Tag Archives: Washington State Department of Ecology

Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

Repost from The Center for Investigative Reporting and KUOW.org
[Editor:  This is an important report.  State regulators can’t get accurate oil train data from the federally regulated railroads, so Washington officials are turning to the refineries: “Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders.”  (See previous report.)  The story of Dean Smith’s Train Watch is inspiring – we should set up annual counts in all of our frontline refinery communities.  – RS]

Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

By Ashley Ahearn / June 13, 2015
Dean Smith was frustrated with the lack of public information about oil train traffic so he organized 30 volunteers to count the trains coming through his community north of Seattle. Credit: Ashley Ahearn/EarthFix/KUOW

EVERETT, Wash. – Dean Smith, 72, sits in his car by the train tracks here north of Seattle.

It’s a dark, rainy Tuesday night, and Smith waits for an oil train to come through town. These trains are distinctive: A mile long, they haul 100 or so black, pill-shaped cars that each carry 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

Smith has been counting the trains for about a year, noting each one on a website he built. The former National Security Agency employee does it because the railroads share little information about oil train traffic with Washington state. They don’t have to because they’re federally regulated.

What is known: The railroads are moving 40 times more oil now than in 2008 due to an oil boom in the Bakken formation of North Dakota. Bakken crude oil contains high concentrations of volatile gas, with a flashpoint as low as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Derailments and explosions have occurred around North America since the oil boom began, including a 2013 catastrophe that killed 47 people in rural Quebec.

This has prompted emergency responders to call for more information from railroad companies about oil train traffic patterns and volumes. The railroads mostly have refused; they say that releasing that information could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Which is why Smith decided to find out for himself. “It’s pretty hard to hide an oil train,” he said with a chuckle.

Last year, Smith launched the first Snohomish County Train Watch. He organized 30 volunteers to take shifts counting trains around the clock for a week.

In their first week of watching oil trains, the group collected more information about oil train traffic than the railroads had given Washington in the three years the trains have come here.

State officials say Smith’s data is helpful but insufficient. They say they shouldn’t have to rely on citizen volunteers to get critical information in case of disaster.

Dave Byers, the head of spill response for the state’s Department of Ecology, said his team needs the information to plan area-specific response plans to protect the public and keep oil from getting into the environment.

“It gives us an idea of what the risk is, the routes that are taken,” Byers said. “The frequency and volume of oil really gives us an idea of what level of preparedness we need to be ready for in Washington state.”

Oil train traffic shows no signs of slowing, which adds to the state’s sense of urgency. The oil industry wants to build five new terminals in Washington to move crude oil off trains and onto ships.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to lift a federal ban on exporting crude oil that’s been in place since 1975 – allowing American crude to be shipped around the world.

Close call in Seattle

Anyone who has attended a Mariners baseball game in downtown Seattle likely has seen or heard oil trains passing the ballpark. The trains continue north through the city to refineries on Puget Sound.

Seattle had a close call last year when an oil train derailed near downtown.

Byers and his team weren’t notified for one and a half hours and initially were not told there was oil in the derailed train cars.

No oil was spilled, but Byers is critical of how BNSF Railway, the company that moves most of the oil out of the Bakken oil fields, handled the situation.

BNSF did not tell the state there was highly flammable Bakken crude oil in the derailed train cars – that information came five hours later from the oil refinery waiting for the train. Additionally, Byers said that when his team arrived on the scene, no BNSF representative was present, but welders were working on the derailed cars. The welders said they did not know what was inside.

We became concerned because people were wandering off the street and taking selfies of themselves next to the rail cars,” Byers said. “There was no preparing for the potential that one of those cars could actually start leaking.”

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an emailed statement that BNSF Railway had its hazardous materials team quickly in place to evaluate the situation. “This derailment did not cause a release at any point, nor was there a threat of a release,” she said.

The state and BNSF Railway have sparred over the railroad company’s reports of hazardous materials spills. Earlier this year, state regulators released an investigation and recommended that BNSF be fined up to $700,000 for not quickly reporting these spills. The company has disputed the state’s findings. A final decision is expected next year.

Concern in Anacortes

Workers prepare oil trains for unloading at the Tesoro refinery north of Seattle. The train that derailed in Seattle on July 24, 2014, was bound for the refinery.

This spring, several hundred people packed into the Anacortes City Hall for information from oil companies and BNSF Railway about the oil trains moving through their community. Just that morning, a BNSF oil train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota.

In northern Puget Sound, Anacortes is home to two refineries that receive oil by rail from North Dakota. Its residents, like others in small communities along the tracks in Washington state, have voiced concern about oil trains. Congestion woes are among their complaints; unlike Seattle, where the trains mostly pass through tunnels and over bridges, trains here disrupt traffic.

Audience members were allowed to submit written questions only. Oil refineries’ representatives told them about safety precautions at their facilities to prevent and respond to spills. They also talked about their commitment to getting newer oil train cars.

Courtney Wallace is a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway. The company believes that every derailment or accident is avoidable. On the day this photo was taken, a train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota. It was carrying the same type of crude oil that is currently moving through Washington state.

Wallace, the BNSF spokeswoman, gave a presentation about the company’s commitment to safety. She said BNSF believes that every accident is preventable.

When pressed by a reporter about how much information BNSF shares with local emergency responders, Wallace said BNSF has “always provided information to first responders, emergency managers about what historically has moved through their towns.”

She cautioned that sharing regular updates or notifications of oil train movements could put the public at risk.

“We’re always cognizant of what information is shared, because we don’t want to see an incident that involves terrorism or anyone else who might have that kind of frame of mind,” Wallace said.

Fight for information

A federal emergency order demands that railroads share limited information with states – but state officials want more.

Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders. 

Washington state Rep. Jessyn Farrell is a Democrat who has fought for legislation that would force oil refineries to share information about how much oil is arriving by rail.

State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored the bill, said BNSF and the oil industry opposed the legislation from the beginning.

“We’re going to get the information,” she said. “I don’t really care who gives it to us as long as it’s good information and it stands in court, because we need that information now.”

BNSF Railway spent more than $300,000 on lobbyists and political contributions in Washington state in 2014.

“I think they’re absolutely on the wrong side of this,” Farrell said. “In the public mind, and morally, they are absolutely wrong.”

BNSF’s Wallace said the company still is reviewing the law to see how federal regulatory authority will interact with state authority.

Back in Everett, Dean Smith said he isn’t waiting for politicians or lawyers to duke this one out.

Instead, he’ll wait for trains, he said, and he’ll continue gathering information about them.

Four hours into a recent train-watching shift, Smith perked up.

“There’s something coming,” he said. He opened the door of his Chevy Volt and stepped into the rain. An orange BNSF engine emerged from the tunnel. Behind it were oil cars – about 100 of them, black as night.

The streetlight reflected off Smith’s glasses and shadows gathered in the furrow of his brow as he stood by the tracks, shoulders hunched.

“Sometimes I wonder, why fight it? Why not just move? That’d be the easiest thing to do,” he said. “But I think we have to fight. And I would like to see citizens groups acting like this all over the country. That’s the form of checks and balances we can create. All it takes is a few people.”

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    Failure to Report: A pattern of secrecy by major oil train hauler puts public at risk

    Repost from Sightline

    Failure to Report

    A pattern of secrecy by major oil train hauler puts public at risk.

    By Eric de Place (@Eric_deP) and Deric Gruen on April 10, 2015 at 11:19 am

    The first commuters were just beginning to trickle over the Magnolia Bridge near downtown Seattle as the short summer night was warming to gray. Probably none of them realized just how narrowly they escaped disaster that morning.

    Below them, a BNSF locomotive pulling 97 tank cars—each laden with at least 27,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota—came to a halt under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. Three cars had derailed. It was July 24th of 2014.

    The time was 1:50 AM.

    What happened next—or more precisely, what didn’t happen—has come to define what appears to be a pattern of secrecy and poor communication by BNSF, troubling habits that put lives in the Northwest at risk. For example, three years earlier when a BNSF hazardous substance train derailed on a Puget Sound beach near Tacoma, the railroad was unresponsive to emergency officials for nearly four hours. Even then, communication lines were so poor that the railroad’s subsequent actions put the first responding firefighters directly into harm’s way for no purpose.

    Early Morning: BNSF Downplays the Risk

    Within five minutes of the Magnolia Bridge derailment, the BNSF response team was on site, according to the company spokesman. (The derailment happened less than a hundred yards from the railway’s Interbay Railyard.) The team determined, apparently without consulting public authorities, that there was no safety risk and that they did not need assistance.

    By 3:11 AM, BNSF dispatch had notified the Washington State Department of Ecology, informing state officials there were no hazardous materials involved, even though crude oil is unambiguously considered a hazardous material. BNSF also said there was no risk to life and safety, and there was no potential for either. This despite the risk of oil spill from the notoriously leak-prone tank cars on the train, and despite the fact that Bakken crude has a noted tendency to explode catastrophically.

    Oil train derailment in Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, July 24, 2014 (2), by Hayley Farless, WEC intern

    Seattle Awakens, Does Not Like What it Sees

    By 5:44 AM, the Seattle Times had posted a story up about the incident, though some reports suggest neither local authorities nor the Department of Ecology were aware that an oil train had derailed. Sometime during the six o’clock hour, the City of Seattle’s Director of Emergency Management became aware of the incident, apparently after hearing a news broadcast, rather than receiving an emergency management notification. By 6:54 AM the Seattle Fire Department learned of the incident via a 911 call placed from a nearby business, but emergency responders had still heard nothing directly from BNSF.

    The Fire Department, clearly concerned, deployed 19 firefighters, including a hazardous materials team.

    At 7:30 am, more than five hours after the incident, the Department of Ecology finally learned that the derailed cars reported hours earlier did, in fact, contain hazardous material—a particularly volatile form of crude oil—-one that could, in fact, pose a risk.

    The source of the notification? Not BNSF.

    It was officials at the Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, the train’s destination, who alerted the state. Like the fire department, Ecology deployed staff to oversee precautionary measures, including clean-up preparation and a containment boom near stormwater drains that lead to Puget Sound.

    Hours after the original incident, a coal train passed by the askew oil cars, a moment illustrative of the perilous concentration of fossil fuels running through Seattle.

    seattlederailment

    A Pattern of Failing to Report

    The mishap and subsequent failure to report in Seattle was not an isolated incident. In March 2015, staff at the Utilities and Transportation Commission recommended that BNSF be cited for 700 violations spanning 14 incidents from November 2014 to February 2015. The failures related specifically to Washington’s requirement to report spills within 30 minutes, which BNSF failed 14 out of 16 times during this period.

    How late was BNSF in reporting? Here are few examples provided by the Department of Ecology:

    • November 5, 2014: A rail tank car of Bakken crude oil arrived at the BP oil refinery in Ferndale with staining down the body of the car to the wheels and with several trailing cars also stained. Measurements suggest the car lost 1,611 gallons of oil somewhere along the route. Ecology was not notified for month and a half, on January 21, 2015.
    • January 12, 2015: Bakken oil rail cars were observed in Vancouver, Washington with oil staining. Approximately seven cars had leaked an estimated 5 gallons each. Ecology was notified of the incident by BNSF two weeks later, on January 23. BNSF claimed the oil evaporated during transit and thus no oil reached the ground or water during transit.
    • January 13, 2015: Bakken crude rail cars in Auburn, Washington were seen with oil staining, after six cars leaked an estimated 1 gallon each. Ten days later on January 23, 2015, BNSF notified Ecology of the incident by BNSF, making the same claim that that oil evaporated during transit and there was no indication that oil had reached the ground or water during transit.

    Because Ecology was unable to verify spilled oil on land or water in these incidents, they are unable to penalize the railway for spills.

    Reason for Concern

    Given the pattern of obfuscation and secrecy in BNSF’s reporting habits, there is plenty of reason to question the wisdom of letting the railroad haul crude oil. If the Magnolia derailment had led to a spill or fire as it easily might have, the railway’s delay would have cost valuable time and put many lives at risk.

    In March 2015, the Washington Fire Chiefs demanded a plan from the railroad, along with much more information about oil train movements in the state. Given the propensity of these trains to spill and to occasionally erupt into infernos, allowing BNSF’s bad habits to persist may mean that we won’t find out about the next incident until it’s too late.

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      Seattle: More than 750 turn out for meeting on oil-train study

      Repost from The Seattle Times

      More than 750 people turn out for meeting on oil-train study

      Hundreds of people concerned about the increasing number of oil trains traversing the state came to a Thursday evening meeting in Olympia to comment on the preliminary findings of a state study on oil-train safety and spill response.
      By Hal Bernton, October 30, 2014

      State officials are proposing more funding and more regulatory authority to step up oversight of the surging numbers of oil trains carrying crude through Washington, and to better prepare for any possible spills.

      The proposals are included in the preliminary findings of a state Department of Ecology study, which was reviewed at a Thursday evening meeting that drew more than 750 people, the vast majority of whom are opposed to increased oil train traffic in the state.

      The report — in an interim form — is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in December. The draft findings already are spurring state agencies to prepare legislation, according to Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

      The report includes a dozen measures that could be taken up by the Legislature to try to improve safety and spill response. They include modifying the railroad regulatory-fee structure so that more rail inspectors are hired, providing new state authority to monitor the safety of rail crossings on private roads and launching a new state grant program to finance firefighting equipment.

      The report is being prepared by a team of consultants along with the state Ecology Department, Utilities and Transportation Commission and other state agencies. It examines the public health, safety and environmental risks posed by the movement of crude oil by rail as well as by vessel through Washington waters.

      The oil trains moving through Washington reflect a fundamental shift in sourcing of Pacific Northwest oil as Alaska North Slope crude production declines and the Bakken fields of North Dakota boom.

      In 2011, almost no oil trains traversed Washington.

      Now, state officials say, some 19 trains carry crude across the state each week. Over a year’s time, those trains move some 2.87 billion gallons of oil. After they unload their crude, some of the Bakken oil is transported by tug and barge to Puget Sound-area refineries

      In the aftermath of a July 6, 2013, oil-train derailment and explosion in Canada that killed 47 people, crude trains have raised public concern and prompted state officials in Washington and elsewhere to increase scrutiny of such trains.

      There were eight other “notable crude oil derailments” in North America in 2013 and 2014, and the report says that Bakken crude “may present significant risks with respect to public safety due to its higher volatility and flammability.”

      By 2020, in Washington, the crude-oil traffic through the state could more than triple to 59 trains a week if expansion plans for terminals are actually completed,

      “We felt it was important to lay out what is in the realm of the possible, “ said Scott Ferguson, a Department of Ecology official who has assisted with the report.

      The increasing numbers of oil trains have caused plenty of unease to roil through the state. Some 200 people signed up to speak Thursday evening, and Department of Ecology officials listened to hours of passionate testimony from people upset about tanker cars filled with crude.

      Those who testified spoke about the potential for spills that could foul tribal fisheries in the Columbia River, drinking water aquifers for Olympia and sensitive coastal waters near Bellingham.

      They talked about the potential for exploding tanker cars that would kill people living in a “blast zone” along the rail lines.

      Many were veterans of the movement to try to block development of coal terminals in Washington state, wearing red shirts that declared “Power Past Coal.” They frequently waved signs that declared oil and coal are bad for Washington.

      “Our state is at a crossroads with proposed increases in crude oil and coal transportation, testified Kathryn Chudy, a therapist who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “Adding more crude oil and coal trains to this risk jeopardizes their safety, and can in no way be justified.”

      Frank Gordon, a Grays Harbor County Commissioner, fears what an oil spill would do to the salmon runs in his area and said he opposes a proposal to develop a new oil terminal at Hoquiam.

      “We don’t need oil trains coming to Grays Harbor. It’s just not worthwhile,” Gordon said.

      Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, in an interview before the hearing, said that BNSF has a strong safety record in transporting crude oil by rail.

      He said that BNSF has assisted with firefighter training and taken other steps to improve safety. To help reduce the risks of a derailments, for example, the crude oil trains move at speeds of less than 20 miles an hour through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

      “We have invested nearly $500 million in the past three years in track upgrades in Washington,” Melonas said

      BNSF also is focusing on crew compliance with railway rules, as well as inspections to improve safety as trains move along the rails.

      “As a common carrier we are obligated to move all types of freight,” Melonas said. “We don’t control what we haul, but we control how we haul it.”

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