FRA Launches Website for States and Municipalities to Request Bridge Inspection Reports
Agency also requests resources to double bridge safety staff, create national database of bridges
Friday, February 26, 2016
WASHINGTON – The Federal Railroad Administration today launched a new tool on its website that allows states and municipalities to request inspection reports for rail bridges in their communities. The tool is being launched following the passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and is one of the first provisions FRA has implemented. FRA also announced today that it has requested additional resources as part of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to double its bridge specialist staff and create a national bridge inventory database and website.
“Communities across the country will now have access to information on the condition of railroad bridges in their area,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These inspection reports will provide greater transparency between railroads and local leaders, which is an important cornerstone in our comprehensive safety efforts.”
A state or a political subdivision of a state, such as a city, county, town or municipality, can now use FRA’s website to request information from inspection reports for local bridges via https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0922. Once FRA receives the request, the railroad that owns the bridge will have 30 days to respond to the request. FRA plans to provide a copy of the report to the requester within 45 days of the original request.
According to the FAST Act, the following information about the bridge will be included in the report: the date of the last inspection; length of bridge; location of bridge; type of bridge (superstructure); type of structure (substructure); features crossed by the bridge; railroad contact information; and a general statement on the condition of the bridge.
“The Federal Railroad Administration has repeatedly urged railroads to be more responsive and more transparent with state and local leaders concerned about the condition of their local railroad bridges. State and local officials will now be able to get more information from railroads on the infrastructure in their communities,” FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg said. “Providing inspection reports to local leaders is a great first step, but more can—and must—be done. We hope Congress will provide the resources to double our bridge safety staff and create a national database.”
The FAST Act addressed the issue after months of Administrator Feinberg repeatedly urging railroads to be more transparent and respond to communities when they have questions and concerns about the condition of rail bridges.
Last September, the Administrator sent a letter to all railroads saying, “When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response. I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.” While addressing, the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee in November 2015, Administrator Feinberg again told railroads that, “When FRA is asked about bridge safety, it’s frequently because, again, the public or a member of Congress become concerned and has tried to get answers from a railroad, and they have been ignored or put off.”
Train carrying hazardous materials derails in Martinez
By Nick Sestanovich, January 24, 2016
A train carrying sulfuric acid derailed in Martinez Wednesday morning near the Benicia Bridge. No leaks have been reported, although the incident has caused some concerns in Benicia as the Planning Commission plans to hold a hearing on Valero’s proposed crude-by-rail project in two weeks.
A Union Pacific Railroad train was carrying the hazardous materials to sulfuric acid regeneration provider Eco Services in Martinez at 8 a.m. when three tanker cars were derailed along Mococo Road. It is unknown what caused the derailment.
The acid contained contaminated hydrocarbon, but no leaks were reported and no vapors were released.
As with other train derailments and explosions, this has caused concerns in the refinery-heavy regions of the Bay Area, especially in Benicia where the Planning Commission is going to hold a meeting on Feb. 8 to consider a use permit for the crude-by-rail project.
Valero announced the project, which would extend three Union Pacific Tracks onto its property to deliver up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil a day, in 2013 and was quickly met with backlash over its potential environmental effects. Adding fire to these concerns was an oil train explosion in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed more than 30 buildings in July of that year. Since then, oil train explosions in Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg Va., are just a few of the similar incidents that have gotten widespread publicity.
The sentiments of Benicia have been echoed in other communities. In Pittsburg, the energy company WesPac Midstream LLC had proposed a project to convert a Pacific Gas & Electric tank farm into an oil storage facility which would have delivers from five 104-car oil trains a week. The project was struck down in December.
When reached for comment, Valero Public Affairs Manager Sue Fisher Jones said the Martinez derailment had no bearing on the city.
“The incident in Martinez is not related to, nor does it have any impact on, our operations in Benicia,” she said.
However, other residents like Roger Straw, who runs the anti-crude by rail blog The Benicia Independent, disagree.
“The derailment in Martinez involved tank cars full of poisonous sulfuric acid, rolling downhill unattended, just like the runaway train in Quebec that killed 47 people and leveled a downtown,” Straw said. “What does that have to do with crude by rail? Everything. Rail cars have carried hazardous materials for years, and the risk to our communities is already great. If we add to that risk two more 50-car trains every day full of toxic and volatile Bakken crude oil and/or impossibly heavy diluted tar-sands crude, two trains coming in and two more going out every day, we greatly increase the potential for a major loss in our own community and in those communities and wild spaces uprail from here.”
“This accident at Benicia’s front door is a wake up call,” he added.
The Planning Commission meeting will be held 6:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 8, at the City Hall Council Chambers, located at 250 East L St.
Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review [Editor: Oh…this sounds SO familiar…. Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state. – RS]
Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk
By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.
Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.
But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.
The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.
That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.
Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”
To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”
And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.
Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.
The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.
A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.
The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.
The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.
Report used data on hazardous materials spills
Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.
But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.
Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.
Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.
Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.
“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.
Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”
According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.
Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.
“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”
Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’
The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.
In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.
“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.
Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.
Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.
“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”
Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.
“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”
Governor has the final say
Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.
Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.
Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.
In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.
“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.
Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill
By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
The mammoth five-year federal transportation bill that lawmakers hope to send to President Barack Obama early next week includes provisions, championed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), that would require railroads to share critical safety information with local communities.
“This legislation provides the transparency we’ve been begging and asking Canadian Pacific railroad for,” Milwaukee Common Council President Michael Murphy said during a news conference Wednesday outside a fire station at 100 W. Virginia St.
“It isn’t too much to ask a company that is using our public right of way to let us know if their bridges are safe and secure,” he said.
As if to illustrate Murphy’s point, a Canadian Pacific train pulling oil tankers rumbled across the bridge over S. 1st St. a few blocks to the north.
Milwaukee is in a rail corridor that ferries crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in metropolitan Chicago and beyond.
Since spring, Murphy and other city officials have been sparring with Canadian Pacific over its refusal to share with city engineers the results of its inspection of a rusty-looking bridge crossing W. Oregon St. at S. 1st St.
Canadian Pacific officials have insisted the bridge is safe, but they announced in August that the railroad plans to encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns in concrete to protect them from further corrosion.
“Five to six months ago, the Milwaukee Common Council asked for information on bridges,” Ald. Terry Witkowski said. “We were greeted with silence.”
“With the stroke of a pen, the ball game has changed,” he said.
Concern over trains hauling potentially explosive fuel tankers through the heart of Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward increased last month when two petroleum-filled trains derailed in Wisconsin in a single week.
“Wisconsin first-responders should be applauded for their reaction to these derailments,” Baldwin said. “But railroad companies need to do more.”
According to Baldwin’s office, the bipartisan transportation bill contains several provisions pushed by the senator:
Transparency: A provision would require railroads to provide local officials with a public version of the most recent bridge inspection report
Real-time reporting: Currently, information about hazardous materials being carried through communities is available to first-responders only after an incident has occurred. A provision would require that information to be shared before a train carrying hazardous materials arrives in their jurisdiction.
“The thing we need is information,” Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing said. “So the more transparent our haulers become, the more prepared we can be.”
“Having the city have this information gives the Department of Public Works, our city engineer, access to information so that we can make an evaluation, so we can work with railroads to make sure we have safe rail crossings,” Mayor Tom Barrett said.
The roughly $300 billion transportation bill would also require the Department of Transportation to initiate a study on the appropriate level of insurance railroads hauling hazardous insurance should have, and it would ask the DOT to require that railroads improve their plans for responding to catastrophic oil discharges.