Repost from The Burlington Free Press
[Editor: What do pristine California waters and Lake Champlain (in upstate New York) have in common? Would you believe oil trains? – RS]
The risk to Lake ChamplainMike Winslow, August 15, 2014
The sound of trains clacking along the rails that abut Lake Champlain has become more common with the dramatic increase in freight traffic attributed to fossil fuel extraction.
Each week approximately 60 million gallons of oil travel along the lake carried by 20 trains with up to 100 cars each. Nearly half of these shipments carry the volatile Bakken crude.
The U.S. meets 66 percent of its crude oil demand from production in North America with tremendous growth in outputs from Canada and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. In October 2013, U.S. crude production exceeded imports for the first time since February 1995.
Oil produced from the Bakken fields is light. That means it flows easily, but it also means it is more volatile and flammable.
As a result, the potential property damage and loss of life associated with rail accidents involving Bakken oil is higher than oil from other sources.
In January, two federal agencies issued a safety alert warning of these risks.
The alert was triggered by a series of devastating accidents. Federal Railroad Administration statistics suggest that on average, at least one car slips off the tracks every day. There have been six major derailments since the beginning of 2013.
The most infamous occurred July 5, 2013, in Lac Megantic, Quebéc. An improperly secured train rolled on its own, and 63 cars derailed near the center of town, leading to multiple explosions and fires, evacuation of 2,000 people and 47 deaths.
There have been unsettling precedents:
• October 19, 2013: 13 tank cars derailed in Alberta leading to evacuation of 100 residents. Three cars carrying propane burned following an explosion.
• November 8, 2013: 30 cars derailed in a wetland near Aliceville, Alabama and about a dozen were decimated by fire.
• December 30, 2013: two trains, one carrying grain and one oil, collided in Casselton, North Dakota. Twenty of the oil train cars derailed and exploded leading to evacuation of 1,400 people.
• January 7, 2014: 17 cars derailed in New Brunswick and five exploded leading to evacuation of 45 people.
• January 20, 2014: Seven cars derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, though no oil leaked.
• More recently, 15-17 cars derailed in Lynchburg, Va., on April 30. Three fell into the James River and one burst into flames. There were no injuries, but 300-350 people had to be evacuated, and oil leaked into the James River. The state estimated 20,000 to 25,000 gallons escaped during the wreck.
Our region is no stranger to train derailments. In 2007, a northbound Vermont Railways freight train derailed in Middlebury, spilling gasoline into Otter Creek and leading to the evacuation of 30 streets in the vicinity.
Trains have also derailed along the Lake Champlain route. In 2007, 12 cars derailed near Route 22 in Essex, N.Y., the same stretch of tracks now carrying volatile oil.
Concern over the state of North American freight rail safety predates the increase in oil shipments.
In 2006 the Toronto Star ran a five-part series on rail safety. The newspaper noted, “Canadian freight trains are running off the rails in near record numbers and spilling toxic fluids at an alarming rate, but only a tiny fraction of the accidents are ever investigated.”
The greatly increased traffic in oil has further strained railroad infrastructure. According to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. They have been referred to as “Pepsi cans on wheels.”
These cars are built to carry liquids but lack specialized safety features found in pressurized tanks used for hauling explosive liquids. The industry has agreed to include additional safety features in any new cars put on the tracks, but since rail cars have an economic life of 30-40 years, conversion to the newer cars has been slow.
One relatively new risk is the predominance of “unit trains.” These are long series of cars all shipped from the same originating point to the same destination.
Often the cars will all carry the same product. It used to be that oil cars were mixed in with other freight cars bound for different locations. Unit trains are a greater risk in part because safety standards are based on the carrying capacity of a single car and don’t account for the greater volumes that unit trains can transport.
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating accidents, has called on the Federal Railroad Administration to change this standard.
Recently, an oil company submitted plans to build an oil heating facility in Albany, N.Y. The facility would be used to heat oil shipped via rail. The oil would then be transferred to barges and floated to refineries.
If permitted, a heating facility would draw increased transport of Canadian tar sands, which needs to be diluted or heated for loading or unloading, through the Lake Champlain region.
In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is heavy. Cleanup of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely challenging. The oil sinks rather than floating, making containment difficult.
When a pipeline carrying tar sands oil broke near Kalamazoo, Mich., 850,000 gallons spilled. The resulting cleanup cost more than $1 billion (yes, $1 billion), and costs were “substantially higher than the average cost of cleaning up a similar amount of conventional oil,” according to a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service.
In November 2013, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation declared the proposed facility would have no significant environmental impacts.
However, public outrage led the department to reconsider that declaration, expand the public comment period and seek additional information from the proponents.
Still, the additional requested information touches only the tip of the facility’s impacts on the region. The facility should undergo a full environmental impact review that includes potential impacts on freight shipping throughout the region including along Lake Champlain.
In July, the Department of Transportation proposed new rules on rail safety. They include a phase-out of DOT-111s during the next few years, tightened speed limits, improved brakes and permanent requirements for railroads to share data with state emergency managers.
The federal department is accepting comments on the proposed rules until Sept. 30 and hopes to finalize them by the end of the year.
It’s a step in the right direction, but way too slow on getting rid of these risky cars. Delays in updating standards puts people, communities, Lake Champlain and other waterways at risk. The administration needs to act before another disaster like what occurred in Lac Megantic occurs here or elsewhere.
Train whistles echoing off the waters of the lake should elicit wistful thoughts of faraway places, not shudders of dread.
Mike Winslow is the staff scientist at Burlington-based nonprofit Lake Champlain Committee.
A forum on rail transportation of crude oil along the western shore of Lake Champlain is planned for 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. on Aug. 24 at Plattsburgh City Hall.For more information, contact the Lake Champlain Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org or (802) 658-1414.