Rail industry phasing out tank cars involved in Casselton derailment ahead of deadline
By John Hageman, Oct 24, 2017 12:27 p.m.
BISMARCK — Amid declining shipments, the rail industry is phasing out “less-safe” tank cars carrying crude oil ahead of rapidly approaching deadlines to do so.
The federally mandated deadlines to remove the DOT-111 tank cars from oil service came after several high-profile derailments involving Bakken crude. That included the deadly Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster in 2013 and the explosion near Casselton, N.D., later that year.
As of Jan. 1, DOT-111 cars without a protective steel layer known as a jacket can no longer carry crude oil. Those cars with the jacket must be phased out two months later.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report sent to Congress last month shows the number of those cars carrying crude oil has dropped dramatically over the past few years. In 2013, 14,337 of them carried crude oil, which sank to 366 last year.
That shift has been aided by a steep decline in Williston Basin rail exports over the past few years. A rush of activity in western North Dakota forced oil onto the tracks, but pipelines are now the dominant form of oil transportation, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
“The first phase, in terms of removing the DOT-111s … that’s moving along very nicely,” said John Byrne, vice chairman of the Railway Supply Institute’s Committee on Tank Cars. “Because there’s a surplus of cars available to take them out of service and replace them with compliant cars.”
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the Dakota Access Pipeline helped push oil off the tracks when it went online earlier this year. But rail shipments across the country have been declining since 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The latest BNSF Railway Co. report provided by the state Department of Emergency Services, dated September, shows as many as three oil trains moved through Cass County in one week, down from a high of 56 first reached in 2014.
Pointing to increased training for first responders, DES Hazardous Chemical Officer Jeff Thompson said they’re “more comfortable with the situation than we were before.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve let their guard down.
“There’s always the fear that (it) happens in the middle of a town. And that goes with all train derailments, not just crude oil,” he said.
About 476,000 gallons of oil spilled near Casselton in late December 2013 after an oil train slammed into a derailed grain car, sparking a fireball over the snowy landscape. Residents evacuated, but there were no deaths or serious injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Oil spilled from 18 of the derailed DOT-111 cars in that incident, according to the NTSB, which “long had concerns” about the “less-safe” tank cars because they’re not puncture resistant, have relatively thin shells and lack thermal protection.
In announcing the agency’s findings on the Casselton derailment in February, the NTSB’s then-Chairman Christopher Hart said “progress toward removing or retrofitting DOT-111s has been too slow.” Thousands of those cars are still being used to carry ethanol and other flammable liquids, which have later phase-out dates, according to the transportation department’s report.
By 2029, flammable liquids can only be carried in DOT-117s, which have thicker shells and insulating material, Byrne said. The new and retrofitted versions of those cars now represent 9 percent of the fleet carrying Class 3 flammable liquids, which includes crude oil and ethanol, according the transportation department report.
“There’s been a huge improvement in the overall safety of the cars moving crude today versus what we were looking at in 2013, 2014,” Byrne said.
Specifically, Beutler asked DOT to consider whether interspersing oil tank cars with non-volatile commodities might make them less likely to catch fire in the event of a derailment.
Beutler’s letter was largely prompted by a growing number of destructive derailments involving crude oil trains in recent years, the largest of which claimed the lives of 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.
Back in June, a Union Pacific Corp. train carrying crude oil derailed near Mosier, Ore., about 68 miles east of Portland, causing some of the tank cars to burst into flames and spill oil into an adjacent section of the Columbia River. That train was en route from Eastport, Idaho to Tacoma, Wash. carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation, which is more flammable and dangerous than other types of crude oil.
“Although far less catastrophic than it could have been, the [Mosier] derailment highlighted the need for strong safety measures to address shipments of volatile and hazardous commodities through the Columbia River Gorge – whether related, or unrelated to oil shipments,” Beutler wrote in the letter. “Subsequently, I am writing to request information on dispersing tank cars carrying oil, or other hazardous materials, with non-volatile products throughout trains.”
She asked DOT to consider whether continuous blocks of oil tank cars increases the risks of combustion, potential benefits of requiring disbursement of cars carrying flammable materials throughout a train, and possible effects on combustibility of use of newer DOT-117 tank cars.
In addition, Beutler asked if federal regulators have studied speed limits reduction for oil trains as a way to mitigate the risk of combustion.
Washington state lawmakers last month adopted new regulations surrounding the transportation of crude oil by rail and pipeline that officially take effect Oct. 1. Developed by the Washington Department of Ecology at the request of the legislature, Chapter 173-185 WAC, Oil Movement by Rail and Pipeline Notification, established reporting standards for facilities receiving crude oil transported by rail and pipeline, and for the department to share information with emergency responders, local governments, tribes and the public.
The rule changes, first introduced by DOT in May 2015 as required by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, include an enhanced tank car standard and an “aggressive, risk-based” retrofitting schedule for older tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol.
In addition, the rules require trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids to use a new braking standard; employ new operational protocols such as routing requirements and speed restrictions; share information with local government agencies; and provide new sampling and testing requirements DOT said will “improve classification of energy products placed into transport.”
Originally sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the legislation establishes a public-private council of emergency responders, federal agencies and industry stakeholders tasked with reviewing current training methods and prescribing best practices for first responders to Congress. The council will be co-chaired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and PHMSA. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., has introduced a companion bill to the RESPONSE Act in the House of Representatives.
“Currently, oil trains are traveling along the Columbia River Gorge, and my focus is on ensuring federal regulations are making these shipments as safely as possible,” Beutler said in a statement. “Long lines of oil cars are becoming a more familiar sight in our region, and if breaking them up into smaller blocks will better protect our citizens, the Columbia River and nearby forests, we should put a federal standard in place – quickly.”
Council hears about crude by rail, water infrastructure and EMS costs Tuesday
By Elizabeth Warnimont, July 7, 2016
At its regular meeting Tuesday, Benicia City Council had a busy meeting with lots of activity. First, the Council recognized the Parks and Community Services Department with a proclamation declaring July, 2016 as “Parks Make Life Better Month,” in conjunction with the statewide designation. Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Commission member Rich Payne accepted the proclamation from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and the City Council.
The Council also confirmed Johanna Ely as Benicia’s sixth poet laureate. Ely spoke briefly about the activities and aims of the laureate program and read a selection of poetry including one titled, “Ode to the Library.”
The final item preceding the council’s consent calendar was a presentation by Assistant Public Works Director Christian Di Renzo on advanced metering infrastructure. Di Renzo provided an overview of the systems currently being considered by the city, outlined the benefits of acquiring a new, electronic metering system, and answered questions posed by the council and a member of the public.
• Public comment
During the public comment period, Marilyn Bardet showed the council photos of both the aftermath of the recent Mosier, Ore. train derailment and explosion as well as some of the Union Pacific track and refuse currently visible in Benicia that she felt were of concern. One photo showed piles of black powder that Bardet referred to as coke dust that has spilled from hopper cars on railroad tracks near Bayshore Road in Benicia, and one showed warped track rail near the trestle towers, among other photos of concern. Bardet pointed out that the discarded railroad ties in one photo presented a fire hazard due to their creosote content.
Bardet suggested that these items be considered for remediation.
The involved, Dot-111 tank cars, modified to 1232 standards, were equipped with full height head shields and metal jackets with insulation. These cars are commonly referred to as jacketed 1232s. During the derailment, a coupler struck one car, mechanically puncturing it. This puncture allowed crude oil to come in contact with an ignition source, leading to a fire that burned for approximately 14 hours.
The four cars involved in the fire were the punctured car and three additional tank cars, two that had their bottom outlet valves sheared off by the derailment and one car with the gasket melted out from under the manway cover.
The Valero proposal, Young pointed out, calls for the use of non-jacketed 1232 cars. These have no full-height head shields and no jackets with insulation. Another concern is the bottom release valves, a common source of ignition in derailment incidents. These valves shear off, causing a leak and then the subsequent fire. The more advanced tank cars have the valve located on top.
Young reminded the Council that Valero is proposing to buy or lease these tank cars. If safety is truly Valero’s first priority, he suggested, then the added expense of choosing safer cars would certainly seem to be worth any added expense. He asked that the Council consider these issues when it addresses the proposal again in September. He added that an even safer car, the Dot-117, will be required by federal law by the year 2020, and suggested that again, in the interest of safety, Valero might consider opting for that model.
SONET The Council approved a resolution to accept a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Solano County Sheriff’s Office regarding the Benicia Police Department hiring of a full time Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Enforcement Team (SONET) officer, who would report to the SONET sergeant. The officer’s salary would be provided by the sheriff’s office. A resolution approving the MOU was approved by unanimous vote.
First responder fee overview Benicia Fire Chief Jim Lydon presented the Council with a report on the option for the fire department to begin assessing fees for services provided by its Emergency Medical Services (EMS) team. The department would collect insurance coverage information from patients at the point of service and hand them a notice stating that they would be contacting their insurance companies on their behalf.
Chief Lydon emphasized that the department would utilize compassionate billing, which means that the insurance portion of any incurred costs would be considered payment in full, and that fees would only be assessed for services and not for transportation, which is currently provided by an outside ambulance company. He also noted that no patients would be billed directly from the fire department, regardless of their insurance coverage status.
Councilmember Tom Campbell expressed concern over the legality of the compassionate billing procedure and Chief Lydon agreed to investigate that topic further, though he noted that Bay Area cities already following that procedure have not yet encountered problems, to his knowledge.
The presentation was intended to be strictly informational. The fire department desired direction from council as to whether or not to pursue the idea, and council indicated that they should proceed.
PG&E exit fees Councilmember Alan Schwartzman provided the Council with some information pertaining to a proposal to submit a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regarding the Power Charge Indifference Adjustment (PCIA) fee, essentially an exit fee, charged by Pacific Gas & Electric to customers who have switched to Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) providers such as Marin Clean Energy (MCE).
Schwartzman, an MCE board member as it happens, began by reading from the staff report accompanying the City Council agenda, a complete copy of which is available by visiting the city of Benicia web site under Agendas and Minutes, or by calling the city at 746-4200. Schwartzman’s reading is paraphrased here:
MCE has requested that the city of Benicia submit a letter to the CPUC regarding the PCIA charge increase. The CPUC has consistently denied adequate public input to discuss the fee. Earlier this year, PG&E increased this fee by 95 percent. The proposed letter asks the CPUC to provide a venue for public input. The charge is assessed by PG&E on a per-kilowatt basis to cover power generation costs acquired prior to a customer’s change in service provider.
Schwartzman explained that PG&E procures energy based on anticipated need, so that when customers switch away from PG&E, the company is left with the cost burden of the energy it has already acquired, without corresponding reimbursement from customers.
The CPUC approved the increases at a public meeting, but without allowing CCAs access to the data they would need in order to effectively predict the amount of the fee, information which they would like to be able to pass along to their customers. All CCAs are currently working with the CPUC and Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs), in order to inform customers how the PCIA fees are calculated and to remain cost competitive.
MCE is asking the city of Benicia to request that the CPUC allow a workshop for public input in order to fairly deal with the PCIA fee.
A motion to approve the submittal of the letter was approved by unanimous vote.
More information A complete copy of the meeting agenda is available at the city of Benicia website at ci.benicia.ca.us or by calling the city at 746-4200. Minutes of the meeting are typically available about two weeks after the date of the meeting. The next City Council meeting will take place Tuesday, July 19 at Council Chambers, City Hall, 250 East L St., beginning at 7 p.m.
The two are changing over U.S. railroads’ DOT-111 tanker cars that carry crude oil and ethanol so they meet the more stringent DOT-117 standard and implementing positive train control.
But DOT has decided to give railroads until 2025 to convert to the DOT-117 standard (which includes tank head shields, thicker shell material for increased puncture resistance, tank jackets and thermal protection systems with reclosing high-capacity pressure relief devices, and stronger protection for bottom outlet valves and top fittings) for those cars and until 2029 for tank carrying other flammable liquids, Sumwalt wrote.
As for positive train control, it was required to be implemented by 2015, but late last year the deadline was extended to 2018. “Some railroads have already advised the FRA they will need an extension to the extension, pushing implementation to late 2020,” Sumwalt wrote. “It takes effort and money to make changes to enhance safety, and the NTSB applauds the efforts thus far to implement PTC. But it’s time to finish the job.”
He began the post by commenting on the Feb. 15, 2015, derailment of 27 tank cars from a 109-car crude oil unit train near Mount Carbon, W.Va. “Crude oil was released from the derailed cars and immediately ignited into a pool of fire. Emergency responders evacuated 1,100 people within a half-mile radius of the accident and allowed the fire to burn itself out,” he wrote. “All of the cars involved in the Mount Carbon accident were the enhanced DOT-111 tank cars built to the industry’s CPC-1232 standard, the best available general service tank car at the time of the accident. Yet, the fire created by two punctured tank cars resulted in 13 adjacent tank cars becoming breached when heat exposure weakened their shells, which were not equipped with thermal protection systems.”
Sumwalt listed several other derailments in the United States that involved the release of flammable materials and post-accident fires, and he cited the terrible example of the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude oil in Lac–Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47 people.
NTSB would have preferred a more aggressive DOT-117 implementation schedule and awaits concerted efforts by the railroads to upgrade their existing DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquids service to the new DOT-117 standard or relegate them to carrying less dangerous cargo, he added.
“A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment,” he wrote.