Category Archives: Bomb Trains

California Attorney General Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Communities to “Bomb Trains”

Press Release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
[Editor:  See also KQED California Report, “AG Becerra Wants Trump Administration to Make Crude-Carrying ‘Bomb Trains’ Safer”  Also, see the NRDC blog on this story.   And … sadly … see a similar story from December, 2015.  – RS]

Attorney General Becerra Calls on Trump to Close Loophole that Exposes Vulnerable California Communities to “Bomb Trains”

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Contact: (415) 703-5837, agpressoffice@doj.ca.gov
  • Without Action, California Could Be Exposed To Freight Trains Carrying Highly Flammable, Highly Explosive Crude Oil
  • San Bernardino-Riverside And San Luis Obispo Among Regions Bearing Greatest Potential Risks

SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole to prevent highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil from being shipped by freight rail via so-called “bomb trains” through communities in California, including the highly populated San Bernardino-Riverside and San Luis Obispo regions. High hazard areas for derailments would exist along every freight rail route in California. Many of these areas are also adjacent to California’s most sensitive ecological areas.

“Millions of Californians live, work, and attend school within the vicinity of railroad train tracks,” said Attorney General Becerra. “A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways. This risk is simply unacceptable. I urge the Trump Administration to act immediately.”

So-called “bomb trains” are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

In comments submitted to federal regulators, Attorney General Becerra called for immediate action that would require all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability. Attorney General Becerra joined attorneys general from Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York and Washington in calling for this requirement.

The comments were filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Earlier this month, as part of his efforts to protect vulnerable California communities, Attorney General Becerra filed a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to protect state residents from dangerous pollution that results from coal mining. Coal mined on public lands is transported by train through California and exported from ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Richmond and Stockton — areas next to several vulnerable communities. The transport of coal in open-top rail cars, as well as its storage and handling at export terminals, emits dangerous pollution. These emissions can result in a wide variety of serious health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, cardio-vascular diseases and cancer.

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LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

::

These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.

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Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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To Stop ‘Bomb Trains,’ I Honeymooned in Jail

Repost from OtherWords (in the Benicia Herald on 7/7/16)

To Stop ‘Bomb Trains,’ I Honeymooned in Jail

With one tiny loose bolt, oil trains can erupt into an inferno, scorching everything for miles.
By Daphne Wysham, July 6, 2016
Daphne Wysham
Daphne Wysham, Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, and director of the Center for Sustainable Economy’s climate and energy program in Portland, Oregon

It was a few days after my wedding. I was supposed to be honeymooning at a nearby winery with my newly minted husband, celebrating our unlikely marriage at age 55.

Instead, I was sitting on the railroad tracks in the pouring rain. Along with 20 other brave souls, some weeping, some singing, I was facing down a locomotive in a town — Vancouver, Washington — that many fear will be forced to accept the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country.

Why would anyone do something like that?

Because a few short days before, we’d watched in horror as a mile-long train filled with Bakken crude derailed in Mosier, Oregon and burst into towering flames.

We call these oil trains “bomb trains” because we know, with one tiny loose bolt, they can erupt into an inferno, scorching everything for miles. It happened in Lac-Megantic, Canada in 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in a matter of minutes, the town leveled when a train’s brakes failed.

mosier-train-oil-protest
Mosier oil train protest (Photo: Deva 2016)

In the aftermath of the Mosier derailment, local fire chief Jim Appleton, who was originally unwilling to condemn oil trains, was beginning to sound more and more like one of us: “I think it’s insane” to ship oil by rail, he told a reporter. “Shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

And yet shareholder value is outweighing the lives and happiness of communities all over the world. I live in the “blast zone” less than a mile from tracks that ply this dangerous cargo here in the Pacific Northwest. And millions of people, most of them on the other side of the world, are already feeling the heat.

More bomb trains, after all, mean more climate change. Rising temperatures mean dangerous weather patterns, like the floods that recently killed hundreds in Pakistan and China.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, whose scientists knew as early as the 1960s that catastrophic climate change would ensue if they didn’t change course, has invested in climate denial in order to maximize their shareholder value, counting on us to not connect the dots.

I grew up in India. I can see the faces of friends and loved ones on Facebook enduring record heat and flooding there. So if the trains wouldn’t stop coming, I figured, I’d put my body on the line in Vancouver. If I went to jail, I hoped my husband would forgive me for skipping out on our first big date as newlyweds.

The riot police were beginning to gather, and the railroad’s private police were issuing their warnings while hundreds chanted nearby. Not wanting to lose valuables in jail, I gave my wallet, cell phone, and wedding ring to a friend.

Then they hauled us off, one by one, in plastic handcuffs like tiny angel’s wings behind each protestor’s back. They put the 13 women — as young as 21 and as old as 85 — in one cell and the eight men in the other.

Seven hours later, as we were released from our windowless cage into the beautiful summer evening, I felt an unspeakable gratitude to my cellmates and those who awaited us outside.

Should we go to trial, many of us will be arguing we did this out of necessity, in order to prevent a far greater looming evil — of being incinerated in our sleep, of doing nothing to stop this deadly fossil fuel cargo while hundreds of thousands of people die each year from floods, disease, malnutrition, and heat stress due to climate change.

Call me crazy, but we might just win this one. And in so doing, we’ll send a very strong message to the oil companies that threaten us all that they must end this madness.

 
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