Tag Archives: Tank cars

IN MEMORIAM: Benicia’s Joel Fallon: Is Crude by Rail really do or die?

Is this really adios?

[Re-posting today in memory of Joel Fallon, who died on August 11, 2016 (obituary). Joel was Benicia’s first and most beloved Poet Laureate, an inspiration to all who knew him and a thoughtful, visionary activist. Originally reposted from The Benicia Herald and here on the Benicia Independent.]

April 25, 2014 by Joel Fallon

WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? Are Benicians just kittens in a burlap sack, down by the riverside, resigned to the inevitable?

Let’s see if I’ve got this right.

(a) We’re in earthquake country (see evidence of the Green Valley fault in terrain on the way to Cordelia);

(b) We’re next to fragile wetlands (for spectacular views, click Google Maps/Benicia, hybrid setting, find rail line and follow to Sacramento);

(c) We’re contiguous with an important commercial waterway;

(d) We host an outfit whose headquarters has fought attempts to safeguard our environment (see Valero Energy Corporation’s position and funding regarding Proposition 23);

(e) A local outfit, under direction from its far-off headquarters, plans to process a dangerous, toxic product;

(f) The outfit is served by a rail system with a recent history of tank car derailment;

(g) Parts of this railroad system (built by Central Pacific RR in 1877), running through marshland to the Carquinez Strait, repeatedly sank into unstable marshy terrain, requiring hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, gravel and other materials to stabilize it;

(h) Other parts of the antique rail infrastructure seem poorly maintained and may be unsafe, e.g., the Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, built between 1928 and 1930 for Southern Pacific RR to replace the train ferry to Port Costa;

(i) Old tank cars are a problem — an area newspaper reports that BNSF railway officials told federal regulators in March of concerns that older, less robust tank cars will end up transporting crude oil because of Canadian rail pricing policies;

(j) Emergency responders are unprepared to handle spills or fires in the event of derailment of cars headed to any of five Bay Area refineries. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to testimony from emergency responders, said, “There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems.” Chief of the Contra Costa Fire District is quoted saying, “… with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.” The 2007-08 Solano County Grand Jury, after investigating the county’s fire districts, reports a general need for more funding, heavy dependence on dedicated volunteers and the preponderance of old fire trucks, while noting the high cost of HAZMAT suits and problems with communications caused by incompatible equipment and radio frequencies.     

And yet, despite this unbelievably horrific backdrop, certain elements in town warn us to hush lest Valero be forced out of the competitive (i.e., tar sands crude) market, destroying its “desire to remain in Benicia.”

Clearly, Valero Benicia Refinery cannot be faulted for all of the foregoing. Good workers deserve good jobs; they should be able to tell their grandkids they helped, rather than harmed, the environment. Valero Benicia is just one of many links in a chain of factors that could lead to the disaster so many in this community fear.

Am I “agenda driven” as charged? Bet your raggedy backside I am. My agenda involves doing homework to find threats to my home, my town, my state and my nation, and advising others of my findings (just in case they might care). If you detect it, yell “GAS” to alert the rest of the platoon; then put on your mask, while you can still breathe.

For a glimmer of the scope of Big Oil’s operations from sea to shining sea and beyond, see the astounding number of outfits similar to Valero Energy Corp. in the U.S and Canada. Find ’em in Wikipedia (“independent oil companies — Americas”). Select a company to see its history of oil spills. Wonder why the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to extend to Texas? Check out which corporations own the pipeline and the benefits associated with Foreign Trade Zones (32 FTZ in Texas compared to 17 in California, and 15 in New York).

If folks look around a bit they may discover that Big Oil, like Big Coal and other corporate behemoths, extends powerful influence throughout the land of the free and the home of the brave. Many were hoodwinked by Operation Iraqi Liberation, in which Big Oil colluded with Big Government to achieve absolute power of life and death over us and our enemy — the one with phantom WMDs and a vast, very real amount of oil.

Is this really adios, Pilgrim? — or just “I double-dog dare you”? I don’t believe it’s Valero’s style to leave town. It’s not in the corporation’s best interests and shouldn’t be its preferred option.

What are those options? They include:

Option 1. Stay put, but back away from risky tar sands crude and focus on products involving minimum environmental risk. Backing away for good business reasons is not the same as “backing down.” CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes. The firm considered it “the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company. The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose — helping people on their path to better health.” Barrons online says, “We think that CVS — like anyone who quits smoking — is making a good long-term decision, even if it makes things rough short-term.” Others consider it a PR coup! CVS gained the respect of millions of customers for what is perceived as a moral and ethical decision. I shop CVS more often since they made that brilliant call; so do my friends.

Backing away from tar sands crude would take similar corporate guts; but the public would be pleased with the image of a moral, ethical, highly principled corporation — a Valero that gives a damn. Sales at Valero service stations might even increase.

Option 2. Continue to pursue tar sands crude; seeking high profitability despite increased environmental risk. The downside: prices at the pump are too high. Californians are already angry; they may avoid Valero service stations and products. I’ll urge my friends to do so. Word of mouth is powerful and spreads quickly. Contempt for an outfit that doesn’t respect its customers or our environment could lead to loss of sales in the country’s most populous state. Cesar Chavez showed us boycotts work. Most folks I know didn’t buy grapes.

Option 3. “Re-purpose” Valero’s operations in Benicia (and elsewhere) to enhance instead of degrade the environment while remaining profitable. Valero is an energy outfit. Turning to alternate sources of energy is ultimately inevitable. Valero should expand its vision and not limit itself to fossil fuels. Farmers in Ireland who grew only potatoes learned about diversification too late.

(a) Pursue wind farming if feasible and profitable. A recent Mother Earth News article about mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia cites a 2007 study that determined placing wind turbines on Coal River Mountain would provide power to 70,000 West Virginia homes while generating $1.7 million in local taxes each year. Better than ripping off the tops of mountains and dumping enormous amounts of debris into streams and rivers.

(b) Pursue solar energy if feasible and profitable. Produce solar products for sale and/or operate a solar power facility to resell power. See an article by Don Hofmann, president of RegenEn Solar LLC, looking at mountaintop removal mining and suggesting solar power instead. He recognizes there are challenges but is optimistic about lower-cost solar cells and technology in the future. He notes that the U.S. fossil fuel industry received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002 to 2006 and asks us to imagine that kind of money put into solar development.

(c) Pursue other approaches (geothermal, tidal, et al.) if appropriate and profitable.

Option 4. Determine feasibility of combining 3a, 3b and/or 3c. If appropriate and profitable, pursue the combination.

Option 1 would be the easiest and would be enthusiastically supported by most folks in Benicia, applauded by most Californians and recognized as a principled business decision.

Option 2 is the least desirable from an environmental standpoint. While profitability is high, it may incur the contempt and wrath of the public, possibly leading to damaging boycotts and a decline in profitability.

Option 3a thru 3c may seem starry-eyed, wild and outside the box. They would require imagination, foresight and courage. It can be done. CVS is showing the way and TESLA is succeeding with electrically powered cars. Examine pluses and minuses — Valero could take a quantum leap and be regarded as an industry trailblazer. Its reputation would be enhanced. Envious competitors might scoff and want Valero to take a pratfall but ultimately they would have to follow suit.

In conclusion the priority order of Valero’s options should be:

Option 1 — Most desirable (preferred)
Option 3/4 — Most “outside the box” (defer initially, but plan for the future)
Option 2 — Least desirable (avoid).

If Valero is really in the long-term energy game, it should choose Option 1 and start thinking seriously about Option 3. If, instead, its focus is on short term — high profits while risking irreparable harm to the environment — then Option 2 is their ticket.

If Valero wants to be recognized as rich, principled, brave and famous instead of rich, unscrupulous and infamous, then it should open door No. 3 as soon as possible.

Finally: I don’t believe it is “adios” for Valero Benicia Refinery. Unfortunately, I think Valero will not choose a clean path. They will probably press on with dirty tar sands crude. After that, “¿Quien sabe?”

I don’t intend to “go gentle into that good night.” Instead I prefer to “rage against the dying of the light.”

This whole thing could be like a colonoscopy, but a lot less fun.

Joel Fallon is a Benicia resident.


The Benicia Herald’s Poetry Corner was recently dedicated to Joel Fallon…

“For Joel Fallon” by Ronna Leon

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

You called them “dead Mother poems”
and scorned their cloying sentiment, easy forgiveness.
Your poem about your Mother named her Kali.
You hungered for life – anger, difficulty, competition, sex.
You insisted that wringing a tear from a stone
was superior to opening well oiled floodgates.

 

Now you are dead and my tears come unbidden
looking at the bookshelf, pulling a stubborn weed,
eating a pastry.
“Keep smiling” you’d instruct,
but I don’t want to brush these tears away,
each glistens with memory, swells with loss.
You are in them, like it or not.Ronna Leon was Benicia’s third poet laureate from 2010 to 2012


“Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Dedicated to Joel Fallon)” by Johanna Ely

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops-at all”
-Emily Dickinson

 

If such a tiny bird,
perhaps left for dead,
or suffering from an injured wing,
its feathers matted and torn,
finds refuge in your broken heart,
then reach inside yourself
and touch this living thing called Hope,
gently bind its limp and useless wing
with Love’s tattered cloth,
and press it to your shattered heart
until it heals,
until this lovely creature sings again,
then let it fly,
and nest in someone else’s heart,
the stranger,
the neighbor,
the old friend,
the one who just like you,
needs to hear its song.
Johanna Ely is Benicia’s current poet laureate

“Joel’s Passing” by Mary Susan Gast

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“So, I may have been wrong after all – this damn cancer may indeed be the death of me.”
-Joel Fallon, in an email of June 30, 2016

He died on the morning of August 11.
That night, meteor showers dazzled the skies:
The Perseids, at their peak.
No reason to doubt that Joel hitched a ride
On that celestial glory train,
Meeting up with all the other streaming luminaries,
Fireball to fireball.

Mary Susan Gast served as Conference Minister of the Northern California Conference United Church of Christ, now retired, and is a member of Benicia’s First Tuesday Poetry Group
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Federal Regulators get failing grades on Tank Car Design and “Positive Train Control”

Repost from DESMOGBLOG.COM

How This U.S. Rail Safety Measure Has Been Delayed for 44 Years … And Counting

2014-04-30  |  Justin Mikulka

On August 20, 1969, two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Conn.  Four people were killed and 43 were injured. The crash led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recommend that railroads implement new safety technology called positive train control — a system for monitoring and controlling train movements to increase safety.

The NTSB first recommended positive train control in 1970. In 2008, after another fatal train collision that killed 25 people, Congress finally passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandated positive train control be implemented by the railroad industry by the end of 2015.

Fast-forward another six years to multiple congressional hearings in recent months, during which the railroads have informed Congress that positive train control simply won’t be implemented by the end of 2015. It’s been 44 years since the NTSB first recommended positive train control to improve rail safety in the U.S. and it is still not being used.

Looking at the way the positive train control scenario has played out for the past 44 years offers valuable lessons on how the U.S. is now dealing with safety regulations for shipping oil by rail.

Last week, the NTSB held a two-day forum on rail safety regarding the transportation of crude oil and ethanol. One of the main topics was how to improve rail tank car safety and what to do with the DOT-111 tank cars currently being used to ship crude oil and ethanol.

Much like positive train control, the NTSB has been recommending for decades that the DOT-111 tank cars not be used for ethanol and crude oil transportation due to the high risks they pose in derailments.

So why hasn’t anything been done? Mostly because of opposition by oil and gas industry groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute (API). The API was a constant presence at last week’s rail safety forum, just as it has been at congressional hearings on rail safety this year. A recent Reuter’s article alluded to the problem:

Industry sources say compromise has been difficult among stakeholders with different concerns such as costs and whether an overly bulky model might limit cargoes.”

Basically, API is opposed to making changes to the rail tank cars because safety cuts into profits. Even NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman pointed to the profit motive in an interview with NPR on April 25th. Hersman said, “Absolutely. Follow the money. It all comes back to the money.”

And the reality is that API’s members don’t have to worry about paying for accidents caused by using these unsafe DOT-111 cars. The current estimate for what it will cost to clean up and rebuild from the oil train accident in Lac-Megantic, Que., is $2.7 billion, which will be paid by Canadian taxpayers, not by oil or rail companies.

During the recent rail safety forum, the NTSB’s Hersman asked Lee Johnson of the American Petroleum Institute: “Given the rates that we heard earlier for production and the needs of your members how long do you think we are going to see DOT-111 tank cars to continue to exist in the fleet and at what rate percentage?”

 

 

As you can see in the video, it was an instructive exchange. Surely, the question of how much longer unsafe tank cars will be transporting explosive substances through U.S. communities should be directed to regulators, not oil companies?

After estimating the DOT-111s will be in use for at least another decade, Hersman states: “You’re not making me feel very optimistic, Mr. Johnson.”

It’s doubtful the American public feels very optimistic either when the person in charge of the board tasked with transportation safety is asking the American Petroleum Institute, tasked with representing the oil and gas industry, how much longer unsafe tank cars will be allowed on American railways.

Photo: Chairman Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board via Flickr

 

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Bakersfield High School worst-case derailment scenario

Repost from the Bakersfield Californian
[Editor: this is a MUST READ article, a comprehensive and graphic description of first-responder requirements and readiness.  Someone needs to interview first responders in each of our Bay Area refinery towns, ask every single question referenced in this article, and lay out similar scenarios for the all-too-imaginable catastrophes that threaten our communities.  – RS]

Increased oil train traffic raises potential for safety challenges

By John Cox, Californian staff writer  |  May 17, 2014
Bakersfield High School is seen in the background behind the rail cars that go through town as viewed from the overpass on Oak Street.  By Casey Christie / The Californian
Bakersfield High School is seen in the background behind the rail cars that go through town as viewed from the overpass on Oak Street. By Casey Christie / The Californian

First responders think of the rail yard by Bakersfield High School when they envision the worst-case scenario in Kern County’s drive to become a major destination for Midwestern oil trains.  If a derailment there punctures and ignites a string of tank cars, the fireball’s heat will be felt a mile away and flames will be a hundred feet high. Thick acrid black smoke will cover an area from downtown to Valley Plaza mall. Burning oil will flow through storm drains and sewers, possibly shooting flames up through manholes.

Some 3,000 BHS students and staff would have to be evacuated immediately. Depending on how many tank cars ignite, whole neighborhoods may have to be cleared, including patients and employees at 194-bed Mercy Hospital.  State and county fire officials say local 911 call centers will be inundated, and overtaxed city and county firefighters, police and emergency medical services will have to call for help from neighboring counties and state agencies.

While the potential for such an accident has sparked urgency around the state and the country, it has attracted little notice locally — despite two ongoing oil car offloading projects that would push Kern from its current average of receiving a single mile-long oil train delivery about once a month, to one every six hours.

One project is Dallas-based Alon USA Energy Inc.’s proposed oil car offloading facility at the company’s Rosedale Highway refinery. The other is being developed near Taft by Plains All American Pipeline LP, based in Houston.

Kern’s two projects, and three others proposed around the state, would greatly reduce California’s thirst for foreign crude. State energy officials say the five projects should increase the amount of crude California gets by rail from less than 1 percent of the state’s supply last year to nearly a quarter by 2016.

But officials who have studied the BHS derailment scenario say more time and money should be invested in coordinated drills and additional equipment to prepare for what could be a uniquely difficult and potentially disastrous oil accident.

Bakersfield High Principal David Reese met late last year with representatives of Alon, which hopes to start bringing mile-long “unit trains” — two per day — through the rail yard near campus.

He said Alon’s people told him about plans for double-lined tank cars and other safety measures “to make me feel better” about the project. But he still worries.

“I told them, ‘You may assure me but I continue to be concerned about the safety of my students and staff with any new (rail) project that comes within the vicinity of the school,'” he said.

Alon declined to comment for this story.

Both projects aim to capitalize on the current price difference between light crude on the global market and Bakken Shale oil found in and around North Dakota. Thanks to the nation’s shale boom, the Midwest’s ability to produce oil has outpaced its capacity to transport it cheaper and more safely by pipeline. The resulting overabundance has depressed prices and prompted more train shipments.

There are no oil pipelines over the Rockies; rail is the next best mode of shipping oil to the West Coast. Kern County is viewed as an ideal place for offloading crude because of its oil infrastructure and experience with energy projects. Two facilities are proposed in Northern California, in Benicia and Pittsburg; [emphasis added] the other would be to the south, in Wilmington.

A local refinery, Kern Oil & Refining Co., has accepted Bakken oil at its East Panama Lane plant since at least 2012. The California Energy Commission says Kern Oil receives one unit train every four to six weeks.

NATIONAL CHANGES

Shipments of Bakken present special safety concerns. The oil has been found to be highly volatile, and the common mode of transporting it — in quick-loading trains of 100 or more cars carrying more than 3 million gallons per shipment — rules out the traditional safety practice of placing an inert car as a buffer between two containing dangerous materials.

The dangers of shipping Bakken crude by unit train have been evident in several fiery derailments over the past year. One in July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings when a 74-car runaway train jumped the tracks at 63 mph.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said 99.9 percent of U.S. oil rail cars reached their destination without incident last year. Two of its divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have issued emergency orders, safety advisories and special inspections relating to oil car shipments. New rules on tank car standards and operational controls for “high-hazard flammable trains” are in the federal pipeline.

Locally operating companies Union Pacific Railroad Co. and BNSF Railway Co. signed an agreement with the DOT to voluntarily lower train speeds, have more frequent inspections, make new investments in brake technology and conduct additional first-responder training.

Until new federal rules take effect next year, railroads can only urge their customers to use tank cars meeting the higher standards.

“UP does not choose the tank car,” Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt wrote in an email. “We encourage our shippers to retrofit or phase out older cars.”

The San Joaquin Valley Railroad Co., owned by Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., is a short line that carries Kern Oil’s oil shipments and would serve the Plains project but not Alon’s. A spokesman said SJVR is working with the larger railroads to upgrade its line, and the company inspects tracks ahead of every unit train arrival, among other measures designed just for oil shipments.

STATE LEVEL PROPOSALS

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a big change in the way California protects against and responds to oil spills.

His 2014-15 budget calls for $6.7 million in new spending on the state’s Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund to add 38 inland positions, a 15 percent staffing increase. Currently the agency focuses on ocean shipments, which have been the norm for out-of-state oil deliveries in California.

To help pay for the expansion, Brown wants to expand a 6.5 cent-per-barrel fee to not only marine terminals but all oil headed for California refineries.

“We’ll have a more robust response capability,” said Thomas Cullen, an administrator at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which is within the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A representative of the oil trade group Western States Petroleum Association criticized the proposal March 19 at a legislative joint hearing in Sacramento. Lobbyist Ed Manning said OSPR lacks inland reach, and that giving such responsibilities to an agency with primarily marine experience “doesn’t really respond to the problem.”

WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd has emphasized the group has not taken a position on Brown’s OSPR proposal.

Also at the state capitol, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has forwarded legislation requiring railroads to give first responders more information about incoming oil shipments and publicly share spill contingency plans. The bill, AB 380, would also direct state grants toward local contingency planning and training. It is pending before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

LOCAL PREPARATIONS

In recent years Kern County has conducted large-scale, multi-agency emergency drills to prepare for an earthquake, disease outbreak and Isabella Dam break. There has not been a single oil spill drill.

Emergency service officials say that’s not as bad as it sounds because disasters share common actions — notification, evacuation, decontamination.

Nevertheless, State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris, County Fire Chief Brian Marshall and Kern Emergency Services Manager Georgianna Armstrong support the idea of local oil spill drills involving public safety agencies, hospitals and others.

Kern County is well-versed at handling hazardous materials. Some local officials say an oil accident may actually be less dangerous than the release of toxic chemicals, which also travel through the county on a regular basis.

There have been recent accidents, but all were relatively minor.

Federal records list 18 oil or other hazardous material spills on Kern County railroads in the last 10 years. No one was injured; together the accidents caused $752,000 in property damage.

Most involved chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid. Only two resulted in crude oil spills, both in 2013 in the 93305 ZIP code in the city of Bakersfield. Together they spilled a little more than a gallon of oil.

But the risk of spills rises significantly as the volume of oil passing through the county grows.

“The volume is a big deal,” Bakersfield Fire Chief Douglas R. Greener said. “Potentially, if you have a train derail, you could see numerous cars of the same type of material leaking all at once.”

Kern County firefighters are better prepared for an oil spill than many other first responders around the state. They train on an actual oil tanker and have special tools to mend rail car punctures and gashes. The county fire department has several trucks carrying spray foam that suffocates industrial fires.

But Chief Marshall acknowledged a bad rail accident could strain the department’s resources.

He has been speaking with Alon about securing additional firefighting equipment and foam to ensure an appropriate response to any oil train derailment related to the company’s proposed offloading facility.

What comes of those talks is expected to be included in an upcoming environmental review of the project.

“We recognize the need to increase our industrial firefighting program,” Marshall said.

Chief Zagaris said Kern’s proximity to on-call emergency agencies in Tulare, Kings and Los Angeles counties may come in handy under the Bakersfield High spill scenario, which is based on fire officials’ assessments and reports from several similar incidents over the past year.

He and Marshall would not estimate how many people would require evacuation in the event of a disaster near the school, or what specific levels of emergency response might become necessary.

But Zagaris said local public safety officials would almost certainly require outside help to assess injuries, transfer people in need of medical care, secure the city and contain the spill itself.

“I look at it as, you know, depending what it is and where it happens will dictate how quickly” outside resources would have to be pulled in, he said.

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