Tag Archives: Tank car retirement

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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    Firefighter battalion chief: Russian roulette on the railways

    Repost from Chico News & Review
    [Editor:  This article is well-written and documents gutsy analyses by a regional firefighter and County officials who understand that local safety is at the mercy of federal regulators.  Three years of Russian roulette – and more.  A “must read.”  – RS]

    Russian roulette on the railways

    Butte County train tracks are Bakken-free for now, but emergency responders fear a return of the volatile fuel
    By Evan Tuchinsky, 05.21.15
    Cal Fire Battalion Chief Russ Fowler says the Department of Transportation’s new rules regarding traincar safety are insufficient. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL FIRE

    What is ‘Bakken’?

    The light crude oil known as Bakken comes from fracking a geologic formation of that name under North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Less dense and with less carbon, light crudes yield more gasoline than heavier crudes, but also are more volatile.

    Trains crash. That fact hit home last week when a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia and also last year, on Nov. 26, when a cargo train derailed in the Feather River Canyon.

    The risk of devastation multiplies when the derailed train carries volatile crude oil. A recent spate of those accidents has garnered national attention, too, prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) to release new regulations governing the conveyance of flammable liquids. The measures have drawn near-unanimous opposition, though, and done little to assuage lingering local fears.

    “My constituents have raised concerns and the Board [of Supervisors] is concerned,” said Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who represents Chico. “We’re hoping that some of the legislation and some of the discussion that comes forward will make even stiffer requirements on the transport of this Bakken oil.”

    The DoT regulations came out May 1. Five days later, another oil train crashed, in North Dakota. By last Friday (May 15), both the petroleum industry and environmentalists had filed legal challenges to the DoT’s so-called “final rule.”

    The International Association of Fire Fighters also has voiced objections. Representing more than 300,000 firefighters in North America, the IAFF protested a provision that allows railroads to keep the contents of their trains confidential—under the banner of national security.

    Russ Fowler, battalion chief with Cal Fire Butte County and coordinator of the local Interagency Hazardous Materials Team, has additional concerns. DoT regulations phase out tank cars that are not up to the current safety standard, rather than pull them off the rails for retrofitting or retirement. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has argued that the alternative would result in increased oil-tanker traffic on highways.

    Fowler says one particular railcar commonly used to carry volatile Bakken crude oil, the DOT-111, “just [wasn’t] designed for that product.” Since railroads have until 2018 to get those cars up to standard, “we have three years of potential Russian roulette on our hands if light crude oil is transported down the Feather River Canyon like it was done last fall.”

    Cal Fire has communicated with BNSF Railway, Fowler said, and has been told no crude oil deliveries have come through Butte County this year. “I have no reason not to believe them,” he added, though he’s seen DOT-111s riding on Chico tracks.

    Lena Kent, BNSF’s spokeswoman for California, confirmed by email that “we are not currently transporting Bakken crude in your county.” She also wrote: “We do provide information to the Office of Emergency Services in California.”

    That’s in contrast with last year, when train cars carrying millions of gallons of the explosive oil, reportedly around one shipment per week, did make their way way along the Feather River Canyon. Experts tie the reduction of imports to a reduced demand for the fuel, a lighter type that’s similar to gasoline and thus extremely volatile.

    While Cal Fire dreads the prospect of an urban crash, the Feather River Canyon presents a distinct set of frets.

    Train tracks head into remote areas that are difficult for emergency responders to reach. Access roads don’t always run adjacent to the rail route—not even parallel in certain spots. Depending on where a crash occurred, spilled oil could contaminate the Feather River and Lake Oroville—a major source of water for California—or could start a forest fire should it ignite.

    Even without a blaze or river release, “it would make an ugly, oily mess in the canyon,” Fowler said. “It would be a terrible environmental disaster.”

    Butte County supervisors articulated such concerns to the California Public Utility Commission and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, before the DoT released its regulations. OES responded by saying the state is investing in “purchasing new Type II hazardous material emergency response units” and in “local training specific to … rail safety incidents.”

    For Supervisor Doug Teeter, the board chair who represents the Ridge, that’s little assurance. He has a powerless feeling—believing “it’s just a matter of time” before an accident happens locally, yet knowing “as a county we have no control” over the rails.

    “We’re at the mercy of the federal regulators,” he continued. “All we’re really getting is a little response on improved training and equipment. That is not nearly enough to handle a 100-car spill.”

    Either in populated or unpopulated areas.

    “We as a hazmat team plan for worst-case scenarios,” Fowler said. “Just because you plan for a worst-case scenario doesn’t mean you can mitigate the worst-case scenario, because there are things that can happen that are so catastrophic that it would overwhelm local resources until more regional or statewide resources could come in to help.”

    Should legal challenges fail, and in the absence of local authority, a remedy to the DoT regulations remains: Congress. Teeter recently met with a representative of Sen. Barbara Boxer. Meanwhile, North State Congressman John Garamendi has introduced legislation to make light crude safer for rail transport.

    Teeter encourages constituents to write congressional representatives and senators. He finds encouragement even in the controversial DoT regulations, which arose amid an uproar.

    “Maybe now we’ll have a voice,” Teeter said. “Maybe something can happen.”

     

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      Riverkeeper sues U.S. DOT over oil train safety rules

      Repost from The Times Union, State College, PA
      [Editor: Note that this is a new filing, closely following the filing of May 14 by a coalition of environmental groups.  – RS]

      Riverkeeper sues U.S. DOT over oil train safety rules

      By Brian Nearing, May 18, 2015

      The Hudson River environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper is challenging new U.S. Department of Transportation crude-by-rail standards in federal court, saying that they fail to protect the public and the environment from proven threats, according to a statement issued Monday.

      The release states: Riverkeeper filed its lawsuit in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City on May 15, a little more than a week after the DOT issued a final tank car and railroad operation rule which had been the subject of scrutiny and controversy since its proposal in 2014. The suit closely follows another filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by a coalition of conservation and citizen groups that includes Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club.

      The Hudson River and the Greater New York/New Jersey region, a thoroughfare for up to 25 percent of all crude shipments originating in the Bakken shale oil region, faces a daily risk of spills and explosions that could devastate communities, local economies, drinking water security, and the environment.

      “These seriously flawed standards all but guarantee that there will be more explosive derailments, leaving people and the environment at grave risk,” Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said. “The shortcomings are numerous, including an inadequate speed limit, unprotective tank car design, and time line that would allow these dangerous tank cars 10 more years on the rails. The DOT completely fails to recognize that we’re in the middle of a crisis – we don’t need bureaucratic half measures that are years away from implementation, we need common-sense protections today.”

      Just this month, tank cars laden with crude oil derailed and exploded in Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the new DOT standards, the same type of cars that exploded in that disaster could stay in service hauling volatile crude oil for another five to eight years, or even indefinitely if they are used for tar sands.

      Over the past several years, a series of fiery derailments, toxic spills, and explosions involving volatile crude and ethanol rail transport has caused billions in damages across North America. Crude-by-rail accidents threaten irreversible damage to waterways, many of which, like the Hudson River, serve as the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people. This year alone,six oil-by-rail shipments have caught fire and exploded in North America. In July 2013, a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. The total liabilities for that rail disaster could easily reach $2.7 billion over the next decade.

      Here are some of the ways the new safety standards fail to protect people and the environment:

      • Hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil can remain in service for up to 10 years.

      • The rule rolls back public notification requirements, leaving communities and first responders in the dark about explosive crude oil tank cars rumbling through their towns.

      • While new tank cars will require thicker shells to mitigate punctures and leaks, retrofit tank cars will be allowed to stay in use with a less protective design standard.

      • Speed limits have been restricted only for “high threat urban areas,” but only two areas in New York have received that designation, Buffalo and New York City.

      • The “high threat” category relates to cities seen as vulnerable to terrorist attacks by the Department of Homeland Security. It is unrelated to actual risks posed by crude-by-rail.

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        Groups Sue Obama Administration Over Weak Tank Car Standards

        Press Release from ForestEthics

        Groups Sue Obama Administration Over Weak Tank Car Standards

        The new safety standards issued by the Department of Transportation take too long to get dangerous tank cars off the tracks and contain loopholes that leave too many vulnerable
        May 14, 2015, Eddie Scher, ForestEthics, (415) 815-7027, eddie@forestethics.org

        San Francisco – In the wake of a spate of fiery derailments and toxic spills involving trains hauling volatile crude oil, a coalition of conservation organizations and citizen groups are challenging the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) weak safety standards for oil trains. Less than a week after the DOT released its final tank car safety rule on May 1, a train carrying crude oil exploded outside of Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the current standards, the tank cars involved in the accident would not be retired from crude oil shipping or retrofitted for another 5 to 8 years.

        Earthjustice has filed suit in the 9th Circuit challenging the rule on behalf of ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

        “The Department of Transportation’s weak oil train standard just blew up in its face on the plains of North Dakota last week,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice attorney. “Pleas from the public, reinforced by the National Transportation Safety Board, to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents.”

        Rather than immediately banning the most dangerous tank cars — DOT-111s and CPC-1232s — that are now used every day to transport volatile Bakken and tar sands crude oil, the new standards call for a 10-year phase out. Even then the standard will allow smaller trains — up to 35 loaded tank cars in a train — to continue to use the unsafe tank cars.

        The new rule fails to protect people and communities in several major ways:

        • The rule leaves hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil on the tracks for up to 10 years.

        • The rule has gutted public notification requirements, leaving communities and emergency responders in the dark about the oil trains and explosive crude oil rumbling through their towns and cities.

        • New cars will require thicker shells to reduce punctures and leaks, but retrofit cars are subject to a less protective standard.

        • The standard doesn’t impose adequate speed limits to ensure that oil trains run at safe speeds. Speed limits have been set for “high threat urban areas,” but very few cities have received that designation.

        Click here for a close analysis of the hidden dangers buried in the federal tank car rule

        “Explosive oil trains present real and imminent danger, and protecting the public and waterways requires an aggressive regulatory response,” said Marc Yaggi, Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Instead, the Department of Transportation has finalized an inadequate rule that clearly was influenced by industry and will not prevent more explosions and fires in our communities. We hope our challenge will result in a rule that puts the safety of people and their waterways first.”

        “We’re suing the administration because these rules won’t protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone,” says Todd Paglia, ForestEthics Executive Director. “Let’s start with common sense – speed limits that are good for some cities are good for all communities, 10 years is too long to wait for improved tank cars, and emergency responders need to know where and when these dangerous trains are running by our homes and schools.”

        LEGAL DOCUMENT: http://earthjustice.org/documents/legal-document/petition-for-review-groups-sue-obama-administration-over-weak-tank-car-standards 

        BACKGROUND:

        The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that the DOT-111 tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The Safety Board has made official recommendations to stop shipping crude oil in these hazardous tank cars, but the federal regulators have not heeded these pleas. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, and the Safety Board has called for a ban on shipping hazardous fuels in these cars as well.

        The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail from 2008 to 2013, primarily in trains with 100 to 120 oil cars that can be over 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.

        ForestEthics calculates that 25 million Americans live in the dangerous blast zone along the nation’s rail lines.

        REPORTER RESOURCES:

        Q&A: The Challenge To The Federal Tank Car Standards

        Map: Crude By Rail Across the United States

        Quote Sheet By Officials On The Dangers of Shipping Bakken Crude in Hazardous Tank Cars

        ForestEthics Map: Oil Train Blast Zone

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