Investigators release records of fiery Casselton derailment
April 27, 2015 at 8:46 pm
Federal investigators have released hundreds of pages of records that offer new insight into the moments just before and after a 2013 oil train derailment near Casselton, North Dakota, that created a massive fire and forced 1,400 people to evacuate for several days.
Interviews with the BNSF Railway workers operating the two trains in the derailment are included in documents the National Transportation Safety Board posted online Monday. Federal investigators also said in the documents that a broken train axle found after the derailment might have been prevented if BNSF railroad had inspected it more carefully and found a pre-existing flaw.
The broken axel wasn’t pinpointed as the cause of the crash, but the NTSB ordered the industry to recall 43 axles made by Standard Steel in the same 2002 batch.
Officials have said the accident happened when a westbound freight train derailed and a portion of it fell onto an adjacent track carrying the eastbound oil train. Eighteen cars on the 106-car oil train derailed and several exploded and burned.
In the records released Monday, the two men onboard the BNSF oil train describe losing sight of the tracks in a cloud of blowing snow shortly before seeing a derailed grain car lying across the tracks. Emergency brakes were applied, but the train was still moving 42 mph when it struck the car.
The 18 tank cars broke open and spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil that fueled the fire that could be seen from nearly 10 miles away. It took several weeks to clean up the remaining oil from the site 30 miles west of Fargo after the flames were extinguished.
Everyone aboard both trains escaped unharmed. But just a couple minutes after conductor Pete Rigpl exited the oil train, he looked back to see flames engulf the locomotive he and Bryan Thompson had been in.
“I was exiting the cab then and started to get away from all the fire. It was — the heat was intense,” Rigpl said to investigators. “I mean, the whole situation just — I was in knee-deep snow. I couldn’t get away as quickly as I would like to.”
The two men called 911 and talked with BNSF dispatchers as they moved away from the growing fire consuming their cargo. Rigpl and Thompson told investigators they stressed the potential danger as they talked with emergency responders.
Railroad shipments of crude oil are facing additional scrutiny and tougher regulations because there have been several fiery derailments involving the commodity in recent years. The worst happened in July 2013 and killed 47 people in a small Canadian city just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine.
Thompson, the oil train’s engineer, said that when he heard people were approaching the derailment to get a glimpse of the wreckage he urged a sheriff’s deputy to remove them because of the danger.
“I don’t think he grasped what was going on until I told him, I said do you know the story of the train in Canada? I said that’s the type of train I am,” Thompson said to the NTSB. “And his eyes got big, you know, then he said Code Red on his radio. I remember that.”
BNSF and the other major freight railroads have taken a number of steps to improve the safety of crude oil shipments, including reducing speeds in high-risk areas.
BNSF officials did not immediately respond Monday afternoon to a request for comment about the report.
Federal regulators are expected to release new standards for the tank cars that carry crude oil and new rules for railroad operations as soon as next month.
The number of carloads railroads hauled nationwide increased again last year to 493,126 from 407,761 in 2013. In 2008, before the oil boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, as well as in Canada, railroads hauled just 9,500 carloads of crude oil.
BNSF, which is owned by Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., hauls most of the oil produced in the Bakken region. It is based in Fort Worth, Texas.
North Dakota’s new oil train safety checks seen missing risks
By Patrick Rucker, Mar 31, 2015 4:14pm EDT
WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – New regulations to cap vapor pressure of North Dakota crude fail to account for how it behaves in transit, according to industry experts, raising doubts about whether the state’s much-anticipated rules will make oil train shipments safer.
High vapor pressure has been identified as a possible factor in the fireball explosions witnessed after oil train derailments in Illinois and West Virginia in recent weeks.
For over a year, federal officials have warned that crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale oilfields contains a cocktail of explosive gas – known in the industry as ‘light ends.’
The new rules, which take effect on April 1, aim to contain dangers by spot-checking the vapor pressure of crude before loading and capping it at 13.7 pounds per square inch (psi) – about normal atmospheric conditions.
The plan relies on a widely-used test for measuring pressure at the wellhead, but safety experts say gas levels can climb inside the nearly-full tankers, so the checks are a poor indicator of explosion risks for rail shipments.
It is “well-understood, basic physics” that crude oil will exert more pressure in a full container than in the test conditions North Dakota will use, said Dennis Sutton, executive director of the Crude Oil Quality Association, which studies how to safely handle fossil fuels.
Ametek Inc, a leading manufacturer of testing equipment, has detected vapor pressure climbing from about 9 psi to over 30 psi – more than twice the new limit – while an oil tank is filled to near-capacity.
About 70 percent of the roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil produced in North Dakota every day moves by rail to distant refineries and passes through hundreds of cities and towns along the way.
The state controls matter to those communities because there is no federal standard to curb explosive gases in oil trains.
North Dakota officials point out that the pressure limit is more stringent than the industry-accepted definition of “stable” crude oil. They also say that they lack jurisdiction over tank cars leaving the state and that the pressure tests are just one of the measures to make oil trains safer.
“We’re trying to achieve a set of operating practices that generates a safe, reliable crude oil,” Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said. Helms has also said that test readings for near-full containers were less reliable.
However, given different testing and transport conditions, industry officials say the pressure threshold may need to be lowered to reduce the risks.
Limiting vapor pressure to 13.7 psi in transit would require an operator to bring it to “something well below that” at the loading point, Sutton said.
The uncertainty about regulatory reach and safety has spurred calls for the White House to develop national standards to control explosive gas pressure.
“Let me be really clear,” Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state told reporters last week. “They should set a standard on volatility.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent safety agency, has already encouraged a federal standard for “setting vapor pressure thresholds” for oil trains citing Canadian findings linking such pressure and the size of explosions in train accidents.
Meanwhile, a leading voice for the oil industry is lobbying Congress to resist federal vapor pressure benchmarks.
Last week, the American Petroleum Institute urged lawmakers to oppose “a national volatility standard” and pointed to an Energy Department study that the severity of an oil train mishap may have more to do with the circumstances of the crash than the volatility of the cargo.
That same report said much more study was needed to understand volatility of crude oil from the Bakken. (For a link to the study: tinyurl.com/nvjqmxt)
The oil industry has said that wringing ‘light ends’ out of Bakken crude may keep a share of valuable fuel from reaching refineries.
Reuters reported early this month that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took his concerns about Bakken oil volatility to the White House last summer and sought advice on what to do about the danger of explosive gases.
The administration decided that rather than assert federal authority it would allow the North Dakota rules to take root, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker; Additional reporting by Ernest Scheyder in North Dakota; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Bernard Orr)
Repost from ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY [Editor: Professor Niman has written a thorough examination of crude-by-rail issues. The local (Buffalo NY) perspective is no drawback. This is an excellent reference article no matter where you are. For example, if/when Benicia approves a permit for Valero’s proposed Crude By Rail project, everyone uprail from here can expect to be the new Buffalo. – RS]
Buffalo’s Bomb Trains
By Michael I. Niman, February 26, 2015
They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”
This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.
The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.
Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.
The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “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.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.
Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?
While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.
While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.
Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.
What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”
While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,
“All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”
It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.