Tag Archives: U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

Investigators release records of fiery Casselton derailment

Repost from News OK, Oklahoma City
[Editor:  See also the NTSB Press Release, which links to the Casselton Accident Docket (79 documents).  – RS]

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.

Share...

    New vapor pressure rule in North Dakota fails to account for additional explosion risks

    Repost from Reuters
    [Editor:  Reference below is to an important new Energy Department study on the volatility of Bakken crude.  – RS]

    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)
    Share...

      Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

      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
      With one third of Buffalo’s population living in a disaster evacuation zone, the local media’s silence is deafening.

      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.

      See FracTracker’s map of Buffalo’s evacuation zone: tinyurl.com/NYS-derailment-risks.

      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.
      Share...

        NPR: A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars

        Repost from National Public Radio
        [Editor:  Everyone is talking about this one!  It’s a full-length episode of Fresh Air – 30 minutes, so settle back.  Investigative reporter Marcus Stern is thoughtful, solid and very well-informed.  Interviewer Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, covers a lot of ground.  Listen (or read the transcript) below.  – RS]

        A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars

        February 25, 2015 2:12 PM ET

        DAVE DAVIES, HOST:  This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. Earlier this month, a train carrying crude oil derailed in West Virginia, sending 27 cars off the track, spilling oil across the landscape and into a nearby creek, and causing explosions and fires that burned for days. And it isn’t the only such accident in recent years.

        (SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

        UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?

        UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, it just blew up. A train blew up. You need fire and ambulance – everything – right away.

        DAVIES: That’s a 911 call from a derailment and explosion near Casselton, N.D., in December of 2013. Five months before that, a tank car derailment in Canada sparked fires that killed 47 people.

        Our guest, investigative reporter Marcus Stern, has spent the past year looking into the risks of transporting oil on rail tanker cars, a practice which has expanded dramatically in the past eight years. His stories focus in particular on how regulators have responded, or failed to, following the tragedy in Canada. Marcus Stern won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his investigation of San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. His reporting on the risks of rail transportation of crude oil was a joint effort of the environmental website InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.  [Editor: See BOOM: North America’s Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem]

        Well, Marcus Stern, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let’s begin with this horrific accident that happened in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic – or at least that’s how it’s pronounced in this country. I’m sure the French pronunciation’s different. This was July of 2013. Tell us what happened.

        MARCUS STERN: There was a train that was hauling crude oil – about 2.6 million gallons – and it had a little bit of a mechanical problem. And so the railroad instructed the lone conductor – the lone crewmember -to leave it overnight with the engines running unattended. And he called a cab and went into town, into Lac-Megantic, to get sleep and spend the night at a hotel. And in the middle of the night, the brakes failed on the locomotives. And there were several locomotives. And it started down a long incline. And by the time it reached Lac-Megantic, seven miles down the hill, it was doing 60 miles an hour. It hit a curve there. It derailed and several of the railcars exploded. Fireballs went shooting several-hundred feet into the air. And a tide of flaming oil flowed in every direction, including the direction of a nearby bar/restaurant that was full of patrons. It was one o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night – a beautiful July night. And it immediately engulfed the bar/restaurant in flames. And 47 people were killed. The remains of five people – no remains were found of five of the people.

        DAVIES: Because the heat was so intense?

        STERN: Yes, it just vaporized these people.

        DAVIES: Now, this accident was in Canada. But we’re seeing a lot more rail traffic of tanker cars in the United States. And I guess this oil actually had come from the United States. Why are we seeing so much more tanker traffic and crude oil being carried on railroads?

        STERN: What happened is in 2005, roughly, there were advance – new developments in fracking technology that allowed the producers to pull light crude oil from about two miles beneath the ground in North Dakota. And suddenly that was available to them. And they could start pulling it out. They were pulling out hundreds of thousands of gallons of barrels a day. The problem is that, you know, while they suddenly became – you know, had this huge resource, and they now were Texas. They were Texas without pipelines. They had all the oil production of Texas – not quite as much, but they’re now number two to Texas – but they didn’t have any of the infrastructure in place. And so the – very cleverly, they turned to the rails because the rails were sitting sort of idle and not used very much except for by grain farmers. And also, you had refineries on the East Coast that were actually getting ready to shut down because they couldn’t compete with the Gulf Coast refineries that were using domestic crude oil because the East Coast refineries were using oil purchased on the world market at a higher price. So by pulling it out of the ground, putting it on the rails, and sending it to the East Coast refineries, it created a renaissance – an industrial renaissance, if you will – worth tens of billions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars. So it was a huge, big, good business story until the trains started to blow up.

        DAVIES: So the fast solution to a lack of pipelines to get the crude to refineries was to put it on tanker cars. Give us a sense of how dramatically the rise is in, you know, crude oil being shipped by tanker car.

        STERN: Yeah, the ramp up on crude by rail was just incredible. It’s why it caught so many people by surprise. In 2008, there were 9,500 rail cars that moved carrying crude oil. Last year, there were well over 400,000. So a lot of people mistakingly say that’s a 400 percent increase. It’s actually a 4,000 percent increase. They’re pulling more than a million barrels of oil out of the ground every day. And much of that is going – in North Dakota. And much of that’s going onto the rails.

        DAVIES: OK. Now, we’ll talk about some of the issues in rail transport. But I gather there is also issues about the kind of oil that’s coming from these shale deposits in North Dakota that could make them more dangerous, right?

        STERN: The oils from North Dakota come out of the ground. They come out – it’s called light oil. It’s not the viscous, black, gooey oil that we all think of from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It’s more like gasoline. When it comes out of the ground, it’s a mixture of oil and also what are called natural gas liquids. These are methane, butane, propane. They’re gases that we all know, but they’re actually suspended in the oil. They’re suspended in the liquid when they come out of the ground. And if they aren’t processed properly – and they aren’t being processed properly – then a lot of those natural gas liquids go into the railcars. And during the journey to the refinery, which can be thousands of miles, the gases begin to separate from the liquid, and you have a blanket of propane essentially sitting on top of the oil.

        DAVIES: Which is more explosive?

        STERN: Yes, and what happens when you end up with this gaseous blanket sitting on top of the liquid oil, if there is a breach of the railcar and any of the gas – the propane or butane gases inside – come in contact with the outside air and there is a spark, then you have one of those huge explosions where you see the fireballs going into the air hundreds of feet and a flaming oil going in all directions. And the emergency responders have to just cordon off the area to wait for them to burn out. And they’ll – one will blow, and it’ll act like a blow torch on another railcar that didn’t rupture, and then it will blow. And so you have a series of explosions that can go over two or three days.

        DAVIES: And the Lac-Megantic tragedy in Canada was of course widely reported. Are we seeing more accidents in the United States as well?

        STERN: Yeah, and I think what we saw is it was a big wake-up call for the regulators in Canada. But I think for the regulators down here in the U.S., there was a sort of sense that that was a perfect storm of calamities; that was a fluke; that there was just so many things that happened that would never happen down here. And one of the things they would site in private conversations was leaving trains on the tracks unattended. Actually, it turns out we do that down here. And it wasn’t very long before there was an explosion in Aliceville, Ala., a few months later, and was not as widely reported by any means because there was nobody killed. But there were – but nine acres of wetland and timberland burned for three days. And everything was destroyed. The wildlife, the fish, the habitat was destroyed. And they were still cleaning that area – that wetland – up almost a year later.

        DAVIES: And there was an accident in December, 2013 in – what? – Casselton, N.D., evacuated a town of 2,300. And there have been several others, right?

        STERN: There was a very dramatic explosion in Casselton, N.D., where the images were captured, and they were pretty impressive, although they – you know, it was a one-day story. And then more recently, on April 30, there was an explosion. A train exploded in Lynchburg, Va., and set the James River on fire. And of course we have the very recent one with West Virginia.

        DAVIES: Let’s talk a bit about the transport of crude oil in railcars. How long are the trains that haul this stuff – how many cars?

        STERN: Well, they are running about 100 cars now. They can extend for more than a mile. They’re carrying 3 million gallons of this crude oil that’s very volatile. And it’s a new – it’s a very new phenomenon. It used to be if they had – hauling crude oil by rail, they would have a couple of crude oil rails and – railcars or tankers. Then they would have some other things. And they’d split them up, so there was only a few railcars in any one stretch of a train. Now they’re just setting up these trains where there – got more than a hundred tankers being hauled by two, three or four locomotives. And they stretch for more than a mile.

        DAVIES: And do they go through population centers?

        STERN: They go through population centers because many of the refineries are in population centers – Philadelphia, Mobile, you know. But they also go down rivers – the Hudson River. They go down the Mississippi. They go through very environmentally sensitive areas like the George Washington National Forest. And through the – through the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest.

        DAVIES: Our guest is investigative journalist Marcus Stern. We’ll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

        (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

        DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, our guest is investigative journalist Marcus Stern. He’s written recently about the risks of hauling crude oil in railroad tanker cars for Inside Climate News and The Weather Channel.

        There’s been an issue of the particular model of railcar that is used to carry the crude oil. This is the DOT-111. What – how old are they? What were they designed for?

        STERN: The DOT-111 – and that’s its designation, and that’s what it’s known by – simply it’s – some people call them the dot 111. But the DOT-111 was designed in the ’60s, and it was really designed for something not flammable. It was designed for corn syrup, for instance, and far less flammable products. And since 1991 – so for 23 or 24 years now – the National Transportation Safety Board has been saying that this is a very dangerous railcar to put anything volatile into because it has a tendency to rupture whenever there’s a derailment.

        So but in – around 2005, we started producing a great deal of ethanol, and we put that onto the rails, and then beginning in 2008, we’ve started ramping-up with crude oil. And we – the producers and the refiners used the DOT-111 because it was really the only car that was available to them in the numbers they needed. They’re using about 100,000 – almost 100,000 DOT-111s right now. And it was the only – they were only really the carriage that was available, even though it was flawed. But they did that knowing the flaws with the DOT-111, and they’re still using the DOT-111.

        DAVIES: And what are the flaws? Why is it problematic?

        STERN: Well, it’s got a number of problems. One of the reasons it tends to rupture is that the shell is not thick enough. The opening of the top that they put the oil into breaks off in derailments. The valves don’t shut properly. At the bottom, there’s a fitting where they remove the oil. That, too, tends to break. And also, they need to be reinforced at both ends of the car. Now, over the years, there have been a number of petitions to the regulatory agency that oversees the movement of hazardous materials, and that’s called the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, otherwise known as PHMSA – or pronounced phimsa (ph). And it never took up any of these petitions until after Lac-Megantic

        DAVIES: In the recent accident in West Virginia, I read in one account that the cars that derailed and exploded there actually had some of the more advanced features. Is that true? Do you know?

        STERN: That is true, and several of the incidents that have happened in the last year have involved these – the new car that was mandated beginning in October 2011. And again, let me be clear, this was mandated by the railroad industry, not by the government. The government hadn’t acted at all – still hasn’t acted on this question of what kind of cars would be good enough, but – so they began in October 2011 building tougher cars. They need to have thicker shells. They need to have half-inch shells and other improvements that go beyond what the railroad industry itself had laid down as the marker in 2011.

        DAVIES: And just to clarify, you said that in 2011, the railroad industry mandated tougher cars. But a lot of the old ones – the old DOT-111s – are still on the rails, aren’t they?

        STERN: Yes.

        DAVIES: Is it really a requirement?

        STERN: Well, the new cars have to be built to this higher standard, but there are still hundreds of thousands of the old cars. They’re called the legacy vehicles, and they’re still out there on the rail. And a lot of the discussion is about how quickly those old railcars will be – those legacy railcars will be phased out. And you know, many of the mayors in the communities along the roads – the rail routes – have argued for, immediately, they want those off the track now.

        DAVIES: This is a fascinating part of the story, as you tell it, which is that the railroads themselves are concerned that these cars are dangerous. Who objects to replacing them then?

        STERN: Well, the railroads don’t actually own the railcars. The railroads own the track, and they have the right-of-ways. They have the locomotives. But the people who own the railcars are the producers in North Dakota and the refineries that are taking them. They’re called the shippers. And so basically, the refineries and the producers own these railcars, and so the burden of upgrading the railcars falls on them. And they are the ones that are resisting the upgrades.

        DAVIES: Right, I mean, we think of the railroads as managing this, but in fact, they’re – they, in effect, have to open their tracks to any cargo, right? They legally can’t refuse to carry this stuff, right?

        STERN: That’s absolutely right. And also, when something happens on the tracks in a community, the community looks at the railroads. They don’t look at the producers. They don’t look at the refineries, but they look at the railroad. So the railroad really feels the burden of the liability. In Lac-Megantic, the railroad there caused what could be up to $2 billion worth of liabilities. It promptly went bankrupt because it only had $25 million worth of insurance. And very few of these railroads in the United States have significant amounts of insurance to cover the kinds of liabilities that they’ll face in these kinds explosions.

        DAVIES: All right, but to come back to the issue of the tanker car. So the railroads want heavier, safer tanker cars. The shippers save money by using the older, inferior ones. How much would it cost to actually upgrade the fleet of tanker cars, and is anybody doing it?

        STERN: Well, they say it’s about a $3 billion upgrade, and they’re – and the, you know, the oil producers and the refineries, the shippers are balking. But it’s a real – it’s a delicate kind of a dance. They don’t often come out and say that. What they say is that these upgrades are not necessary, that the oil is not so – as volatile as people say it is. So what happened is, the DOT – the Department of Transportation – initiated comprehensive review or a rewrite of the regulations right after Lac-Megantic. But we’re here – we’re a year and a half later, and those regulations haven’t emerged. It’s sort of is a very, very good example of how the regulatory process, in many cases, has fallen apart through the negotiated rulemaking process that gives the industry a very loud voice at the table. And they can delay, and they can dilute, and they can delete a lot of these provisions just simply by objecting.

        It’s funny. We Americans are very familiar with the gridlock in Congress, but I don’t think they’re as familiar as a – with the similar gridlock that takes place in a lot of regulatory agencies, and certainly at the Department of Transportation when it comes to crude-by-rail. They have not been able to get these regulations out, and it’s been more than a year and a half.

        DAVIES: You know, it’s interesting because, as you describe that, I think a lot of commercial interests say, you know, government regulatory agents are tyrants, imposing rules on us that they don’t really understand the impact of, and it’s really unfair. You say there is a negotiated rulemaking process. I mean, where’s that ordained? Why is it – you want to explain that a bit?

        STERN: In the past couple of decades, it’s just really evolved that the rulemaking process is much more of a negotiated process. A lot of it happens in secret, behind closed doors. But essentially, the industry has a – is able to give a lot of input. So is the public. But the industry always has a little better access. Groups like the American Petroleum Institute have a budget of more than $200 million a year. The American Association – the Association of American Railroads has $50 to $60 million a year. And they do a lot of lobbying in Washington, so they get their voice heard a little better than the average person in the public.

        DAVIES: We mentioned earlier that a lot of these trains do go through population centers. Are they going through the middle of big cities?

        STERN: Philadelphia is probably a prime example where you’ve got oil refinery and infrastructure all around the downtown Philadelphia area, but you see it elsewhere as well. You know, they talked about rerouting oil trains around populated areas, which sounds good, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the destination for most of those railcars is refineries in very populated areas. So you’re getting a build-up of the rail infrastructure around populous areas, such as Philadelphia.

        DAVIES: And there have been some derailments in Philly, haven’t there?

        STERN: Yes, there was an incident that occurred in downtown Philadelphia. There was a train crossing the Schuylkill River, and it came off the track. And it was suspended, hanging from the bridge for almost three days before they were able to right it. Now, in this case, the train did not fall off the elevated track. Had it fallen off the elevated track, almost certainly you would have seen fireballs hundreds of feet into the air and flaming tides of crude oil on the whatever was below, whether it was the river or a roadway. It would have been quite dramatic and perhaps even cataclysmic.

        DAVIES: Marcus Stern is an investigative reporter whose pieces on the rail transportation of crude oil are a joint effort of the environmental website Inside Climate News and The Weather Channel. After a break, he’ll talk about deteriorating railroad bridges and the practice of leaving trains running and unattended. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker, reviews the new album from the band The Mavericks. And tech correspondent Alexis Madrigal considers home appliances that are connected to the Internet. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

        (SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

        DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off this week. We’re speaking with investigative reporter Marcus Stern, who’s looked into the dramatic increase in the transportation of crude oil on North American railroads and the growing number of derailments and fires that have followed. Stern won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. His investigation into rail transportation of crude oil is a joint effort of the environmental website InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.

        We’ve talked about the problems with the design of tanker cars, but there are other factors which affect safety that you write about. One of them is bridges. These trains – big, heavy, long trains – go over a lot of bridges. And you describe one near Tuscaloosa, Ala. Just talk about this bridge – its age, its condition, what you saw.

        STERN: Well, I went down to Tuscaloosa. And there’s a local environmentalist who was concerned about the bridge – walked me along the base of the bridge. And it goes for about a half-mile or more. It crosses from the downtown Northport, Ala., to downtown Tuscaloosa. It is a beautiful, old bridge. It’s 116 years old. It’s timber. It’s a big, elevated, timber-trestle bridge. So the trestles cross over a park on one side. They are elevated about 30 or 40 feet above the park. People bike underneath the trestles. They push baby strollers. They walk. They jog. Then you cross the river and you pass the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, which has big concerts. And just down river from that is a major refinery. And they’re building condos right there.

        So if a train derailed on that bridge, it would be catastrophic because there’s just so much there. Unlike Aliceville, Ala., or Lynchburg, Va., where – West Virginia – where it wasn’t a congested area, this could be a very high-consequence incident if it happened. So I walked along the base of this bridge, and a lot of the pilings that support the bridge were rotted. You could see all the way through them. You could put a stick through them. There were cross bars that were hanging off. And there was a portion of the bridge that was burned. It did not, upon close examination, look safe to me.

        DAVIES: Right. And neither you nor I are qualified, I suppose, to judge the engineering structure of bridges. But tell us what the regulations say about how often these things are inspected, by whom, whether the reports are public.

        STERN: Well, I started asking the local officials if they’ve had any assurance the bridge was safe. And they said that the railroad is responsible for that. I checked with the – at the State Department of Transportation in Montgomery, Ala. And they also told me that that’s the railroad’s responsibility, that they – it’s not on their radar at all. And I talked to the Federal Railroad Administration. And they told me, well, oh, you know, we get concerns about bridges; we get calls every day; we go out and we check them out, and invariably the bridges are just fine. And they assured me that was most likely the case here.

        And I did a Freedom of Information Act and got some documents that showed that there was a very cursory inspection of the bridge in 2008 – I believe it was – and later in 2010. And the one in 2010 actually resulted in the bridge being closed immediately for repairs. But nobody could really tell me if the bridge in its current condition was safe. I talked to the railroad. And as it turns out, the railroad is the only party that can really tell you whether the bridge is safe or not because under our current regulations, the federal government does not inspect the bridges. It does not enforce any of the regulations. In fact, there are no engineering standards for railroad bridges – period. The federal government doesn’t even have an inventory of railroad bridges, although there’s estimated to be 70 to 100,000 of them across the country.

        DAVIES: The inspections that the railroads themselves conduct are not publicly available, right? So whatever they do and whatever they decide is held secret – essentially is private information.

        STERN: Yes, that’s one of the real problems here, I think, for local communities is that the only person who has this material, this information, this data are the railroads themselves. And I even tried to hire an engineer – a bridge safety engineer – to go look at this bridge. And I couldn’t because everybody I approached said, no, I won’t do it because to do it I would have to have access and permission from the railroad to not only their tracks, which, you know, if I don’t get permission from them, I’m trespassing. But also they’d have to give me all of their bridge design papers that they may have and maintenance records and other safety records, and that’s not going to happen. So really there is no way for a community to know whether the bridge is safe. They just have to take the railroad’s word for it.

        DAVIES: I wanted to ask you about this practice of trains being left running and unattended. I mean, to those of us who don’t know anything about the industry, this sounds crazy. That’s what happened in this horrific accident in Canada. Now, tell us why that happens. I mean, why would anybody do that?

        STERN: Well, I can’t for the life of me understand why they would do it. It seems bizarre. You know, as a layperson and even after talking with people around it, it seems insane. But, you know, right after Lac-Megantic, one of the first things that the Department of Transportation did in the United States was to issue an emergency order. It was probably the strongest single thing it’s done. It issued an emergency order that said that trains may not be left unattended with the engines running on tracks without specific permission. I think the coverage of that, and certainly my take away when I saw the press release, was OK, so that means they’re going to make sure there is no trains left on tracks with the engines running unattended in the United States. Well, it turns out not to be the case.

        And I’ve discovered that because there was – I got in touch with somebody in a town called Plainville, Ill., who told me that there had been a train sitting idling on their track for seven hours in the middle of their downtown. And they called the railroad, and the railroad said they are allowed to do that. So months later, I called the railroad, talked to the same spokesperson for the railroad, and he said, we are allowed to do it. And he wouldn’t explain to me why they were allowed to do it or how it squared with the emergency order. It took additional reporting, and finally I was able to determine, by talking with people at the Federal Railroad Administration, that if you look at the actual regulation as it appears in the Federal Register – it appeared several days after the press release – it actually had some small print. It said they actually – the railroads – only had to have a plan for leaving the railroad cars unattended with the engines running. As long as they had a plan in a drawer somewhere, then they could continue to do it. And apparently they are continuing to do it.

        DAVIES: You know, it’s a Democratic administration in Washington. I mean, one might think that they might be a little bit more willing to be tough on industry in these circumstances. Do they fear that if they enact a regulation that they’ll be taken to court?

        STERN: Well, (laughter) I’m just going to say an aside here that – from being in Washington, I’ve learned there’s not so much a Democratic Party and a Republican Party as an incumbent party and a challenger party. But President Obama selected a person to head the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2009. This is the person who would oversee the safety of the pipelines across America and also these – the crude-by-rail phenomenon that has just really exploded since 2009. And it was very interesting that his choice for this position was a woman named Cynthia Quarterman. And she came from a law firm where her job was to represent all of these industries that she’s now regulating. So she went from representing them against regulators to being the top regulator.

        DAVIES: You know, one way to resolve the issue of transporting all this crude-by-tank car would be to build pipelines. Is that happening?

        STERN: Well, one of the reasons I think that producers and refiners have turned to rail is because pipelines are just so difficult to get approved. You can look at the Keystone XL Pipeline – the big debate over it – and it’s become a lightning rod for this whole discussion. But building pipelines is very contentious. And in addition to that, it takes a lot of time to do it. There’s a big upfront expense. And by the time they were putting pipelines into North Dakota, the North Dakota play might be played out.

        DAVIES: In a lot of cases, local officials are bewildered by the fact that these trains are running through their communities, and when a disaster occurs, they are often unprepared for the scale of it. Is there any requirement that local officials be informed that a crude oil train is coming through or that some disaster plan be ready to deal with an accident?

        STERN: Well, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee took up the question of emergency response plans and completely punted – they just – the industry would not go along with it. The National Transportation Safety Board and its counterpart in Canada, these safety agencies, have said there must be – they need to have response plans. The pipelines companies have response plans. They’re required to have response plans. At this point, the U.S. railroads are not required to have emergency response plans.

        The one thing that has happened in the past year-and-a-half since Lac-Megantic and these other disasters is that the federal government has told the railroads that they must notify state emergency officials whenever they’re going to be sending a train through a state that has more than a million gallons. So the state emergency planners get a heads up that there will be trains moving through of more than a million gallons – individual trains more than a million gallons. Anything less they don’t get notified of, and it’s not guaranteed that that gets down to the community level. And when I talked with a lot of the local officials in Tuscaloosa, I was really struck by the fact that they seem to feel very comfortable that they can handle whatever happens. Yet also the people in Lac-Megantic, when you talk to them, they shake their heads. And they say to the people of America, you know, you really don’t want this to happen in your backyard. This happened here. We lost 47 people. It destroyed our downtown. There’s no way anybody is going to be prepared for this if it happens in your downtown area.

        DAVIES: Marcus Stern, thanks so much for speaking with us.

        STERN: Thank you.

        DAVIES: Marcus Stern is an investigative reporter whose pieces on rail transportation of crude oil are a joint effort of the environmental website InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from the band The Mavericks. This is FRESH AIR.

        Share...