Tag Archives: U.S. Department of Transportation

Forbes: Senators Try To Stop The Coming Oil Train Wreck

Repost from Forbes
[Editor:  Significant quote: "And the returning empty trains are not quite empty. They have enough oil remaining in them to produce highly volatile vapors that make them even more prone to explosions than the full cars."  - RS]

Senators Try To Stop The Coming Oil Train Wreck

By James Conca, 4/06/2015 @ 7:45AM

Spearheaded by the Senators from Washington State, legislation just introduced in the United States Senate will finally address the rash of crude oil train wrecks and explosions that have skyrocketed over the last two years in parallel with the steep rise in the amount of crude oil transported by rail (Tri-City Herald).

Oil production is at an all-time high in America, great for our economy and energy independence, but bad for the people and places that lie along the shipping routes.

Just since February, there have been four fiery derailments of crude oil trains in North America (dot111) and many more simple spills.

More shale crude oil is being shipped by rail than ever before – every minute, shipments of more than two million gallons of crude are traveling distances of over a thousand miles in unit trains of more than a hundred tank cars (PHMSA.gov).

U.S. railroads delivered 7 million barrels of crude in 2008, 46 million in 2011, 163 million in 2012, and 262 million in 2013, almost as much as that anticipated by the Keystone XL Pipeline alone.

Diagram of a non-jacketed, non-pressure Rail Tank Car. According to the U.S. DOT regulations, “A tank car used for oil transport is roughly 60 feet long, about 11 feet wide, and 16 feet high. It weighs 80,000 pounds empty and 286,000 pounds when full. It can hold about 30,000 gallons or 715 barrels of oil, depending on the oil’s density. The tank is made of steel plate, 7/16 of an inch thick.” “The FRA and PHMSA have questioned whether Bakken crude oil, given its characteristics, would more properly be carried in tank cars that have additional safety features, such as those found on pressurized tank cars used for hauling explosive liquids. Pressurized tank cars have thicker shells and heads, metal jackets, strong protective housings for top fittings, and no bottom valves.” Source: U.S. CRS R43390

Amid a North American energy boom, our pipelines are at capacity and crude oil shipping on rail is dramatically increasing. The trains are getting bigger and towing more and more tanker cars. From 1975 to 2012, trains were short and spills were rare and small, with about half of those years having no spills above a few gallons (EarthJustice.org).

Crude is a nasty material, very destructive when it spills into the environment, and very toxic when it contacts humans or animals. It’s not even useful for energy, or anything else, until it’s chemically processed, or refined, into suitable products like naphtha, gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, asphaltics, mineral spirits, natural gas liquids, and a host of others.

But every crude oil has different properties, such as sulfur content (sweet to sour) or density (light to heavy), and requires a specific chemical processing facility to handle it (Permian Basin Oil&Gas). Different crudes produce different amounts and types of products, sometimes leading to a glut in one or more of them, like too much natural gas liquids that drops their price dramatically, or not enough heating oil that raises its price.

Thus, the push for more rail transport and pipelines to get it to the refineries along the Gulf Coast than can handle it.

Ensuring that these crude shipments are safe is the responsibility of the United States Department of Transportation, specifically the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Unfortunately, the shipments aren’t really that safe. We don’t have the correct train cars to carry this unusual freight. The United States now has 37,000 tank cars with thin-walls that puncture easily after which the vapors can cause massive explosions.

And the returning empty trains are not quite empty. They have enough oil remaining in them to produce highly volatile vapors that make them even more prone to explosions than the full cars.

A clear example of this danger came on July 6, 2013, when a train carrying 72 tank cars, and over 2,000,000 gallons of Bakken oil shale crude from the Williston Basin of North Dakota, derailed in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Much of the town was destroyed and forty-seven people were killed.

This disaster brought the problem of rail transport of crude oil to the forefront of the news and of the State and Federal legislative bodies, and brought calls for safety reforms in the rail industry.

PHMSA undertook a series of unannounced inspections, testing, and analysis of the crude being transported (PHMSA.gov). While PHMSA found that Bakken crude is correctly classified chemically under transportation guidelines, the crude does have a higher gas content, higher vapor pressure, lower flash point and lower boiling point, so it has a higher degree of volatility than most other crudes in the United States. These properties cause increased ignitability and flammability.

PHMSA now requires extensive testing of crude for shipping, but the real problem remains – most of our tank cars are not safe to transport this stuff at all and should be taken out of service.

But that may change. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA CA+0.48%) introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015.

It’s no coincidence that the first two Senators listed are from Washington State. Trains hauling this type of flammable crude pass through our state every day, right through population centers totaling over a million people (Cantwell.Senate).And the number of oil trains will double next year.

This is strange for WA State because it’s the least carbon emitting state in the union and has already satisfied any and all carbon goals one could reasonably think up for any other state. And the state is poised to go even further. So increased oil and coal shipments across its length has the people of Washington State a bit concerned.

The rail standards set by the proposed legislation would require thermal protection, full-height head shields, shells more than half an inch thick, pressure relief valves and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.

The Senators’ legislation would also authorize $40 million for training programs and grants to communities to update emergency response and notification plans.

According to Cantwell, “Firefighters responding to derailments have said they could do little more than stand a half-mile back and let the fires burn” (Tri-City Herald).

Rail carriers would be required to develop comprehensive emergency response plans for large accidents involving fire or explosions, provide information on shipments to state and local officials along routes — including what is shipped and its level of volatility — and to work with federal and local officials on their response plans.

“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our communities and give first responders the tools they need,” Cantwell said.

It’s certainly time for some decent regulations on this increasing risk.

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Fixing railroad tank cars gains traction after recent derailments

Repost from McClatchyDC News

Fixing railroad tank cars gains traction after recent derailments

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, March 30, 2015
US NEWS RAILSAFETY-CA 1 SA

Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil on railroad tracks in McClellan Park in North Highlands on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. North Highlands is a suburb just outside the city limits of Sacramento, Calif. RANDALL BENTON — MCT

— While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.

Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for more robust tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.

Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.

Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a more robust design to account for the exponential increase in energy traffic on the rails before they invest an additional cent.

The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry adopted its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.

The DOT-111A tank car

About 92,000 DOT-111s are in use; 78,000 lack extra safety features. Most tank cars are leased by oil companies or other firms moving products by rail.

TheDOT-111TankCar (FRA)And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors and governors, community and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a package of proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.

In January, the NTSB included tank cars on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying dramatically larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.

The minimally reinforced cars proved vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.

“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is already building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the No. 1 thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”

After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ultimately ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.

The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.

In recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, the newer cars, called CPC-1232s, lacked those extra safeguards.

“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.

Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting on the White House for final approval.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with three Democratic co-sponsors – Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin – introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would force new cars to meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.

“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” she said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”

The redesigned tank car may look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation and an outer jacket.

Last year, railroads voluntarily agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in a select number of densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.

All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just 9 mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.

Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank car improvements are a crucial step.

“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”

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From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

Repost from The Missoulian
[Editor:  An interesting summary of recent developments on crude by rail safety.  - RS]

From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

By Kim Briggeman, March 28, 2015 6:00 pm
Illinois oil train derailment involved safer tank cars

Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed around 1:20 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, said Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Moser. (AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Jessica Reilly)

Exploding oil trains are a hot topic in the United States and Canada, spurred by a recent spate of accidents and a prediction by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year that there are many more to come – 10 a year over the next two decades.

The oil boom in North Dakota and insufficient pipeline capacity have put a record number of cars hauling crude on the tracks, each capable of carrying more than 30,000 gallons of highly combustible oil when fully loaded. For a 100-car train that’s 3 million gallons.

A sampling of recent developments:

• An association of Washington Fire Chiefs requested Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway provide worst-case scenarios for potential crude oil train emergencies in selected areas of the state. They also want to see evidence of the levels of catastrophic insurance the railroad has purchased; comprehensive emergency response plans for specific locations in the state; and route analysis documentation and route selection results.

“Normally, we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents,” a letter to BNSF said. “However, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws. This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur.”

• Seattle vendors and former Mayor Mike McGinn joined forces at a news conference March 20 to highlight the potential destruction from an explosive oil train accident under Pike Place Market. The BNSF tunnel that runs under downtown Seattle passes under a corner of the market. An accident threatens the safety of 10 million annual visitors and the iconic market itself, the vendors said.

BNSF said it’s going to great lengths to make the tunnel safer, including spending $10 million in recent years to replace the tracks.

McGinn called the railway’s assurances “absolutely not sufficient for safety.”

• Four Democratic senators introduced an act Wednesday that would immediately bar the use of older, riskier tankers and set standards for volatility of gases in tank cars so they don’t explode as easily. The Crude-By-Rule Safety Act would set standards for new tankers that require thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves.

“Every new derailment increases the urgency with which we need to act,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. “Communities in Washington state and across the nation see hundreds of these oil tank cars pass through each week. This legislation will help reduce the risk of explosion in accidents, take unsafe tank cars off the tracks, and ensure first responders have the equipment they need.”

• The American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads announced at a teleconference Wednesday they will jointly fund additional training for local first responders along railroad tracks to deal with crude shipment accidents.

There are initial plans for sessions in 15 states, beginning this weekend in Nebraska and Florida. The AAR last year dedicated more than $5 million to training at its Security and Emergency Response Training Center near Pueblo, Colorado.

• Noting that a fiery oil train wreck in downtown Spokane could lead to the evacuation of 20,000 people, city officials requested and on Thursday were granted a seat at the table in discussions to open an oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington.

BNSF supports the terminal and said it’s “more than prepared” to handle the increased loads through northern Montana, Idaho and Washington.

“Our northern route is perfectly positioned geographically as we run through the Bakken region and to the Northwest destination points,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told the Spokesman-Review’s Nicholas Deshais in early March.

Jerry White, leader of the Spokane Riverkeeper, was not convinced. He referred to the fiery Feb. 16 of a BNSF train in West Virginia.

“When I was watching that disaster, something struck me,” White told Deshais. “The fire chief in that little town said they were just backing off and letting that oil burn. I projected that onto Spokane. Can you imagine this happening in the downtown corridor and the fire crews saying the only thing we can do is back off and let them burn?”

• A state official warned Minnesotans living along tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil to prepare themselves for an emergency.

“People need to take some personal awareness of what’s around them,” Kevin Reed of the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division told Don Davis of the Forum News Service. “How do I get out of the way before the fire department gets here?”

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that 326,170 Minnesotans live within half a mile of railroad tracks with trains carrying Bakken oil. A state report indicated an average of 6.3 oil trains a day cross Minnesota.

Gov. Mark Dayton said those numbers highlight the need for safety improvements on the railroads.

“It just underscores the risk factor and why it’s imperative that we do everything we possibly can to prevent these derailments and the catastrophes that can result from them,” Dayton said.

• The U.S. Department of Energy is studying crude volatility and whether it should be treated to remove dissolved gases before transport, an official testified Wednesday at a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked why the more volatile crude transported from the Bakken couldn’t be stabilized before being loaded into tank cars in the same way crude from Texas is stabilized.

Timothy Butters, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said that’s what the study seeks to determine. Results should be in by fall.

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