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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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    KTVU News: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

    Repost from KTVU 2 News, Oakland, CA
    [Editor: an excellent investigative report, much of which was filmed here in Benicia.  Apologies for the video’s commercial ad.  – RS]

     2 Investigates: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

    By Simone Aponte, Nov 17, 2014

    RICHMOND, Calif. – California used to receive all of its crude oil imports by ship and pipeline, but trains loaded with tanker cars full of oil are rolling through Bay Area neighborhoods with increasing frequency. And it’s a growing safety concern among experts who say rail imports will become much more common in the next few years, bringing millions of gallons of crude to local refineries.  Much of that crude is a more volatile type of oil that has been linked to multiple derailments, fires, and deadly accidents.

    2 Investigates followed trains rolling through neighborhoods in Richmond carrying millions of gallons of crude oil, in tanker cars that have been deemed unsafe by the federal government. And the railroad is not required to tell local officials how many of those cars are carrying a more volatile oil from the Bakken shale formation, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada.

    The transport of Bakken crude by rail has been at the center of federal investigations and calls for increased safety standards. It’s delivered to the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond, but local officials complain that they receive no notification of which trains are carrying Bakken crude.

    Increased deliveries and increased danger

    “These are trains that have up to 100 tank cars and those are filled with Bakken crude,” said Kelly Huston, Deputy Director with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). “That’s an entire train full of a much more volatile type of crude oil than we typically see on rail.”

    In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a warning that Bakken’s light, sweet crude oil is prone to ignite at a lower temperature than traditional crude oils. Experts say lighter crudes contain more natural gas, and the vapors given off by the oil can ignite at much lower temperatures.

    But the oil industry pushed back with its own study that disputed the government warning. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 oil companies operating in North Dakota and Montana, commissioned a $400,000 study of Bakken crude. It determined the oil’s characteristics are within the safety margin for the current fleet of rail tankers.

    However, the state’s Rail Safety Working Group –convened by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) – wasn’t convinced. It released a report that warns about the dangers of increasing the shipments of Bakken crude to California refineries. The report points to at least eight major train accidents involving Bakken crude trains in 2013 and 2014 alone.

    Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press / AP“Incidents involving crude oil from the Bakken shale formation have been particularly devastating,” the authors warn.

    Some of the most notable accidents include a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. Sixty-three tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 42 people. Five other people were also presumed to be dead, but were never recovered.

    In 2012, about one million barrels of crude oil were delivered to California by rail. But by 2013 that number had jumped to about 6.3 million barrels.  The California Energy Commission estimates that volume could increase by up to 150 million barrels, or 25% of total crude imports, by 2016.

    According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the primary source of the crude oil coming into California was from North Dakota, in early 2013. But by the end of that year, the state was receiving a dramatic increase in imports from Canada.

    Old tanker cars

    For more than twenty years, the federal government has been aware of major flaws in one of the most common tanker car designs used to transport crude oil across America.

    According to a 1991 safety study from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the DOT-111 tanker has a steel shell that is too thin to resist puncture during an accident, is vulnerable to tearing, and has exposed fittings and valves that can easily snap off during a rollover.

    Torn DOT-111 Tanker Car And DOT-111s make up nearly 70 percent of oil tanker cars currently in use in the U.S., according to the NTSB. Critics say that shipping volatile Bakken crude in these tankers poses an “unacceptable risk” to public safety.

    In his Congressional testimony in February, NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt cited multiple train accidents and derailments involving Bakken crude transported in DOT-111 tanker cars.

    “The NTSB continues to find that accidents involving the rupture of DOT-111 tank cars carrying hazardous materials often have violent and destructive results,” Sumwalt said.

    “Federal requirements simply have not kept pace with evolving demands placed on the railroad industry and evolving technology and knowledge about hazardous materials and accidents.”

    This past summer, the DOT announced that it would propose stricter rules for transporting flammable materials by rail car, including Bakken crude. The plan calls for DOT-111 tanker cars to be phased out, unless they can be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

    Last month, Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that his group and the Association of American Railroads would jointly ask the DOT for six to 12 months for rail tank car manufacturers to prepare to overhaul tens of thousands of cars, and another three years to retrofit older cars.

    But critics say the government’s plan doesn’t act swiftly enough.
    Devora Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, said the group has multiple concerns about Bakken crude trains coming into California, in particular in regards to the age of DOT-111 fleet.

    “It is extremely alarming and the public should be concerned,” said Ancel. “It’s being carried in rail cars that are unsafe. They were designed in the 1960’s. They were not meant to transport highly volatile crude.”

    The Sierra Club and Earthjustice submitted a petition to the DOT seeking an emergency order to ban the transportation of Bakken crude in DOT-111 tank cars. The petition acknowledges that the DOT’s proposal for stricter rules is a step in the right direction, but stresses that two years is too long to phase out the DOT-111 cars.

    “The last few years have witnessed a surge in shipments of highly flammable crude from the Bakken region, mostly in unit trains with dozens and often more than 100 tank cars carrying explosive cargo. The growth in the number and length of trains carrying crude oil is staggering,” the petition said.

    Modified DOT-111 Tanker Car in RichmondTwo trainloads of Bakken crude roll into the Richmond Rail Terminal every month, according to the city’s fire department. But the fire officials tells KTVU that they’ve been reassured by Kinder-Morgan that the DOT-111 tank cars that make deliveries to Richmond have undergone additional safety modifications. Every individual tanker car carries more than 28,000 gallons of crude oil.

    Tracking routes

    Trains entering the Bay Area carrying crude oil from Canada and North Dakota must pass through parts of California that are considered hazardous routes, according to Huston.  In the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) annual railroad safety report, released in July, the agency said California has had 58 train derailments in the last five years, and primary cause has been a problem with the track at so-called “hazard sites.”

    MAP: Rain Lines and Hazardous Areas in California

    The state’s OES report on rail safety also voiced concerns about risky routes being used to transport Bakken crude.  The Rail Safety Working Group complained that crude oil rail transportation is not regulated adequately.

    The report states that crude oil is “not transported with the level of protection mandated for the degree of hazard posed,” and also stressed there are “inadequacies in route planning to avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas, and a need for auditing rail carriers to ensure adequate response.”

    One of OES’s biggest concerns is that it receives very little information about the Bakken crude trains’ schedules, and none of the data it does receive is in real time.

    “Just like you would know where an Amtrak train is and whether is late to a station or not,” said Huston. “We should be able to know that about volatile substances like Bakken crude coming across our rail lines.”

    Emergency response

    The growing worries over the volatility of Bakken crude are particularly important for firefighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with derailments and possible fires.
    According to the OES, the biggest areas of concern lie in the rural areas of Northern California, where emergency response crews are far from remote rail lines and wouldn’t be able to respond to a spill or fire quickly.

    The OES report states that while there are emergency crews prepared to handle a crude tanker disaster in urban areas, “none are located near the high hazard areas in rural Northern California.” And HazMat teams that are located in more remote regions “are equipped to perform only in a support rather than lead role during a major chemical or oil incident.”

    “If you get one of those trains derail and that stuff goes into the river that could affect an entire population’s water supply, which is, in some cases, worse than having a derailment in a population center,” said Huston.

    Valero-Benicia refinery firefighters simulate a leak on an oil tanker car and practice using foam to quell the vapors.Last month, the Valero-Benicia refinery Fire Chief Joe Bateman led a training session with local fire departments that focused on tanker car fires. They simulated a leak on an oil tanker car and practiced using foam to quell the vapors. A small group of Richmond firefighters will attend a similar training in December, according to the Richmond Fire Marshall.

    The Valero-Benicia refinery is seeking a permit to bring in crude-by-rail shipments. They would join Richmond and a planned refinery in San Luis Obispo that would also be supplied with crude carried by train through the Bay Area.

    But the idea is meeting resistance from worried neighbors.
    Benicia’s city council must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on the proposal. The $70 million terminal would receive two 50-car trainloads, carrying a total of about 70,000 barrels of crude oil, every day. The company has said that it will use newer tanker cars instead of the aging DOT-111s that have been involved in past accidents.

    Chief Bateman insists that his crews are prepared if the worst should happen with a trainload of Bakken crude traveling through the Bay Area.

    “I understand that it’s a big increase. I understand the public is concerned by that,” Chief Bateman said. “If you look at some of the other rail cars that are already on the tracks today… we’ve been shipping commodities for a long time.” Bateman points out that some of those other substances are more volatile than crude oil, such as liquefied petroleum gas.

    Placard 1267 Signifies Crude OilWhen first responders arrive at chaotic train accident scene, all the black tanker cars essentially look the same. The contents are distinguished by a red, diamond-shaped placard on the side of the car that displays a four-digit code. The code for crude is 1267, but there is no way for emergency crews to tell if the oil inside is the volatile Bakken variety.

    In April, Canada banned the older tanker cars and ordered the controversial design be phased out within three years. Last month, another train carrying crude oil derailed in Saskatchewan, involving the same kind of rail cars. There were no casualties in that accident.

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