years for a permit from the Obama administration while provoking a national debate about climate change. But no White House approval was needed for all the trains carrying Canadian oil into the United States. In fact, freight railroads in the U.S. are considered “common carriers” for hazardous materials, meaning they can’t refuse to ship it as long as it meets federal guidelines.

    The oil-trains issue is bringing a flurry of foot traffic to the White House Office of Management and Budget these days as railroad and oil industry representatives press their case on what any new regulations should look like. Representatives of the country’s leading hauler of Bakken crude, Warren Buffett’s BNSF Railway, met with OMB regulatory chief Howard Shelanski on June 3 and June 6, and joined people from railroads including CSX, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern in another meeting June 10.

    DOT says it has been working to address the problem since as far back as September 2012, and that efforts accelerated after Foxx took over in July. His chief of staff, Sarah Feinberg, holds a meeting each morning on the issue, and she and Foxx meet regularly with top leadership at the two key DOT agencies that oversee railroads and the transport of hazardous materials.

    The voluntary agreements that Foxx’s department has worked out with the freight rail industry and shippers address issues like track inspections, speed limits, brakes and additional signaling equipment. Those are all “relevant when dealing with reducing risk” from oil train traffic, the freight rail industry’s main trade group said in a statement.

    “The number one and two causes of all main track accidents are track or equipment related,” the Association of American Railroads said. The statement added, “That is how the industry came up with the steps in the voluntary agreement in February aimed at reducing risks of these kinds of accidents when moving crude oil by rail.”

    Meanwhile, the oil train business is primed to get bigger. Even TransCanada might start using rail to ship oil to the U.S. while waiting for Keystone to get the green light, CEO Russ Girling said in an interview in May — despite agreeing that trains are a costlier and potentially more dangerous option.

    “If anybody thinks that is a better idea, that’s delusional,” Girling said.

    In fact, the State Department estimated this month that because of the risks of rail compared with pipelines, an additional 189 injuries and 28 deaths would occur every year if trains end up carrying the oil intended for Keystone.

    But environmentalists who warn about the dangers of crude-by-rail say it would be wrong to turn the issue into an excuse to approve Keystone. For one thing, the Texas-bound pipeline would replace only part of the train traffic, which has spread its tendrils all across the U.S. “There are no pipelines that run from North Dakota to the West Coast,” the Sierra Club’s Ancel said.

     

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      Firefighters get specialized training to fight crude oil tank car fires

      Repost from The Albany Times Union [Editor: We can expect that this kind of training is being initiated all across North America, given the proliferation of derailments and explosions.  Has the Benicia Fire Department sought training?  Other Bay Area fire departments?  How about a regional training event?  – RS]

      Firefighters train as crude oil surges through Albany port

      Controlled blaze gives firefighters practice for a real oil event at port
      By Brian Nearing  |  May 8, 2014
      An instructor, right, leads firefighter trainees during a live fire training drill on best practices for the suppression of ignitable liquids such as crude oil in the event of a flammable liquid emergency at the Port of Albany Wednesday May 7, 2014, in Albany, NY.  (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union) Photo: John Carl D'Annibale / 00026798AAn instructor, right, leads firefighter trainees during a live fire training drill on best practices for the suppression of ignitable liquids such as crude oil in the event of a flammable liquid emergency at the Port of Albany Wednesday May 7, 2014, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union)

      To practice fighting towering flames that could erupt should crude oil-laden trains ever derail and explode, firefighters in the Port of Albany on Wednesday practiced on controlled blazes created on something not unlike a giant barbecue grill.

      In a parking lot off South Pearl Street, about two dozen firefighters spent several hours dragging hoses to spray special foam on fires fueled by propane lines from a tank truck parked nearby, and that burned both in vapors bubbling in a water-filled pan on the ground and from a valve atop an adapted tractor-trailer.

      Flames would shoot up, teams of firefighters would creep up to spray foam, flames would be extinguished and then the next team would repeat the exercise.

      The state Division of Homeland Security ran the two-day drill, which is part of routine training done statewide for local fire departments and companies with their own firefighting crews, said James Cable, chief of the division’s Special Operations Branch.

      Later Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring all railroads operating trains hauling large loads of highly flammable Bakken crude oil — like those into Albany’s port — to notify state emergency response officials about routes and operation of rail traffic through their states.

      The rule requires rail companies that have trains containing more than one million gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude — equivalent to about 35 tanker cars — to notify state officials on the routes of those trains.

      Also the rules asks oil shippers to phase out use of the oldest, least-safe tankers, known as DOT-111s, as soon as is practical, without setting any deadline.

      Applauded by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, who last week called for such notification, and Kirsten Gillibrand, the federal announcement came after the local safety drill was finished. Before the drill, Albany Deputy Fire Chief Frank Nerney Jr. called the drill “an extension of our regular training to understand the use of foams to fight flammable liquids. We take part in this drill twice a year.”

      Nerney said training has focused on crews at the South End firehouse, which is closest to the Port of Albany, where trains carrying Bakken crude oil are arriving daily. Crude shipments have skyrocketed in the last two years. Derailments and massive fires in Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec in the last year have raised mounting safety concerns.

      In some of the infernos, flames were up to 200 feet high. Wednesday’s flames were much smaller, appearing to shoot five feet from the water-filled pan and 20 or 30 feet from the tractor trailer. Crews wearing protective clothing were able to walk within a few feet of the flames, which were still hot enough to be felt by reporters standing back about 40 yards.

      New recruits from the Albany department, as well as its five battalion chiefs, took part in the drill, as well as members from fire departments from Schuyler Heights, Maplewood and Schenectady and the SABIC chemical plant in Glenmont.

      Cable said the principles of the propane-based training system apply to crude oil fires or other “ignitable liquids.” The chemical foam is mixed with water under pressure, and the foam is sprayed over a fire. It acts like a blanket, sealing off the surface of the burning liquid from air, which extinguishes the blaze. The foam is consumed gradually by fire, and so must be applied enough to create a barrier; otherwise, gaps will allow air to continue to feed the blaze.

      The state has run the training course for local departments for three years, said Cable. “We are looking to increase this training, as more communities are asking for it.”

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