Speed rules didn’t apply to train in ethanol spill
• BNSF train didn’t meet 20-car threshold for lower speeds set by feds
• Minneapolis-Kansas City, Kan., train derailed on Nov. 7 near Alma, Wis.
• 10 notable derailments in North America this year
By Curtis Tate, November 17, 2015
WASHINGTON – The train that derailed earlier this month in Wisconsin and spilled 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River didn’t have a sufficient number of cars carrying flammable liquids to meet lower federal speed requirements.
The government set the new requirements this year in response to safety concerns about transporting crude oil by rail.
According to railroad shipping documents, the train had 15 tank cars loaded with ethanol, five fewer than would trigger speed restrictions set by federal regulators. Because it didn’t meet that threshold, the train was permitted to operate at 55 mph.
Some lawmakers, environmentalists and community groups have criticized the speed limits in U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules, announced in May, because they only apply to trains that meet the department’s definition of high-hazard flammable trains. The train that derailed on Nov. 7 near Alma, Wis., did not.
Under the new rules, trains with 20 or more tank cars carrying flammable liquids in a continuous block or 35 cars dispersed throughout the train are held to 50 mph. They’re restricted to 40 mph within a 10-mile radius of 46 high-threat urban areas designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Wisconsin train originated in Minneapolis and was bound for Kansas City, Kan., according to shipping documents. Both cities are high-threat urban areas, and BNSF voluntarily set a lower speed limit of 35 mph, compared with the federal government’s 40 mph, in those cities.
Though the train was going 26 mph when it derailed, it met none of the criteria for those lower limits and could have traveled the same speed as a car on most state highways.
Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, said the railroad was working with federal officials on the investigation.
There have been 10 notable derailments in North America this year with spills or fires, seven with crude oil and three with ethanol.
Key train speeds
50 mph: Trains carrying 20 or more cars of flammable liquids in a continuous block or 35 dispersed throughout a train.
40 mph: Trains meeting above criteria in 46 high-threat urban areas designated by the Department of Homeland Security.
35 mph: Voluntary speed restriction imposed in those cities by BNSF Railway.
Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/economy/article45226446.html#storylink=cpy
House bill could shield oil train spill response plans from disclosure
By Curtis Tate, October 16, 2015
Oil burns at the site of a March 5, 2015, train derailment near Galena, Ill. A bill in Congress would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans, but would also give the Secretary of Transportation the ability to exempt the details from disclosure. EPA
Six-year transportation bill includes section on oil trains
Obama administration supports public notifications of oil spills, etc.
Future transportation secretary could be empowered to protect data
WASHINGTON – A House of Representatives bill unveiled Friday could make it more difficult for the public to know how prepared railroads are for responding to oil spills from trains, their worst-case scenarios and how much oil is being transported by rail through communities.
The language appears in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s six-year transportation legislation, which primarily addresses federal programs that support state road, bridge and transit projects. But the legislation also includes a section on oil trains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on a rule to require railroads shipping oil to develop comprehensive spill response plans along the lines of those required for pipelines and waterborne vessels. It would also require them to assess their worst-case scenarios for oil spills, including quantity and location.
The House bill would give the secretary of transportation the power to decide what information would not be disclosed to the public.
The secretary would have discretion to withhold anything proprietary or security sensitive, as well as “specific response resources and tactical resource deployment plans” and “the specific amount and location of worst-case discharges, including the process by which a railroad carrier determines the worst-case discharge.”
The House bill defines “worst-case discharge” as the largest foreseeable release of oil in an accident or incident, as determined by the rail carrier.
Four major oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, resulting in the release of more than 600,000 gallons, according to federal spill data.
Numerous states have released information on crude by rail shipments to McClatchy and other news organizations. DOT began requiring railroads to notify state officials of such shipments last year after a train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va.
The disclosures were opposed by railroads and their trade associations, which asked the department to drop the requirement. The department tried to accommodate the industry’s concerns in its May final rule on oil train safety by making the reports exempt from disclosure. But facing backlash from lawmakers and emergency response groups, the department reversed itself.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the department would continue the disclosure requirement and make it permanent. But a new administration could take a different approach.
“We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” Feinberg said in July.
In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that would require railroads operating in the state to plan for their worst-case spills.
In April, BNSF Railway told state emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil, enough to fill five rail tank cars, its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. A typical 100-car oil train carries about 3 million gallons.
Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a mock derailment in New Jersey in March in which 450,000 gallons of oil was released.
California passed a similar bill last year, but two railroads and a major trade association challenged it in court, claiming the federal laws regulating railroads preempted state laws. A judge sided with the state in June, but without addressing the preemption question.
The House Transportation Committee will consider the six-year bill when lawmakers return from recess next week. The current legislation expires on Oct. 29, and the timing makes a short-term extension likely.
After the committee and the full House vote on the bill, House and Senate leaders will have to work out their differences before the bill goes to the president’s desk.
Samantha Wohlfeil of the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed.
Another View: No to proposal that would bring oil through Auburn
By: Rosalie Wohlfromm / Guest Columnist
Do you remember back in 2013, when there was a train derailment carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec? That incident resulted in a fiery explosion and caused the death of 47 people.
It has been reported that crude oil from North Dakota and Canada into California would be expected to rise from just 1 percent of total oil imports in 2013 to 25 percent by 2016, according to state energy officials.
This oil would travel by rail through densely populated areas to refineries on the coast. One of these routes is right through our town of Auburn. We could see trains pulling 100 oil tanker cars going past our homes, schools and parks.
Since 2013, we have heard of numerous derailments causing evacuations of citizens from their homes. One of the latest was last February in Lynchburg, Virginia. It is now known that the cause of the derailment was a broken rail, which was missed in two previous inspections.
Oil giant Valero wants to build a massive terminal for oil trains at its Benicia refinery. Union Pacific runs from Reno via Donner Pass, a dangerous route that, according to the Environmental Impact Report for Valero Crude by Rail Project, has only 3.5 percent of Class 4 or 5 track, the quality deemed by the U.S. Dept of Transportation necessary to support daily travel of extremely heavy unit trains made up of over 100 tank cars loaded with crude oil.
The City of Benicia is currently in the process of approving or rejecting the Valero Refinery’s proposed CBR project, which would permit Union Pacific to haul crude oil through Auburn. If this project is approved, Auburn could see oil trains loaded with highly flammable oil from North Dakota running right through our town on their way to Benicia. I ask you to remember what happened in Lynchburg. That could happen here.
Concerned citizens of Benicia are asking for those of us along the rail lines to call or write the City of Benicia City Manager, Brad Kilger, 250 E.L. Street, Benicia CA 94510 or e-mail Planner Amy Million at email@example.com. Please submit your comments by 5pm on Oct. 30.
Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones
By Justin Mikulka, September 7, 2015 – 04:58
A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.
“Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”
Current safety regulations for first responders dealing with oil trains recommend evacuating everyone within a half-mile of any incident with an oil train. This wasn’t much of a problem for the most recent oil train accident in July in Culbertson, Montana because there were only 30 people within the half-mile radius area. However, in populated areas like California, potential scenarios could involve large-scale evacuations and casualties.
In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released earlier this year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods.
As more communities across the country become aware of the very real risks these oil trains pose, opposition is mounting to new oil-by-rail projects as well as challenges to existing facilities.
In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held a hearing on the subject and heard from concerned residents like Catherine Dorr, as reported by the local CBS station.
“We’re in the 100 foot blast zone,” Dorr said. “My house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there’s an explosion.”
In Albany, New York which is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East coast, this week a coalition of groups announced their intentions to sue the oil company transporting Bakken crude through Albany and challenge the validity of the air quality permit the company received in 2012.
And even in remote places like North Dakota, where much of the oil originates, the U.S. military is concerned about the proximity of the oil train tracks to nuclear missile facilities.
With all of this concern about the dangers of oil trains, a new report by the Associated Press (AP) paints a troubling picture about the preparedness of populated areas to respond to an oil-by-rail incident. The report was based on interviews with emergency management professionals in 12 large cities across the U.S.
It concludes, “The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail.”
The reality is that unless there are drastic changes made, anyone living within a half mile of these tracks will be at risk for years to come.
And while oil production isn’t increasing in the U.S. right now due to the low price of oil, industry efforts to lift the current ban on exporting crude oil could result in a huge increase in fracked oil production. In turn, that oil will be put on trains that will head to coastal facilities and be loaded on tankers and sent to Asia.
Despite all of the opposition and the years-long process to complete new regulations, as the Associated Press notes, it isn’t like the emergency first responders are comfortable with the current situation.
“There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”
And even the federal regulators expect there are going to be catastrophic accidents. As reported by the AP earlier this year, the Department of Transportation expects oil and ethanol trains “will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.”
With the known risks and the number of accidents, so far communities in the U.S have avoided disaster. But as Senator Franken pointed out, that has just been a matter of luck.
“We’ve been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we’ve not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don’t want this to be all about luck,” Sen. Franken said.
As over 1,000,000 students in California start a new school year in schools where they can easily hear the train whistles from the oil trains passing through their communities, let’s all hope we keep this lucky streak going.