Tag Archives: Volatile gases

New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

Repost from Progressive Railroading
[Editor:  See also New York Wants Oil Companies to Treat Oil Shipped on Trains – Wall Street Journal, and NYS attorney general pushes federal limit on crude oil train explosion risk – Albany Times Union.  – RS]

New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

December 4, 2015

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has called on the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the vapor pressure of crude oil shipped by rail.

In a petition for rulemaking, Schneiderman asked the agency to require all crude transported by rail in the United States to achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability, according to a press release issued by Schneiderman’s office.

In his petition, the attorney general argues that reducing crude oil vapor pressures is practical and necessary for minimizing the risk and severity of accidents involving tank cars.

Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures — including crude produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota — have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane and other highly volatile gases, Schneiderman noted. 

While the vapor pressure of crude involved in train accidents is often undisclosed, the vapor pressure in such accidents in which the levels were disclosed have exceeded 9 psi, including the crude train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that caused 47 fatalities.

“Recent catastrophic rail accidents send a clear warning that we need to do whatever we can to reduce the dangers that crude oil shipments pose to communities across New York State,” Schneiderman said in a prepared statement. “In New York, trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil routinely travel through our cities and towns without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability — which makes crude oil more likely to catch fire and explode in train accidents. … The federal government needs to close this extremely dangerous loophole, and ensure that residents of the communities in harm’s way of oil trains receive the greatest possible protection.”

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Kalamazoo River 5 years later – still cleaning it up

Repost from OnEarth Magazine, Natural Resources Defense Council
[Editor:  Significant quote: “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean.  Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.”  – RS]

Remember the Kalamazoo

Five years ago, a pipeline spilled a million gallons of tar sands crude into a Michigan river—and we’re still cleaning it up.
By Brian Palmer, July 22, 2015
Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

Five years ago, in the middle of the night, an oil pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured outside of Marshall, Michigan. It took more than 17 hours before the Canadian company finally cut off the flow, but by then, more than a million gallons of tar sands crude had oozed into Talmadge Creek. The oil quickly flowed into the Kalamazoo River, forcing dozens of families to evacuate their homes. Oil spills of that magnitude are always disastrous, but the Kalamazoo event was historically damaging.

The first challenge was the composition of the oil. Fresh tar sands crude looks more like dirt than conventional crude—it’s far too thick to travel through a pipeline.

Try pumping this through a pipeline. Photo: Suncor

To get this crumbly mess to flow, producers thin it out with the liquid constituents of natural gas. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as it’s called in the tar sands industry, is approximately three parts tar sands crude, one part natural gas liquids.

When dilbit gushed into Talmadge Creek in 2010, the mixture broke apart. The volatile natural gas liquids vaporized and wafted into the surrounding neighborhoods. The airborne chemicals were so difficult to find and eliminate that Enbridge decided it would be better to simply buy some of the homes that were evacuated, preventing the residents from ever returning.

The tar sands oil, which stayed in the water, presented an even bigger chemistry problem. Most forms of oil, including conventional crude, are less dense than water. That’s why oil makes such pretty colors when dropped into a rain puddle—it floats and plays tricks with the sunlight. Traditional oil spill cleanup technology relies heavily on this density relationship. Skimmers and vacuums remove it from the surface. Floating booms prevent surface-level oil from moving into environmentally sensitive areas.

Tar sands crude behaves differently. “Tar sands bitumen is a low-grade, heavy substance,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project (disclosure). “Unlike conventional crude, when bitumen is released into a water body, it sinks.” (See “Sink or Skim,” onEarth’s infographic on why tar sands oil is more difficult to clean up than conventional crude.)

Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

Put simply, the spilled dilbit traveled in every direction—into the air, with the current, to the bottom of the river—at the same time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s indisputably naïve response reveals how little anyone knew about tar sands crude. The EPA demanded that Enbridge remove the oil from wetlands surrounding the pipe by August 27, a little more than one month after the spill began. The agency wanted the stuff out of the creek, river, and shorelines by the September 27. Those deadlines would have been practical for a typical spill—but not for a tar sands oil spill. A half-decade later, some of the oil still remains—though, much of that has to do with Enbridge botching the cleanup effort (see onEarth’s three-part series, “The Whistleblower”).

Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.

Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” says Swift. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”

Some local residents accuse the company of overstating its progress. “In the process of beautifying everything and giving money to everybody and making everybody feel good about it, they’re not really telling people about the dangers still there in that water,” says Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne of Michigan’s Potawatomi tribe.

It’s not clear when the river will go back to pre-spill quality. After conventional oil spills, crews eventually back off and allow microbes to break down the last bits of crude. That approach isn’t a good option in Kalamazoo. First, the area doesn’t have a large natural population of oil-eating microbes like the Gulf of Mexico has. In addition, tar sands crude contains very high levels of heavy metals, which don’t break down easily.

Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean. The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.

It’s tempting to dismiss the slow, botched, expensive, and still-unfinished cleanup as growing pains. Tar sands imports have risen significantly since 2010, as has public awareness of the difference between the Canadian crude and the conventional product. In the five years since the incident, we should have improved tar sands oil spill response. But we didn’t.

If another Enbridge spill were to happen tomorrow, the company might respond more quickly, but huge volumes of heavy tar sands crude would still pour out of the pipeline. David Holtz of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club told reporters that a rupture in Enbridge Line 5, another pipeline that runs through Michigan, would be disastrous.

“If they hit the shutoff valve immediately after a rupture, there would still be more than 650,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Great Lakes,” he said.

Cleaning it up would be as challenging today as it was five years ago. There have been no technological breakthroughs since 2010. The tar sands industry should accept a large portion of the blame for this stasis.

“The efforts to improve spill response have been caught up in a public relations war,” says Swift. “The tar sands industry wants you to believe that oil is oil, and that its product involves no heightened concerns. As a result, spill responders are working with largely the same tools today as in 2010.”

Tar sands pipelines—like the one operated by Enbridge, or TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline—run for thousands of miles, crisscrossing the United States and Canada in elaborate networks. They entail certain risks, and those risks are not going away. We have to decide how to respond. If we accept them, we must work to minimize the consequences by developing the appropriate safety measures and technology. Or we can reject them by eliminating tar sands from our energy infrastructure. The one thing we must not do is to pretend they don’t exist. The Kalamazoo spill is a reminder. It won’t be the last.

 

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Latest ‘bomb train’ incident predictable

Repost from The Hawkeye, Burlington, Iowa

Latest ‘bomb train’ incident predictable

By Kathleen Sloan, May 11, 2015

BNSF Railway carried the Hess Corp.-owned rail car, which carried highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and appears to have followed the law.

President Barack Obama weighed and rejected using executive authority to curb the transport of this explosive crude oil, rich in butane and propane, because he decided North Dakota state law should be the controlling authority. But the law North Dakota passed in December and went into effect just last month, only requires less than 13.7 pounds-per-square-inch vapor pressure inside the tanker, despite explosions at lower pressures.

That’s almost 40 percent more than the average vapor pressure among the 63 tanker cars that exploded July 6, 2013, at Lac-Megantic, Quebec. That disaster killed 47 people, some of whom could not be found because they were vaporized, and is driving recent federal and state rail car regulations.

According to an Albany, N.Y., Times Union investigation, the average vapor pressure among 72 tanker cars in the Lac-Megantic train was 10 psi.

Hess Corp. tested the crude just before loading at 10.8 psi, according to Associated Press reporters Matthew Brown and Blake Nicholson, in their follow-up story about the derailment at Heimdal, N.D.

While federal regulations only require flash point and boiling point to be measured, North Dakota now requires vapor pressure be measured. But measuring and labeling the danger does not make transporting it safe.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s two divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, are the regulating authorities overseeing railway transport of crude oil. Generally, the FRA is responsible for train car and rail safety, while the PHMSA inspects the proper testing of the oil. That determines the oil’s proper classification and its proper “packaging” in pressurized cars and their labeling.

Other PHMSA duties include checking shipping documents to see if the shipper has self-certified the procedures properly as well as employee safety and handling training.

The U.S. DOT initiated “Operation Safe Delivery” in August 2013, in reaction to the Lac-Megantic incident, although the Bakken oil boom dates to 2008.

A federal rule-making process also began in August 2013. Those rules went into effect last week.

PHMSA, as part of Operation Safe Delivery, took several samples of Bakken crude oil from rail-loading facilities, storage tanks and pipelines used to load rail cars. Several also were collected from cargo tanks.

The first set of samples were taken August through November 2013 and the second set February through May 2014.

The first set showed psi vapor pressure among a dozen samples ranging from 7.7 psi to 11.75 psi.

A second set of 88 samples showed vapor pressure ranging from 10.1 psi to 15.1, with the average at about 12 psi.

Only six of the 88 samples were at or exceeded North Dakota’s 13.7 psi. This means shippers are not required to treat most of the crude generated from the Bakken oil formation before loading it onto cars.

The “Operation Safe Delivery Update,” available on the PHMSA website, also gives test results for propane, sulphur, hydrogen sulfide, methane and butane content.

The conclusions in the Operations Safe Delivery Update, which was not dated, are:

“Bakken crude’s high volatility level — a relative measure of a specific material’s tendency to vaporize — is indicated by tests concluding that it is a ‘light’ crude oil with a high gas content, a low flash point, a low boiling point and high vapor pressure …

“Given Bakken crude oil’s volatility, there is an increased risk of a significant incident involving this material due to the significant volume that is transported, the routes and the extremely long distances it is moving by rail… These trains often travel over a thousand miles from the Bakken region to refinery locations along the coasts…”

And although the report states, “PHMSA and FRA plan to continue … to work with the regulated community to ensure the safe transportation of crude oil across the nation,” the new rules that went into effect last week did nothing about regulating vapor pressure.

Instead, the rules phase out weaker and older pressurized tanker cars, the DOT-111, by 2020, and phase in CPC-1232 cars.

So far, at least four derailments of CPC-1232 cars carrying Bakken oil have exploded:

    • March 5 in Galena, Ill.;
    • Feb. 1 in Mount Carbon, W.Va.;
    • Feb. 15 near Timmons, Ontario; and
    • Last year in Lynchburg, Va.

Experts in various news articles and public comment submitted during the federal rule-making stated the way to make transport safe is to refine the crude before shipping. That would involve building refineries near the extraction point, which experts pointed out would be expensive.

In a Sept. 26, 2014, story, Railway Age contributing editor David Thomas applauded North Dakota for “using state jurisdiction over natural resources to fill the vacuum created by the federal government’s abdication of its constitutional responsibility for rail safety and hazardous materials.”

But Thomas admitted the state law on crude treatment would reduce the danger only slightly.

“Simply put, North Dakotan crude will have to be lightly pressure-cooked to boil off a fraction of the volatile ‘light ends’ before shipment,” Thomas said. “This conditioning lowers the ignition temperature of crude oil — but not by much. It leaves in solution most of the culprit gases, including butane and propane. Even the industry itself says conditioning would not make Bakken crude meaningfully safer for transportation, though it would make the state’s crude more consistent from one well to another.”

“The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquifies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners,” Thomas said.

He points out owners and shippers in the Eagle Fork formation in Texas, voluntarily stabilize their crude before shipping. It’s more volatile than Bakken crude.

“So far, stabilized Eagle Fork crude has been transported by tank car as far away as Quebec City, without the fireballs that have plagued the shipment of unstabilized Bakken crude,” Thomas said. “The Texan gases are liquefied and piped underground to the state’s Gulf Coast petrochemical complex for processing and sale.”

Keeping the volatile gases in solution during shipping, while dangerous, is profitable.

Thomas said North Dakota has no nearby petrochemical plants, which “explains the oil industry’s collective decision not to extract the otherwise commercially valuable gases from North Dakota crude oil. Instead, most of the explosive gases remain dissolved in the unstabilized Bakken oil for extraction after delivery to distant refineries.”

The PHMSA, however, requires butane and propane be removed from the crude before it is injected into pipelines, Thomas said.

Comments to the federal rule-making pointed out Bakken oil is made more dangerous still by corrosive chemicals used in the fracking process. The crude is further treated with chemicals to make the molasses-like consistency easier to pump.

Severe corrosion to the inner surface of the tanker cars, manway covers, valves and fittings have been recorded in various incidents, commentators said.

The lack of federal regulations is not the only problem. Enforcement is minimal because there are only 56 inspectors, according to PHMSA spokesman Gordon Delcambre.

Ten of those have been assigned to the North Dakota Bakken oil formation region, he said.

In the PHMSA 2013 annual enforcement report, 151 cases were prosecuted and 312 civil penalty tickets were issued, resulting in $1.87 million in fines. The largest fine was $120,200.

The report did not mention what the hazardous material was in 173 of the 463 enforcement actions.

Only one enforcement action appeared to result from an inspection of “fuel oil” transport, which resulted in a $975 fine for incorrect “packaging” and failure to prove, through documents, employees had been given the required safety and hazardous material handling training.

According to BNSF Railway’s report to the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management, required by a U.S. DOT emergency order since May 2014, a range of zero-to-six trains carrying at least 1 million gallons (30,000 gallons per car or about 35 cars or more) pass through Burlington each week.

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