Tag Archives: U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)

Half Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

Repost from DeSmogBlog
[Editor:  See the more detailed interactive map of schools by the Center for Biological Diversity.  Note Benicia’s Robert Semple Elementary School on the Center’s map, located just 0.88 miles from a Union Pacific train route which currently carries hazardous materials and is proposed for Valero Refinery’s Crude By Rail project.  Here’s a map of Robert Semple school and the tracks.  – RS] 

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.”

Click for larger image

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.

This past week in California, the Santa Clara County board of supervisors voted to keep oil trains out, citing an “unacceptable risk to our community.”

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.”

As noted on DeSmog, one of the reasons that the oil trains pose such a high risk is that the oil industry refuses to stabilize the oil to make it safe to transport. And the new regulations for oil-by-rail transport released this year allow for older unsafe tank cars to be used for another 8-10 years.

While the regulations require modernized braking systems on oil trains in future years, the rail industry is fighting this and a Senate committee recently voted to remove this from the regulations.

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.

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Told to fix leaky oil train cars in 2 months, owners sought 3 years

Repost from McClatchyDC
[Editor:  Significant quote: “This year is already the second worst for oil spilled from trains since the federal government began collecting data 40 years ago….trains spilled about 1 million gallons in 2013 alone, vs. 800,000 in all the prior years combined….More than 600,000 gallons of oil has spilled from trains so far this year….”  – RS]

Told to fix leaky oil train cars in 2 months, owners sought 3 years

By Curtis Tate and Samantha Wohlfeil, September 2, 2015 

HIGHLIGHTS
• Washington state spills led to March order from federal agency
• Industry group asked for three-year extension
• Regulators gave owners until end of 2015

The wreckage of an oil train derailment in Mount Carbon, W.Va., still smolders 48 hours after the crash, on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015.

WASHINGTON  |  Railroad tank cars equipped with defective valves still will be allowed to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials through the end of the year, despite a March directive from federal regulators requiring their replacement within 60 days.

The Federal Railroad Administration order followed a Bellingham (Wash.) Herald story about a leaking oil train reported in Washington state in January. The Railway Supply Institute, trade group representing tank-car owners, wrote the agency in April asking for a three-year extension to replace the faulty valves on tank cars that carry hazardous materials.

About 6,000 tank cars were affected by the recall, issued on March 13. On May 12, the day of the original deadline, regulators wrote back to the trade group that the agency found no basis to give tank car owners until 2018 to comply, but nonetheless gave them until Dec. 31, an extension of more than six months.

Officials from the Railway Supply Institute couldn’t be reached to comment.

60   Number of days tank car owners had to comply
with March directive.

The federal order came about a month after crews discovered tank cars leaking from their top fittings while hauling crude oil through Washington state.

In mid-January, a 100-car train loaded with Bakken crude had 16 leaking cars removed at four different stops between northern Idaho and the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.

As the train traveled west along the Columbia River, leaking cars were pulled as they were discovered; at each stop, the entire train was inspected before continuing on to the next location.

BNSF Railway, the train’s operator, said a total of 26 gallons of oil from 14 of the leaking cars was found only on the tops and sides of the cars, and no oil was found on the ground, in a report to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Separately, the Federal Railroad Administration fined the owner of a North Dakota oil loading terminal $10,000 for a spill from a tank car that was discovered in November in Washington state. When the car arrived at a refinery for unloading, inspectors found it coated in oil and measured about 1,600 gallons missing.

State officials first learned of the spill a month after it happened, and no local officials were notified. In March, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission recommended $700,000 in fines against BNSF for failure to report 14 hazardous materials spills within the 30 minutes required by state law.

BNSF has disputed the state regulator’s findings. A hearing is scheduled for January.

Six major oil train derailments this year across North America have demonstrated the continued risks of large volumes of crude oil moving by rail.

Four of those derailments occurred in just four weeks in February and March: two in Ontario, one in West Virginia and another in Illinois. All involved large spills, fires and explosions, but no serious injuries.

Two less serious oil train derailments have occurred since, in North Dakota in May and Montana in July.

600,000   Number of gallons of oil spilled from trains
so far this year.

The rail industry and its regulators have been under pressure from lawmakers and the public to fix tank car vulnerabilities and take more steps to prevent derailments from happening.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued its final rule on tank car standards for trains carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids on May 1.

The new rule requires a tougher design for the tank cars, including thicker shells, more puncture resistance and thermal insulation to protect against prolonged exposure to fire.

It also requires existing tank cars be retrofitted to meet the new standards, depending on the level of hazard, within two to 10 years. Industry groups have challenged the new rule in court, saying it doesn’t give them enough time to complete the retrofit. Environmental groups have sued as well, saying it gives the industry too much time.

This year is already the second worst for oil spilled from trains since the federal government began collecting data 40 years ago.  A McClatchy analysis of the data last year found that trains spilled about 1 million gallons in 2013 alone, vs. 800,000 in all the prior years combined.

More than 600,000 gallons of oil has spilled from trains so far this year, according to a new analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Wohlfeil writes for the Bellingham Herald and reported from Bellingham, Wash.
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Senate Republicans pushing 3-year delay for rail safety System

Repost from the New York Times

Senate to Debate 3-Year Delay for Rail Safety System

By Michael D. Shear, July 23, 2015
An Amtrak Acela train in New York bound for Pennsylvania Station. Amtrak has said it will complete installation of an advanced safety system for its trains in the Northeast Corridor by the current December 2015 deadline. Credit David Boe/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Two months after the high-speed derailment of an Amtrak train killed eight people and injured hundreds more in Philadelphia, a Senate transportation bill headed for debate this week calls for a three-year delay of the deadline for installing a rail safety system that experts say would have almost certainly prevented the Pennsylvania accident.

Lawmakers from the Northeast and train safety experts expressed outrage over the provision, which is included in the 1,000-page legislation to finance highway and transit projects for the next three years. Several lawmakers vowed to fight the extension of the deadline to install the safety system, called positive train control, beyond December 2015.

“It should be done immediately. There shouldn’t be an extension,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. “Given the high number of accidents, and given the fact that P.T.C. is really effective, they should stick with 2015.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said he was “deeply disturbed about yet another delay in a potential safety measure” until December 2018 and said the provision in the transportation bill “essentially makes the deadline a mirage.”

In 2008, after decades of delay, lawmakers gave railroad companies, including Amtrak, seven years to complete installation of the safety system, which monitors the speed of trains and automatically slows them down if they approach curves at dangerously high speeds.

The Amtrak train that derailed in Pennsylvania was going 106 miles an hour, more than twice the speed limit, when it careened off the tracks.

Since the accident, Amtrak has said it will meet the existing deadline for installing and activating the safety systems in the busy Northeast Corridor. Craig S. Schulz, a spokesman for the railroad, said Thursday that Amtrak “remains committed” to making good on that promise.

But many railroads across the country still have not installed and activated the necessary equipment and would face federal fines and other mandates if they continued operating past Dec. 31 without it.

The transportation spending measure in the Senate would require railroads to submit plans to the secretary of transportation that include installation of positive train control by the end of 2018.

The willingness to give railroads more time is especially galling to lawmakers from the Northeast, where the Pennsylvania accident highlighted the dangers to millions of riders in the most heavily traveled train corridor in the nation.

Mark V. Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates train accidents, said he was outraged by the provision and blamed railroads’ lobbyists for pressuring lawmakers to include it.

“Obviously, the railroad lobbyists have gotten to Congress,” Mr. Rosenker said. “We just had a horrible accident. People died and people ended up becoming paralyzed when that technology was available to the railroad. I am very disappointed.”

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, also commented on the timing of the proposal. “The idea that a provision to delay positive train control was slipped into this bill just a short time after the Amtrak 188 derailment is shocking and wrong,” he said. “Delaying P.T.C. is a bad idea, and this provision should be stripped out immediately.”

Officials at the Transportation Department are continuing to insist that railroads meet the current end-of-the-year deadline. And at the White House, the press secretary, Josh Earnest, spoke of concerns “about some of the safety provisions that are included in the bill” and said the administration would take a close look at those provisions.

But pressure is mounting in both parties to pass the transportation bill before the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money for road projects across the country. That could happen this summer if Congress does not approve a new long-term authorization for transportation spending. If the Senate passes its measure, it still must win passage in the House as well.

Several senators said concern about the rail safety provision could become a central part of the debate over the bill in the days ahead. Mr. Blumenthal said he disliked the language extending the deadline for railroads to install positive train control.

But in an interview, he said he might be able to accept a new deadline if Congress agreed to dedicate money from the Highway Trust Fund specifically for installation of the rail safety systems, especially for commuter train systems that are struggling to afford the equipment.

Mr. Blumenthal said he intended to propose amendments that would dedicate $570 million a year for three years to commuter-rail safety improvements. He said it was unclear whether Republicans, who control the Senate, would allow the amendments to be offered. And he said it was not certain how hard the Obama administration was willing to fight for them.

“I’m hoping they will lend the full weight of their authority,” he said. “It would make a difference.”

Backers of the deadline extension say they need it because the equipment is costly and time-consuming to install across thousands of miles of track.

They also say the provision gives the transportation secretary authority to reject railroad improvement plans on a case-by-case basis, which they said could leave some railroads subject to the current 2015 deadline. And they said the bill authorized the Transportation Department to prioritize money for rail safety even though it does not guarantee a specific amount of money to be spent from the trust fund.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight and commuter systems, praised the provision, saying in a statement that it “sets a rigorous case-by-case framework with enforceable milestones that guarantees sustained and substantial progress, complete transparency and accountability, and a hard end date for full installation by 2018.”

But advocates of greater safety measures for trains said the railroads had been under orders to upgrade their safety systems for years and should have been able to meet the 2015 deadline, which was set by Congress after a California derailment in 2008 that killed 25 people.

Mr. Rosenker, who was acting chairman of the transportation safety board when the crash happened, said the seven-year deadline set by Congress after that crash should not be extended.

“Seven years, in my judgment, is a long time and an adequate time to do it,” he said. “The technology is out there. Let’s put it in.”

 

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