Tag Archives: train derailment

Chicago, nation’s busiest rail hub: firefighters unprepared, lacking foam and equipment

Repost from the Chicago Tribune

Area poorly prepared for crude-oil train fires

Stocks of firefighting foam few and far between

By Richard Wronski, Tribune reporter  |  May 25, 2014
Cherry Valley accidentIn 2009, a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball in Cherry Valley, near Rockford. Although firefighters had about 400 gallons of foam on hand and more on the way, they concluded it wasn’t enough to put out the fire. (National Transportation Safety Board / June 19, 2009)

Few Chicago-area fire departments have enough firefighting foam and equipment to respond effectively to the roaring infernos seen near Rockford and elsewhere in recent years when multiple railroad tank cars carrying flammable liquids derail and explode, the Tribune has found.

So-called unit trains, rolling pipelines with more than a hundred tank cars hauling millions of gallons of crude oil, have become game changers for emergency responders, posing new threats and requiring updated safety strategies, experts say.

Such trains have become a common sight in the Chicago area, the nation’s busiest rail hub. Each day, one-fourth of U.S. freight traffic — nearly 500 freight trains and 37,500 rail cars — passes through the city and suburbs, experts say, although it’s unknown exactly how much of this traffic is crude oil.

Yet, the majority of communities lack the thousands of gallons of foam and equipment — like airport “crash trucks” — to respond immediately and effectively to smother flames fueled by one or more railroad tank cars, officials say.

Most fire departments stock only enough 5-gallon containers of foam to extinguish fires involving vehicles and tanker trucks. Larger incidents, involving train loads of flammable liquids, would overwhelm individual departments, officials say.

“We couldn’t carry enough 5-gallon drums and couldn’t switch them out fast enough to get that kind of foam on a tank car or any fire like that,” said Jim Arie, Barrington’s fire chief. “That requires very specialized equipment and personnel.

“It’s truly the worst-case scenario for a fire department, and it’s not the kind of thing you can staff for or have enough equipment for.”

These days, tank-car trains run frequently through scores of suburbs on the tracks that Canadian National Railway Co. acquired in 2009 from the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, Arie said.

“We may be two years, five years or 12 years before we have an incident. We can’t staff up for that every day, day in, day out, knowing that it may be way down the road before something happens,” Arie said.

In Aurora, which has nine fire engines and 195 firefighters, including a 27-member hazardous-materials team, a fiery derailment would result in a “major disaster,” said Chief John Lehman. Both the Canadian National and the BNSF Railway Co. run tank-car trains through Aurora.

“We could do all the training in the world and have all the equipment in the world, but if one of those (trains) comes off the rails and creates an issue in a very densely populated area, our exposure would be very significant,” Lehman said. “Our ability to deal with an incident of that magnitude would be very taxing.”

Nationwide, crude shipments have grown from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The industry stands by its performance, saying more than 99.9 percent of its shipments arrive safely, according to the railroad association.

To deal with any large-scale emergency, nearly all of the state’s 1,200 fire departments depend on each other for help as part of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS. Besides responding to major events like fires and natural disasters, MABAS also has 42 specialized operations teams for hazardous materials.

MABAS mobilized crews and equipment from several departments June 19, 2009, when a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball in Cherry Valley, near Rockford.

Although firefighters had about 400 gallons of foam on hand and more on the way, they concluded it wasn’t enough to put out the roaring fire, which eventually spread to 13 tank cars, said Steve Pearson, who was then chief of the North Park Fire Protection District in Machesney Park.

Unable to get close enough to attack the intense flames, which rose hundreds of feet high, firefighters could do little but let the blaze burn itself out and go into a “defensive position” a half-mile away, Pearson told the National Transportation Safety Board forum on railroad safety last month.

“Even if we had an endless amount of foam, it could not have been safely applied to this incident,” he said.

But firefighters stress the importance of responding to such incidents as swiftly as possible with ample foam before they get out of control.

Although some people were rescued, a 44-year-old woman in a car stopped at the train crossing was fatally burned and several others were injured. Her pregnant 19-year-old daughter lost her baby.

It wasn’t until 5 p.m. the next day, nearly nine hours after the derailment, that all fires were extinguished and residents could return to about 600 homes that were evacuated, Pearson said.

Increased risks

The roster of fiery derailments has steadily grown along with the flow of volatile crude oil from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.

Nine oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since March 2013, several resulting in intense fires and evacuations, according to the NTSB.

By far the worst occurred when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded July 3, 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Sixty-three tank cars spilled more than 1.3 million gallons of oil. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed, officials said.

Earlier this month, Canadian officials charged the railroad — which was then owned by Rosemont-based Rail World Inc. — and three of its employees with criminal negligence in connection with the incident.

Reacting to the spate of incidents, the NTSB convened a two-day forum last month in Washington to address the safety of shipping crude oil and ethanol by rail. More than 20 fire officials, federal administrators, railroad and tank car industry representatives, and other experts testified.

One focus was the crash-worthiness of the tank cars. The NTSB has warned for decades that older-model cars like those involved in the Cherry Valley incident, known as DOT-111s, are prone to rupture in a derailment.

The Canadian government has ordered a phaseout of the DOT-111s over the next three years unless they’re retrofitted with better protection in case of derailment. So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has only recommended that shippers avoid using the DOT-111s “to the extent possible.”

The U.S. is being “extremely lethargic and to some extent irresponsible” in not dealing with the DOT-111s, said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, who, with Barrington Village President Karen Darch, is co-chairman of a coalition of communities pushing for more tank-car safety measures.

“The bureaucracy of it all is literally costing people’s lives, and the potential catastrophe before us, unless something is done, is scary,” Weisner said.

Officials at the NTSB forum called for greater community awareness, enhanced planning and preparedness, and improved training for emergency responders.

“While most fire-service personnel are generally familiar with flammable and combustible liquid emergencies, we know from recent catastrophic events that the amount of product being transported via unit trains exceeds our current response capabilities,” Richard Edinger, vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the forum.

One strategy would be to establish stockpiles of foam at key locations along rail lines where crude oil and other hazardous materials are shipped. Currently, such supplies are few and far between and would probably arrive too late to quell an inferno, experts say.

Increasing supplies of foam would require fire departments, organizations like MABAS and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to evaluate their current equipment supplies, officials say.

Although the state agency would coordinate the statewide response to a large-scale emergency, it maintains no inventory or list of foam stockpiles, a spokeswoman said.

The agency, however, is considering the possibility of contracting with foam manufacturers to provide the product on short notice, she said.

Combined with water, foam works by smothering combustible liquid fires, suppressing vapors and cooling the fuel and other surfaces. Applying water alone to a crude oil or ethanol fire will spread the flames.

Generally, only refineries, chemical plants and airports have extensive supplies of firefighting foam and special tanker trucks to spray it quickly, experts say.

The Chicago Fire Department has several crash trucks with foam on hand at O’Hare International and Midway airports. Whether the trucks have sufficient foam to respond to a fiery derailment and could be sent elsewhere in the city or suburbs is unclear.

Despite several requests from the Tribune, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Fire Department did not respond to questions about the city’s foam capability.

Canadian National doesn’t stock foam along its routes, but it is “aware of significant foam locations along (the) system which could be called upon during an incident,” a spokesman said.

As evidenced by Cherry Valley, however, it’s questionable whether those stocks could get to the scene of a crude oil disaster quickly enough.

‘Skin in the game’

One community with a significant store of foam is the village of Bedford Park. Close to Midway, the village is the site of several chemical plants, liquid bulk-storage terminals and a large railroad switching yard.

Chief Sean Maloy said his village is a MABAS division headquarters and is well-equipped and trained to deal with most hazmat situations. It has several hundred gallons of foam — much of it stored on a trailer — that could be offered to other communities in an emergency.

“We’ve got a lot of foam available to us. It’s a matter of getting it there quickly,” he said. “It comes down to how much foam you can bring at one time.”

Some experts and public officials have suggested that companies benefiting from the boom in crude oil such as oil producers, tank-car owners and railroads pay a per-gallon fee to help fund training and programs to prepare for emergencies.

Such a fee was proposed in January by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel before a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.

On Tuesday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law to collect $2.5 million annually from railroad and oil pipeline companies to help first responders get ready for derailments and spills involving oil and other hazardous substances.

Jay Reardon, the head of Illinois’ MABAS, said that the risk posed by crude oil shipments should prompt local municipal officials to re-evaluate the ability of their fire departments to provide adequate mutual aid responses.

If Illinois were to set such a fee, Reardon said, the money could fund groups like MABAS to stockpile foam and provide additional hazmat training.

“If there are companies who are making money on this, then don’t they have skin in the game?” Reardon asked. “Shouldn’t they be charged a minute portion, and that money go into a pool to fund risk mitigation?”

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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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      Outgoing chair of NTSB: U.S. not prepared, not enough NTSB investigators

      Repost from Bloomberg News

      Communities Not Prepared for Worst-Case Rail Accidents: NTSB

      By Patrick Ambrosio Apr 22, 2014 7:38 AM

      Bloomberg BNA — Deborah Hersman, the outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said April 21 that U.S. communities are not prepared to respond adequately to worst-case accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.

      Answering questions following her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, Hersman said U.S. regulators are behind the curve in addressing the transport of hazardous liquids by rail. She said federal regulations have not been revised to address the increase in rail transport of crude oil and other flammable liquids—an increase of over 440 percent since 2005.

      Hersman, who is leaving her post at NTSB April 25 to serve as president of the National Safety Council, said the petroleum industry and first responders don’t have provisions in place to address a worst-case scenario event involving a train carrying crude oil or ethanol. She said several catastrophic accidents have involved crude oil, including a July 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that resulted in 47 fatalities.

      The NTSB, in conjunction with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, identified regulatory steps that could be taken by the Transportation Department to address safety risks, including expanded route planning requirements for crude oil shipments, the addition of a requirement for carriers to develop response plans for incidents involving crude oil shipments and increased audits of shippers and carriers to ensure that hazardous liquids are properly classified.

      Hersman said the NTSB scheduled a two-day forum to hear from first responders and the petroleum and rail industries on safety issues. The forum, which will be held on April 22-23 in Washington, will include discussions on tank car design, emergency response to releases of flammable liquids and federal oversight of crude oil and ethanol transport, according to an agenda posted on the NTSB’s website.

      Tank Car Safety

      When asked about the adequacy of the DOT-111 rail tank car to carry crude oil, Hersman reiterated the NTSB’s position that the tank cars are not safe to carry hazardous liquids.

      The NTSB recommended in 2009 that all new and existing tank cars in crude oil and ethanol service be equipped with additional safety design features, including enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems, top fittings protection and bottom outlet valves that remain closed during accidents.

      “We have said that they are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said about the DOT-111 legacy cars. “Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not.”

      The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration is working on a proposed rule to update the federal design standards for DOT-111 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous liquids. The consensus among industry and regulators is that new design standards are needed, but there is disagreement over whether the new safety requirements should be more stringent than the CPC-1232 standard, a voluntary industry standard adopted for all new tank cars ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

      Staffing Limitations Said to Delay Work

      NTSB staff needs support from Congress to fulfill their mission, Hersman said. At present, she said the NTSB is involved in more than 20 rail accident investigations but only has “about 10 rail investigators.”

      “We’re going to have to turn down accidents that occur in the future because we have too much on our plate.”

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        Council opposes crude by rail in Vancouver, WA – safety issues

        Repost from The Oregonian
        [Editor – Significant quote: “a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.”  – RS]

        Fiery oil train accidents heighten scrutiny of major Vancouver, WA rail terminal

        By Rob Davis | April 11, 2014
         
        Port of Vancouver oil terminal – 2.  The Port of Vancouver’s rail loop would be used to unload 360,000 barrels of oil daily from trains. (Courtesy of Port of Vancouver)

        Building the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Pacific Northwest was never going to escape controversy, not in a region with a robust environmental lobby.

        But for a planned terminal in Vancouver, Wash., a series of fiery oil train explosions has expanded opposition and heightened scrutiny of a project promising to be a bellwether for a growing number of facilities in development along the West Coast.

        Tesoro Corp., a major oil refiner, and Savage Cos., a supply chain logistics manager, are proposing to bring four loaded oil trains a day through the Columbia River Gorge into Vancouver, where crude would be loaded on barges bound for West Coast refineries. The terminal could process 131 million barrels of oil annually, seven times more than trains hauled through Washington last year.

        Trains and trade are an indelible part of Vancouver’s identity. Roughly 75 trains move daily through the city, which traces its history to being a hub of the Pacific Northwest’s 19th century fur trade.

        GS.00036566A_IT.OIL.TERMINAL-02.jpg.jpeg

        But a majority of Vancouver City Council members recently announced they opposed the $110 million terminal, citing not its potential environmental impacts, but their concern that the project may endanger the city’s 165,000 residents.

        “We’re pushing a margin of safety that we’re not ready to deal with,” Councilman Larry J. Smith, a retired Army infantryman, said at a recent meeting. “The accidents sort of prove that. We have a ways to go to prove that we’re safe and secure and taking care of our citizens.”

        Oil trains today aren’t as safe as they could be. Most tank cars moving oil are outdated models. While the federal government is tightening safety standards, new rules aren’t expected before late 2014. Upgrading the country’s rail fleet could take as long as a decade.

        Meanwhile, the characteristics of the North Dakota oil moving by rail remain poorly understood. Before oil trains exploded, crude wasn’t thought to be especially flammable. But samples show that oil moving through Vancouver into Oregon is saturated with more propane and other flammable gases than comparable types of crude.

        Those uncertainties led the Port of Portland to reject crude-by-rail terminals until safety gaps are addressed. But in Vancouver, the port has pushed ahead, with top leaders saying they believe stronger safety standards will be place by the time the project – worth $45 million over 10 years in lease revenue to the port – finishes a state permitting process expected to take a year or longer.

        The port had a warning that the project would be more controversial than it expected. The agency approved its lease with Tesoro-Savage less than three weeks after the first oil train accident, which killed 47 people in Quebec last July.

        After that accident, port and company representatives said something similar couldn’t happen in Vancouver. The Quebec accident, they said, happened on a short-line railroad with different standards than the main-line track that the BNSF Railway Co. operates in Vancouver. That was reinforced when a second accident happened on a short-line operator’s track in Alabama in November.

        Then came a third oil train explosion in December – on a main line BNSF operates in North Dakota.

        North Dakota oil train derailmentA string of train accidents involving crude oil from North Dakota have created massive fireballs, including this one outside Casselton, N.D., in December 2013. Bruce Crummy/The Associated Press

        Todd Coleman, the Port of Vancouver’s executive director, said his agency may have approached the project differently and gotten safety questions answered up front if it had known more accidents would follow. But Coleman said he is still confident that the project’s state permitting process will make it as safe as it can be.

        In the meantime, Coleman has traveled to Washington, D.C., advocating for regulators, railroads and Tesoro-Savage to improve oil train safety.

        The port recently commissioned a safety study that concluded the risks of an oil train derailment on its track are very low and recommended $500,000 in rail improvements the agency pledged to make. The study didn’t examine the chances of human-caused errors, the leading cause of rail accidents.

        And the port has yet to approve a separate Tesoro-Savage safety plan, which Coleman said could “conceivably” allow the port to require tighter safeguards if federal regulations don’t catch up.

        “It’s unfortunate incidents that have happened, absolutely,” Coleman said. “But it will make it safer in the future.”

        That hasn’t assuaged fears among people Jack Burkman talks to. The three-term Vancouver city councilman and other elected officials say they’ve been barraged by questions from worried residents.

        “I’m stopped everywhere in town by people I never would’ve expected to be concerned about this,” said Burkman, a retired engineer. “There’s too much lack of understanding. While the likelihood of an accident may be really, really low, the problems we’ve seen have been horrific. That’s what people are having a hard time wrapping their arms around.”

        The project, which could employ 120, is clearly important to Tesoro. After City Council members announced last month that they would oppose the project, Tesoro executives immediately flew into town to meet with business leaders and the local newspaper to press their case.

        Loading oil on barges in Vancouver would allow the company to move North Dakota crude to its California refineries for less than the full rail journey would cost. It could export Canadian crude or move U.S.-produced crude if the oil industry successfully lobbies to lift a ban on exporting domestic supplies.

        A Wall Street analyst who follows Tesoro said the terminal faces a tougher permitting process amid rising opposition to crude-by-rail terminals.

        “It’s a bit ahead of other projects and it’s a bit bigger, so it’s a bit more of an indicator relative to these smaller projects about whether they get approved,” said Allen Good, a Morningstar analyst. “If it does get stopped, it will give a lot of momentum to groups opposing other crude-by-rail facilities.”

        One of the project’s most prominent opponents is Barry Cain, a developer working on a $1 billion waterfront redevelopment of a former Boise Cascade paper mill. He’s an unlikely opponent: A businessman who praises the domestic crude boom for helping the United States reduce its dependency on foreign oil.

        IMG_3364.JPG
        A rendering of the waterfront redevelopment project that developer Barry Cain is working on in Vancouver, Wash.Rob Davis/The Oregonian

        Three oil trains a day already move past Cain’s development site, on the key BNSF line that connects to refineries in northern Washington. But the terminal would bring four more. Cain said he worries that fear about exploding oil trains will damage property values, make financing or insurance harder to find and dissuade potential development partners.

        “We don’t want to lead any fight,” Cain said of his development partners. “We’re all businesspeople, we’re not the type who’d normally be opposed to this. It’s good to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. But this affects the project we’re working on.”

        Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will have to approve or reject the project if it clears a quasi-judicial process being led by Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Inslee has not taken any position on it.

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