Category Archives: Bomb Trains

Communities Fight to Prevent ‘Bomb Trains’ from Passing by the L.A. River

Repost from KCET, Los Angeles CA

Communities Fight to Prevent ‘Bomb Trains’ from Passing by the L.A. River

By Carren Jao, July 9, 2015
unionpacificlariver.jpg
A train on the Union Pacific tracks a long the L.A. River | Photo: ATOMIC Hot Links/Flickr/Creative Commons

Church bells rang 47 times last Monday in Lac-Mégantic as locals came together to remember each of the victims of a horrific rail disaster in the Quebec town two years ago. Aside from the cost to human life, all but three of the buildings in downtown had to be demolished due to petroleum contamination when an unmanned 72-car train rolled downhill and derailed, spilling and igniting six million liters of carrying volatile fracked shale oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

These trains have become known as “bomb trains” due to their destructive track record. At any given time about 9 million barrels of crude oil are moving over the rail lines of North America. In less than a decade, there has also been 43 times more oil moved through U.S. railways, increasing the likelihood of tragic explosions and spills.

SoCal environmentalists are trying to prevent the same type of tragedy from happening in Los Angeles and by the Los Angeles River, an area slated for a $1-billion facelift in the coming years.

“We don’t need to put our water sources and communities at risk from bomb trains when we can invest further in public transit, more efficient cars that would run from solar power or advanced biofuels, heating and cooling using renewable energy sources,” says Jack Eidt, urban planner and environmental designer. He is also the publisher of Wilder Utopia and directs Wild Heritage Planners.

He, along with about thirty organizations such as Burbank Green Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, ForestEthics, Sierra Club, SoCal 350 Climate Action, and Tar Sands Action Southern California, are working hard to oppose the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery crude expansion, which would extend the existing rail track by 6,915-foot east on the Union Pacific rail mainline and install equipment needed to enable rail delivery of North American crude oil. It would up the volume of oil transported via rail through major cities on its way to Philips’ Santa Maria Refinery, a 1,780-acre property adjacent to State Highway 1 on the Nipomo Mesa.

They are holding a Stop Oil Trains Day of Action at Union Station this July 11, as part of the National Week of Action to Stop Oil Trains. Environmentalists, community organizers, people from the indigenous community, as well as poets and musicians, will be present to educate the public about this looming issue.

They’re hoping that the Los Angeles City Council will join in the chorus of over 30 city and county governments to stop this project expansion. “We would love to see Councilmember Huizar sponsor the measure, because his district encompasses many neighborhoods that could be affected by a rail accident,” says Eidt.  Resolutions have already been introduced and approved Mar Vista Community Council, as well as the Echo Park and Silver Lake Neighborhood Councils the City to take action.

With the extension, the company to plans to move 20,800 crude tankers to and from their Nipomo facility every year. These can be 80-car trains that stretch a mile-long.

Environmentalists worry this would jack up the risks for communities that exist along the Union Pacific Rail lines. “Maps in the EIR show these trains proposed to pass back and forth between Colton and the Central Coast, passing right through downtown, along the L.A. River and out toward Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley,” says Eidt, “In the future, we are sure that the trains would also be running south toward the Port of Los Angeles.”

Mainline Rail UPRR Routes to the Santa Maria Refinery | Image: SLO County

Mainline Rail UPRR Routes to the Santa Maria Refinery | Image: SLO County

 

The project’s required environmental review offered no reassurance either. A document released last November garnered 20,000 comments from organizations and individuals across the state opposing the project. The review showed that more than 20 significant and unavoidable adverse impacts to the environment, including rail accident risks along the main line that could result in oil spills, and fires and explosions near populated areas.

There have already been six major accidents across North America in this year alone, including one last week in Tennessee when a train carrying hazardous material derailed and caught fire. Five thousand people living within a mile and a half of the site had to be evacuated.

Atwater Village residents will remember the oil spill last year, when above-ground pipeline burst in the 5100 block of West San Fernando Road. It sent a geyser 20 to 50 feet into the air. Quick action prevented the oil from spilling into the Los Angeles River, but we might not be so fortunate the next time.

“The project is part of a wider expansion to bring tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada, into West Coast ports for processing and export,” says Eidt. “Because activists, like our coalition, have fought hard to stop projects like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline across the middle of the U.S., the oil industry has turned to shipping crude by barge and rail.”

Though the project isn’t in the city, “this is a health and safety issue for the City of Los Angeles,” says Eidt. “The P66 Santa Maria EIR stated that emergency responders would not be equipped to deal with a derailment or explosion of a 100-car train carrying toxic crude. We need to focus on optimizing our rail transportation network with high-speed rail and Metrolink/Amtrak, which will use the same right-of-way/rails respectively. Metrolink has had a difficult history of accidents that have caused a significant toll on communities. Factor in volatile crude oil into the mix and we are looking at trouble.”

Rather than invest in these projects, Eidt says we should find more sustainable methods of transportation, heating, cooling, and manufacturing. Eidt recommends looking at Mark Z. Jacobsen’s Solutions Project and Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute, both of which say we can transition to an economy that doesn’t degrade the environment, but uplifts it. For example, if cars were made out of fiber composites as opposed to 19th century steel, it would keep them moving faster and longer.

“Crude oil, natural gas, and coal need to be phased out today, and the workforce must be retrained, our consumer choices must be more informed and in most cases curtailed,” says Eidt. “We should consider eating lower on the food chain, we must pass a carbon tax to get the fossil fuel companies to pay for their pollution, and that dividend should be given back to households to meet the cost of a just transition off fossil fuels.”

Learn more about the event here.

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The Bomb Train Next Door: Part II

Repost from Nyack News & Views
[Editor:  An excellent guide for those living in or near a bomb train blast zone.  See also The Bomb Train Next Door, Part I, with helpful bullet-points summarizing five primary crude-by-rail issues.  – RS]

The Bomb Train Next Door: Part II

By Susan Hellauer, July 6, 2015

Just before last week’s Independence Day holiday weekend, more than 5,000 residents living near Maryville, TN were evacuated after a CSX tanker car derailed and caught fire on July 2. The tanker car was carrying Acrylonitrile, a highly flammable and toxic gas which can cause membrane irritation, headaches, nausea and kidney irritation if inhaled in high concentrations. Ten officers and 30 first responders were hospitalized with inhalation injuries following the incident, where authorities established a two mile evacuation zone near the derailment site.

The July 2013 explosion of a Bakken crude train at Lac-Megantic, Quebec that resulted in 47 fatalities got the immediate attention of first responders, lawmakers and local officials wherever freight lines carry crude oil “bomb trains.” Environmental watchdog groups have publicized the danger of crude by rail and have also taken legal action in an attempt to halt or change practices they deem unsafe.

Want to make your own voice heard?

If you are concerned about the hazards of crude by rail in Rockland County, let your village, town and county officials know how you feel. Write or call your representatives in Albany and Washington. Write a letter to the editor.

You can also stay in touch with groups like the Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and Forest Ethics. You can subscribe to the DOT-111 reader, a private website that tracks media reports about accidents and regulation changes involving rail tanker cars.

The people at the FRA, the NTSB and PHMSA are tasked with protecting us all from transport and materials hazards. Visit their websites, write or call them. They work for you.

Just say no?

Local officials are limited in what they can do to stop hazardous cargo like crude oil from being transported through their communities. There is a Common Carrier Obligation of railroads to transport hazardous materials. As long as those materials comply with government standards, railroads can’t pick and choose what to carry or where to carry it. Federal law stands between local governments and the rail operators in the interest of interstate commerce.

Federal agencies

In addition to issuing  and enforcing safety regulations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does research on behalf of the railroad industry. In May 2015 it issued new guidelines for the gradual replacement of the outdated DOT-111 tanker car and set mandatory speed limits for oil tanker trains. Oil companies are threatening legal action against these new rules.

Another USDOT agency, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has an interest in freight train safety. The NTSB analyzes mishaps, finds transportation hazards and recommends solutions. Rail tanker safety is high on its list of “most wanted” improvements, and it’s pushing for more immediate remedies than the FRA has specified. The USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration(PHMSA) is also actively monitoring oil train safety, with a mission to “protect people and the environment from the risks of hazardous materials transportation.” It tracks HAZMAT accidents and recommends regulatory changes.

New York State

Oil train traffic in New York State has increased dramatically in the last three years, during which time oil and freight rail companies have spent almost $1 million lobbying in Albany. Meanwhile, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered and carried out several inspections of freight rail infrastructure throughout the state and has uncovered numerous hazards. CSX has responded to reports from these inspections with assurances that all will be addressed.

Protect yourself and your family

Know where you are in relation to hazardous freight trains. Study the CSX System Map to know where oil trains run, especially in relation to your home, your kids’ schools, where you work, shop and play. You can also use the Blast Zone Interactive Map from ForestEthics. Trains have derailed, exploded and burned at low speeds and high speeds, in remote areas, and in the middle of a town. There is no discernible pattern to these accidents, according to PHMSA, so don’t assume it won’t happen near you.

ForestEthicsRocklandTrainMap

Sign up your landline or cellphone number for emergency notification through NY-Alert. If you are already signed up, check your information to make sure it is up to date.

In the event of a spill, explosion or fire, officials will use reverse 911 and NY Alerts to let you know whether to evacuate, how far to go, where to shelter, and when you can return. Disabled and senior citizens who might need help in an emergency should register with the Rockland County Access and Functional Needs Registry and with local police, so that first responders are aware.

Clarkstown residents can sign up for the town alert system, Ready Clarkstown, on the town of Clarkstown website.

Congress

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded quickly to the USDOT’s May 2015 oil train safety plan. He proposed federal legislation to shorten the upgrade schedule and to impose even stricter speed limits on oil trains. In a May 4 press release, Schumer stated that “allowing these outdated oil cars to continue rolling through our communities for another eight years is a reckless gamble we can’t afford to make.”

At a May 6 press conference in West Nyack, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY representing Rockland County) proposed legislation that would ban interstate shipment of high-volatility crude oil via rail. Citing her many constituents who live near freight lines, she said that her “proposal would immediately ban interstate shipment of the most volatile forms of crude oil so that we can prevent the next tragic crude oil event.” Shipping of Bakken crude that has been processed to reduce its volatility before shipment would still be permitted.

In April, the Rockland County Legislature passed a resolution urging the USDOT to immediately enact rules to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil traveling by rail through Rockland County in support of the 2015 “Crude by Rail Safety Act” (H.R. 1804/S. 859).

First Responders

In December 2013, a car carrier and a 99-car oil tanker train collided at the Pineview crossing in West Nyack only 100 feet from the Lake DeForest water main that serves lower Rockland and Bergen County. The incident got the attention of Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco near whose home the accident occurred. Because the tankers were empty damage was limited, but it served as a wakeup call for the Sheriff’s Department and Rockland Fire and EMS to get real-time hazardous cargo information from CSX to Rockland’s first responders.

CSX and other freight haulers of hazardous materials cite commercial interests and terror concerns for their reluctance to disclose the exact location and contents of trains. Falco says CSX now has a phone app for first responders that provides near-real-time information in the event of disaster.  The issue of transparency and oil trains, however, is far from solved: rail freight companies in several states are being pressed to provide more real-time information, and they are fighting back with lawsuits.

The Rockland County Sheriff’s Department is now also monitoring oil train speed with radar guns. Falco says trains have been staying under the 50 mph limit, but immediate improvements to Rockland’s grade crossings are still needed.

Along with the Sheriff’s Department and the Town Police Departments on the River Line, evacuation and response plans are being developed by the Rockland County Department of Fire and Emergency Services. They run training sessions and drills to keep volunteer first responders prepared in the case of an incident, and also work with CSX on training, communication and response. CSX also positions supplies of fire-suppression foam along the River Line for use in a HAZMAT incident.

CSX will participate in a full scale derailment drill for Police, Fire and EMS in Orangetown that is planned for July 23.

If it happens…

If you are within a half mile of the incident, get yourself and your family away quickly. If in doubt, don’t wait for a call: just go.

The USDOT recommends one-half mile as a safe zone, but you may receive an alert advising otherwise.

Leaving the area quickly also allows emergency responders the time and space to stage and work.

“Time and distance are your friends,” says  Rockland Fire and Emergency Deputy Director Dan Greeley.

Environmental groups

The Hudson Valley Sierra Club, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson (among others) have been active and vocal in publicizing the oil train hazard in the Hudson Valley, as well as the dangers of light and heavy crude transport on the Hudson River. These groups are also monitoring a proposed crude oil pipeline (the Pilgrim Pipeline) along the New York State Thruway right of way.

A consortium of environmental groups is sponsoring a Stop Oil Trains Week of Action beginning July 6 (the anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster). Demonstrations and other events are planned in areas where oil is shipped by rail, to raise awareness and put pressure on government officials and agencies.

Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.

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