BNSF Engineer Who Manned Exploding North Dakota “Bomb Train” Sues Former Employer
By Steve Horn, April 2, 2015 13:54
A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) employee who worked as a locomotive engineer on the company’s oil-by-rail train that exploded in rural Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013 has sued his former employer.
Filed in Cass County North Dakota, the plaintiff Bryan Thompson alleges he “was caused to suffer and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries and damages,” including but not limited to ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues.
Thompson’s attorney, Thomas Flaskamp, told DeSmogBlog he “delayed filing [the lawsuit until now] primarily to get an indication as to the direction of where Mr. Thompson’s care and treatment for his PTSD arising out of the incident was heading,” which he says is still being treated by a psychiatrist.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the oil-by-rail world, the only time to date that someone working on an exploding oil train has taken legal action against his employer using the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.
Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District
“Run for His Life”
In the aftermath of the Casselton explosion, rail industry consultant Sheldon Lustig told the Associated Press that freight trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin are akin to “bomb trains,” putting the now oft-used term on the map for the first time.
Since Casselton, several other oil-by-rail explosions and disasters have ensued in the U.S.
Thompson experienced the wrath of an exploding “bomb train” up close and personal.
Flaskamp told The Forum newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota that Thompson had to “run for his life” to escape the train he was manning once it derailed after colliding with an oncoming grain train.
“Behind him, tank cars were starting to derail, catch fire and explode,” Flaskamp told The Forum of Thompson, who is in his 30s and is currently in school to obtain a teaching degree.
The plaintiffs allege BNSF, owned by multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act in multiple ways.
They include “failing and neglecting to provide [Thompson] with a reasonably safe place to work” and “failing to warn [him] of the dangers of hauling explosive oil tank railcars and the tendencies of these railcars to rupture and explode upon suffering damage.”
Put another way, BNSF may have known quite a bit more about the danger of carrying Bakken fracked oil than it ever told Thompson. And that will likely serve as a contentious point in the case as it snakes its way forward in Cass County court.
“BNSF knew or should have known of the dangerous nature of the cargo it required its crews to transport and should have exercised great care in its transport,” Flaskamp told DeSmogBlog. “The Answer to the complaint which will be filed by the BNSF will be telling as to their theories of defense.”
Future Blast Zones? How Crude-By-Rail Puts U.S. Communities At Risk
By Steve Early, March 23, 2015
The transport of petroleum via rail is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone.
Richmond, California began life more than a century ago as a sleepy little railroad town. It was the second place on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay where a transcontinental rail line connected with ferries, to transport freight and passengers to San Francisco. Now a diverse industrial city of 100,000, Richmond is still crisscrossed with tracks, both main lines and shorter ones, serving its deep-water port, huge Chevron oil refinery, and other local businesses.
Trains just arriving or being readied for their next trip, move in and out of a sprawling Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard located right next to the oldest part of town. Some train formations are more than 100 cars long. The traffic stalls they create on nearby streets and related use of loud horns, both day and night, have long been a source of neighborhood complaints. Persistent city hall pressure has succeeded in cutting horn blasts by about 1,000 a day, through the creation of several dozen much appreciated “quiet zones.” No other municipality in California has established so many, but only after many years of wrestling with the industry.
Despite progress on the noise front, many trackside residents continue to experience “quality of life” problems related to the air they breath. Some of their complaints arise from Richmond’s role as a transfer point for coal and petroleum coke (aka “pet coke”) being exported to Asia. As one Richmond official explained at a community meeting in March, these “climate wrecking materials” wend their way through the city in open cars—leaving, in their wake, houses, backyards, and even parked cars covered with a thick film of grimy, coal dust. Coal train fall-out has become so noisome in Richmond that its seven-member city council—now dominated by environmental activists— wants the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to mandate the use of enclosed cars.
This would seem to be a no-brainer, public health-wise. But the track record of this particular governmental agency—in any area related to public health and safety—has not been confidence inspiring lately. The BAAQMD is already complicit with the creation of Richmond’s most troubling new fossil fuel hazard in recent memory. For the last year, that threat has been on display, as far as the eye can see, at BNSF, which is owned by Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett. Buffett’s rail yard has been filled with hundreds of black, tubular metal tank cars containing a particularly volatile form of crude oil that’s come all the way to Richmond from the new energy boomtowns of North Dakota.
Buffett’s Bomb Trains
The arrival of this highly volatile petroleum product is now a well-known and unwelcome sight in many other U.S. communities. Its long distance rail transport has resulted in five major train fires and explosions in the last 16 months alone. In addition to these spectacular non-fatal accidents, mostly occurring in uninhabited areas, North America’s most infamous crude-by-rail disaster took the lives of 47 people in July, 2013. That’s when a runaway train—improperly braked by its single-man crew—barreled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling all of its downtown.
Despite this alarming safety record, the BAAQMD has allowed Kinder Morgan, a major energy firm, to store up to 72,000 barrels per day at a Richmond facility leased from the BNSF; from there, it’s loaded tank trucks bound for the Tesoro Golden Eagle Refinery in Martinez, CA., (which has been shutdown recently due to a nationwide strike by the United Steel Workers). Before issuing the necessary permit for bringing Bakken crude into Richmond, the BAAQMD gave no prior notice, held no public hearings, and conducted no review of any possible environmental or health impacts.
Aided and abetted by regulatory lapses at multiple levels of government, this stealth approach has served the oil industry well. The precipitous drop in petroleum prices has recently made rail transport of Bakken crude less cost effective (leading to a curtailment of Bay Area shipments). But, prior to that temporary reprieve, the number of rail cars commandeered nationally for this purpose jumped from 9,500 six years ago to 500,000 last year. As labor and environmental critics have pointed out, the Achilles Heel of crude-by-rail everywhere is the aging condition and structural weakness of most tank cars, designed and used, in the past, for hauling less hazardous rail cargo.
Even newer, supposedly safer tank cars have failed to protect the public from the consequences of oil train collisions, rollovers, tank car ruptures, and spills. The total amount of oil spilled in 2013, due to derailments, was greater in volume than all the spills occurring in the U.S. during the previous forty years. On February 17, a major accident in West Virginia triggered a fire that burned for five days, forced the evacuation of two nearby towns, and seriously threatened local water supplies.
Trackside communities like Richmond lack sufficient legal tools to avert such disasters in the future, because rail safety enforcement rests with the federal government. Among its other foot-dragging, the U.S. Department of Transportation has failed to mandate tank car modernization and upgrading in timely fashion. As for the BAAQMD, according to Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) organizer Andres Soto, that agency may be “legally responsible for protecting Bay Area air quality but it really just acts as a tool of industry.”
A Contested Permit
CBE, the Sierra Club, and Asian Pacific Environmental Network filed suit last year to block Kinder-Morgan’s operation in Richmond. A superior court judge in San Francisco ruled that their challenge to the BAAQMD’s permit-granting authority wasn’t timely, a decision still under appeal. The Richmond City Council supported the permit revocation and urged Congress to halt all Bakken crude transportation by rail until tougher federal safety rules were developed and implemented
In the meantime, concerned citizens of Contra Costa County began fighting back, first by educating themselves about the dangers of crude by rail and then mobilizing their friends and neighbors to attend informational meetings and protests. Last March, Richmond’s then mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, a California Green, hosted a community forum that featured Marilaine Savard from the Citizens Committee of Lac-Megantic, and Antonia Juhasz, a leading writer and researcher about oil-related hazards. “The oil industry is far too powerful,” Savard told 150 people packed into the storefront headquarters of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “The first duty of government should be to protect citizens, not shareholders.”
Since that event, CBE organizer Soto has been on the road, sounding the alarm before audiences throughout the county. In his power-point presentation, he highlights maps illustrating how big the “blast zones” would be in Richmond and other refinery towns if crude-by-rail triggered a fire and explosion on the scale of Lac-Megantic’s. Last September, direct actionists from the Sunflower Alliance and other groups took the fight directly to Kinder Morgan’s front door. Eight activists locked themselves to a gate leading to the facility; along with other supporters, they succeeded in disrupting truck traffic for three hours. After negotiations between Richmond police and BNSF security personnel, the protestors were allowed to leave without being arrested for trespassing.
Rail Labor And Environmentalists Meet
In the wake of recent high-profile oil train wrecks in West Virginia and Illinois, Richmond played host last weekend to more than 100 railroad and refinery workers, other trade unionists, community organizers, and environmentalists. They were attending the first of two regional strategy conferences sponsored by Railroad Workers United (RWU) and allied groups. RWU is national rank-and-file organization that seeks to build greater unity among rail industry craft unions long prone to bickering, back stabbing, and estrangement from potential non-labor allies.
“As railroaders,” the RWU declares, “we know that the safest means of transport is the railroad—far safer than roads and highways, inland waterways, and even pipelines. But the rail industry has taken advantage of a lax regulatory environment, conservative pro-business governments and weakened unions across North America to roll the dice on safety. It’s time for railroad workers, community, and environmental activists to come together and take a stand.”
One joint project discussed at the March 15 conference is the fight against single employee train crews. After Lac-Megantic was destroyed, the Canadian government banned one-person crews on trains hauling hazardous materials. In the U.S, carriers, big like BNSF continued to seek union approval for staffing reductions (while insisting that transport of crude oil, ethanol, or other flammable cargo would still require two person crews). To stop any further rail labor slide down this slippery slope, RWU rallied conductors to reject a deal their union negotiated with BNSF last year that would have permitted one-person crews.
Other safety concerns raised at the Richmond meeting included crew fatigue and railway attempts to cut labor costs by operating trains that are longer, heavier, and harder to stop in emergency situations. “Recent oil train derailments are directly linked to the length and weights of trains,” argued Jeff Kurtz, a railroad engineer from Iowa who spoke at the Richmond meeting. “The railroads know how dangerous it is to have 150-ton tank cars running on a 8,000 foot train.” Kurtz expressed confidence that “we can address these problems in a way that would improve the economy and the environment for everyone, “ if labor and climate change activists continue to find common ground.
RWU organizers are holding a second educational conference on March 21 in Olympia, Washington. According to Seattle switchman-conductor Jen Wallis, this kind of “blue-green” exchange, around rail safety issues, has never been attempted before in the Pacific Northwest. “Rail labor hasn’t worked with environmentalists to the degree that steelworkers and longshoreman and teamsters have, “ Wallis says. “It’s all very new.”
Steve Early is a former union organizer who lives in Richmond, California. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions from Monthly Review Press. He is currently working on a new book about labor and environmental issues in Richmond.
Repost from Bloomberg News [Editor: Many groups have called for a moratorium on crude by rail; this may be the first time a highly respected national media outlet has highlighted this view in a headline. New in this report: “The U.S. Department of Transportation said 14 cars were in a pileup and half of those were punctured. Emergency responders evacuated a 1-mile radius, which contained six homes.” – RS]
CN Rail, BNSF Tackle Accidents as Group Seeks Ban on Oil Trains
March 8, 2015, by Doug Alexander9:33 AM PDT
(Bloomberg) — Canadian National Railway Co. is building a 1,500-foot (457 meter) long track to bypass a burning train that derailed Saturday in northern Ontario, while BNSF Railway Co. crews are working to reopen track in rural Illinois after a train carrying oil derailed three days ago.
CN crews teamed with outside specialists are fighting the blaze after an eastbound train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire around 2:45 a.m. near Gogama, about 600 kilometers north of Toronto, cutting off rail traffic between Toronto and Winnipeg, Manitoba. The BNSF train jumped the tracks Thursday afternoon near Galena, Illinois, about 160 miles west of Chicago, according to the railroad, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
The accidents bring to four the number of oil train wrecks in North America in the past three weeks, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The environment group is calling for a halt to transport of oil by rail, which has surged since 2009 with the boom in crude production from shale.
“We need a moratorium on oil trains,” Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the center, which has fought to protect wildlife for 26 years, said in a March 7 statement. “The oil and railroad industries are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and our environment.”
The BNSF train was carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation for Mercuria Energy Group Ltd. Twenty-one of the train’s 105 cars, which include two sand cars as buffers, jumped the tracks Thursday afternoon. The U.S. Department of Transportation said 14 cars were in a pileup and half of those were punctured. Emergency responders evacuated a 1-mile radius, which contained six homes. No injuries have been reported.
BNSF plans to reopen its mainline track Monday, Mike Trevino, a spokesman for the railroad, said in a phone interview Sunday.
North American oil producers have increased their reliance on rail as new pipelines failed to keep pace with a surge of production from shale. The typical rail car carries about 700 barrels of oil, according to data posted on BNSF’s website. The number of oil carloads rose more than 40-fold from 2009 through 2013, when 435,560 carloads were shipped, and kept climbing last year to an estimated 500,000, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The CN derailment damaged a bridge over a waterway as five tank cars ended up in the water, with some of them on fire, the Montreal-based railway said in a Saturday statement. Crews have placed three lines of booms on the river to contain the crude. Drinking water supplies to Gogama Village and a nearby Mattagami First Nation community are not affected, CN said.
“Fire suppression activities will begin later today,” spokesman Jim Feeny said Sunday in an e-mailed statement. “Residents will likely see occasional smoke plumes of various shades of black, gray or white. This is expected, normal, and poses no threat to the public or the environment.”
The railcars, carrying crude oil from Alberta, are CPC-1232 models railroads began to roll out in 2011 to boost safety.
The accident marks the second derailment of a CN oil train in three weeks near Gogama. A train with 100 cars, all laden with crude from Alberta bound for eastern Canada, derailed on Feb. 14 about 30 miles north of the town. A total of 29 cars were involved in that incident and seven caught fire, a spokesman said at the time.
Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada are on site, which is 37 kilometers from the previous accident, agency spokesman John Cottreau said Sunday by phone. The train was headed to Levis, Quebec, when 30 to 40 cars derailed.
“Billions of gallons of oil pass through towns and cities ill-equipped to respond to the kinds of explosions and spills that have been occurring,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity. “Millions of gallons of crude oil have been spilled into waterways.”
Berkshire’s BNSF to Add Surcharge on Older Oil Tank Cars
By Thomas Black, Dan Murtaugh and Lynn Doan, Oct 24, 2014
BNSF Railway Co. plans to apply a $1,000 surcharge for each older tank car that hauls oil, as the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. encourages shippers to scrap the puncture-prone cars.
The charge, which will take effect Jan. 1, will add about $1.50 a barrel to the cost of shipping oil across the country. It’s the first one announced by a major U.S. railroad for older cars known as DOT-111s, and won’t apply to cars called CPC-1232s that are built to higher standards adopted in October 2011, according to a BNSF notice.
The Obama administration in July proposed phasing out thousands of the older tank cars within two years and lowering speed limits as part of new rules to reduce the risk of hauling crude by rail. The plan followed a series of fiery accidents, including the derailment and explosion of a crude train last year that killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac Mégantic.
The extraction of oil from shale fields with limited pipelines, such as in North Dakota’s Bakken, caused U.S. rail carloads of crude to surge to 415,000 last year from 9,500 in 2008, according to the Transportation Department.
Mike Trevino, a spokesman for BNSF, confirmed the surcharge notice.
Tank cars typically hold about 700 barrels of oil, which means the surcharge would boost the cost of shipping in older cars by $1.50 a barrel. The cost to ship crude by train to East Coast refineries from North Dakota is about $9 to $10 a barrel, San Antonio-based Tesoro Corp. said in a September presentation.
BNSF, which operates tracks that connect into the Bakken and other shale oil fields, said in February it plans to order 5,000 new crude tank cars with safety standards higher than the CPC-1232s in an effort to push shippers toward safer cars.