Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Mariners Game?
By Sydney Brownstone, Apr 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm
Maaaaaybe it wasn’t the thrill he was looking for.
A spectator at Tuesday night’s Mariners game caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a crude-oil unit train moving past Safeco Field.
The attendee took video and photos while taking a walk behind the scoreboard, but didn’t want to be credited for them. David Perk, a friend of the photographer’s who was also at the game, passed along the images on that person’s behalf. Perk, a volunteer with the Washington Environmental Council, went to the game because of the ticket special to honor local volunteering efforts.
Perk says he first spotted the train while driving to the game from Renton. “I was wondering if it was going to roll north while having our tailgate party on the side of the tracks,” Perk said. Nearly 14,000 people attended the game, according to Seattle Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe wouldn’t confirm whether the train was carrying crude, but the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place said that the train was “almost certainly a unit train of crude.” Unit trains often contain a hundred or more tank cars, and can measure as long as a mile. The train was also heading north, which means that it was likely full and heading for refineries near Anacortes or Ferndale.
Unit trains moving crude from the shale oil fields of North Dakota (also known as “bomb trains”) carry a unique risk of derailing and exploding. The US Department of Transportation has estimated that an average of 10 crude-oil trains will derail a year over the next two decades. The DOT has thus far failed to finalize safety rules for crude-by-rail, but did order a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on unit trains through populated areas last week. On April 14, the Washington State House also passed an oil transportation safety bill sponsored by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle).
Much of downtown Seattle falls within the crude-oil route’s half-mile blast zone, including Safeco Field, which sits right next to the railroad. But railroads aren’t required to share crude-oil routes with the public. Earlier this month, Seattle’s new fire chief, Howard Scoggins, told reporters that a derailment in Seattle would “exhaust our resources and require assistance from communities around us.”
Federal officials devise scenario involving a train explosion to prepare officials for the worst
By Russell Gold, April 13, 2015 7:54 p.m. ET
Imagine a mile-long train transporting crude oil derailing on an elevated track in Jersey City, N.J., across the street from senior citizen housing and 2 miles from the mouth of the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan.
The oil ignites, creating an intense explosion and a 300-foot fireball. The blast kills 87 people right away, and sends 500 more to the hospital with serious injuries. More than a dozen buildings are destroyed. A plume of thick black smoke spreads north to New York’s Westchester County.
This fictional—but, experts say, plausible—scenario was developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in one of the first efforts by the U.S. government to map out what an oil-train accident might look like in an urban area. Agency officials unveiled it as part of an exercise last month to help local firefighters and emergency workers prepare for the kind of crude-by-rail accident that until now has occurred mostly in rural locations.
“Our job is to design scenarios that push us to the limit, and very often push us to the point of failure so that we can identify where we need to improve,” said FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre. He said a second planning exercise is scheduled in June in a suburban area of Wisconsin.
Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, said the drill showed participants that they need to improve regional communication to cope with an oil-train accident.
“It would be a catastrophic situation for any urban area and Jersey City is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country,” he said.
Railroad records show that about 20 oil trains a week pass through the county that contains Jersey City, and Mr. Fulop said the trains use the elevated track studied in the FEMA exercise. Even more trains hauling crude pass through other cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.
Rail shipments of oil have expanded to almost 374 million barrels last year from 20 million barrels in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Although low crude prices and safety issues have recently led to small declines in such traffic, trains carrying volatile oil from North Dakota and the Rocky Mountains continue to rumble toward refiners on the East, West and Gulf Coasts.
Several oil-train derailments have produced huge fireballs, including two in March in rural Illinois and Ontario. In 2013, a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed late at night in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.
Regulators worry more about a serious accident in a densely populated area. “The derailment scenario FEMA developed is a very real possibility and a very real concern,” said Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said her agency was considering emergency orders to address such risks.
Firefighters at the FEMA workshop in Jersey City discussed the difficulty of battling a crude-oil fire, which can be explosive and hard to extinguish. One problem: limited supplies of the special foam required to smother the flames.
Jordan Zaretsky, a fire battalion chief in nearby Teaneck, N.J., who attended the presentation, said the scale of such an accident was sobering. “This isn’t a structural fire that we can knock down in an hour or two,” he said. “This is something we’d be dealing with for days.”
Ideas discussed at the workshop included devising a system to allow local officials to know when an oil train was passing through, developing public-service messages to tell residents what to do in case of a derailment and providing more firefighters with specialized training.
There have been many calls for changes to how crude oil is handled on the railroads, including new speed limits for trains and requirements to treat the crude oil to make it less volatile.
Earlier this month, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board urged the rail industry and federal regulators to move more swiftly to replace existing tank cars with ones that would better resist rupturing and fire.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for oil producers, said the companies are committed to “greater efforts to prevent derailments through track maintenance and repair, upgrades to the tank car fleet, and giving first responders the knowledge and tools they need.”
The Association of American Railroads recognizes that “more has to be done to further advance the safe movement of this product,” a spokesman said.
FEMA chose for the location of the derailment scenario a stretch of track adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike and about a mile from downtown Jersey City. One side of the track is industrial and includes an electric substation. The other side is residential.
Edgardo Correa, a 59-year-old retired sanitation worker, lives in a house close to the tracks in Jersey City. He said he was aware that trains full of crude pass by his home. “It’s an alarming thing,” he said.
November train derailment in Feather River Canyon caused by broken rail
By Ashley Gebb, 04/13/15, 5:11 PM PDT
Belden >> A November train derailment in the Feather River Canyon was caused by a broken rail, the Enterprise-Record has learned.
As Union Pacific Railroad prepares to replace more than 36 miles of track between Keddie and Lake Oroville, spokesman Francisco Castillo has confirmed a detail fracture caused by cracks led to the derailment of 12 train cars that tumbled into the canyon Nov. 25. The repairs are unrelated and were planned before the accident, Castillo said, part of a greater effort to improve rail safety as transport of crude oil continues to rise.
“Though serious accidents are rare, we recognize that there are still risks associated with rail transportation, just as there are risks with any other mode of transportation. That’s why we follow strict safety practices and work tirelessly to achieve our goal of zero derailments,” he said in an email.
In the early morning of Nov. 25, a westbound train derailed near Virgilia, upstream of Belden, causing 12 loaded hoppers to slide down an embankment toward the North Fork Feather River below, stopping just before the water. No one was injured but the carloads of corn were spread across the hillside and into the river, causing $640,049 in equipment damage and $85,786 in damage to the track.
At the time, emergency officials said the incident underscored the risks associated with train transport in the canyon.
“It’s a concern for us because it shows there is still a history of derailments in the county, especially in the canyon,” Butte County Emergency Services Officer John Gulserian said Monday of the November derailment.
Though the incident occurred in Plumas County, the same railroad lines continue into Butte County, along with whatever the trains are hauling — be it corn or crude oil. The derailment of any such materials can have devastating implications for the water, the environment and wildlife, as well as create a fire danger, Gulserian said.
Because of the remote area and the nature of the spills, the county is not always equipped to deal with the accident and has to wait for other resources, he said.
The canyon area as a whole tends to see a derailment every three to five years, with most similar to the November incident, where only a few cars go off the tracks, he said. The last derailment Gulserian could remember spilled a load of neutralized alcohol near Storrie.
Track failures are linked to 31 percent of all train accidents, and even though such incidents are becoming less common, prevention remains critical, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Mike Booth. It’s especially important with a 400 percent increase in more volatile Bakken crude oil being shipped out of the North Dakota region.
“It travels to nearly every state and it travels long distances,” he said. “To prevent accidents due to increased traffic going longer distances, we have increased inspection on crude oil routes. … Since the Lac-Mégantic accident two years ago in Canada, it was a bit of a wake-up call for everyone.”
The 2013 incident occurred when a 74-car freight train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in a fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-seven people were killed, and dozens of buildings were destroyed or critically contaminated.
Railroads are required by law to inspect and maintain their equipment in good repair, and the Federal Railroad Administration ensures that by auditing records and doing spot inspections, Booth said. It also works with the Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which has taken more than two dozen actions to increase the safety of crude oil transport.
“And we are looking for more ways to make it even safer,” Booth said. “We don’t want to have a single derailment …”
In the past 10 years, Castillo said derailments have decreased 38 percent, largely in part to a derailment and risk reduction process, which includes using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections, tracking acoustic vibration on wheels to anticipate failures before they happen, and performing real-time analysis of every rail car via trackside sensors. Employees also participate in rigorous, regular safety training programs that include the identification and prevention of derailments, and Union Pacific trains first responders on ways to minimize the impact of derailment in their communities.
Track maintenance projects are part of Union Pacific’s annual maintenance work and scheduled three to five years in advance, Castillo said. From 2005-14, the railroad invested more than $31 billion in its network and operations to support the transportation infrastructure, and it is in the middle of $26.1 million in improvements in the Feather River Canyon area.
The first project is complete and included replacement of 15.2 miles of rail just east of Oroville. The second project, scheduled to begin next month and be complete in August, will replace 36.3 miles of rail at various locations between Keddie and Lake Oroville.
“The Feather River Canyon upgrades will enhance the safe transport of commodities we transport through the canyon,” Castillo said.
Union Pacific and other entities have been working with Butte County recently to improve safety, Gulserian said. That effort included an exercise March 11 with a simulated train derailment near Chico that provided the opportunity to practice alert notifications, areas of authority, staging materials and alerting the public. Another simulation has been scheduled.
Gulserian said it’s encouraging to hear news of rail replacement, as safety and security of hazardous materials is as much a priority for the county as it is for the railroad.