Category Archives: Emergency planning

Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Train safety provisions included in U.S. transportation bill

By Crocker Stephenson, Dec. 2, 2015
 Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials.
Bakken oil trains rumble through downtown Milwaukee at 133 W. Oregon St., Milwaukee. A federal bill includes provisions requiring railroads to share safety information regarding trains and bridges with local officials. Image credit: Journal Sentinel files

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.

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    House bill could shield oil train spill response plans from disclosure

    Repost from McClatchyDC

    House bill could shield oil train spill response plans from disclosure

    By Curtis Tate, October 16, 2015
    Oil burns at the site of a March 5, 2015, train derailment near Galena, Ill. A bill in Congress would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans, but would also give the Secretary of Transportation the ability to exempt the details from disclosure. Oil burns at the site of a March 5, 2015, train derailment near Galena, Ill. A bill in Congress would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans, but would also give the Secretary of Transportation the ability to exempt the details from disclosure. EPA

    HIGHLIGHTS

    • Six-year transportation bill includes section on oil trains
    • Obama administration supports public notifications of oil spills, etc.
    • Future transportation secretary could be empowered to protect data

    WASHINGTON – A House of Representatives bill unveiled Friday could make it more difficult for the public to know how prepared railroads are for responding to oil spills from trains, their worst-case scenarios and how much oil is being transported by rail through communities.

    The language appears in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s six-year transportation legislation, which primarily addresses federal programs that support state road, bridge and transit projects. But the legislation also includes a section on oil trains.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on a rule to require railroads shipping oil to develop comprehensive spill response plans along the lines of those required for pipelines and waterborne vessels. It would also require them to assess their worst-case scenarios for oil spills, including quantity and location.

    The House bill would give the secretary of transportation the power to decide what information would not be disclosed to the public.

    The secretary would have discretion to withhold anything proprietary or security sensitive, as well as “specific response resources and tactical resource deployment plans” and “the specific amount and location of worst-case discharges, including the process by which a railroad carrier determines the worst-case discharge.”

    The House bill defines “worst-case discharge” as the largest foreseeable release of oil in an accident or incident, as determined by the rail carrier.

    Four major oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, resulting in the release of more than 600,000 gallons, according to federal spill data.

    Numerous states have released information on crude by rail shipments to McClatchy and other news organizations. DOT began requiring railroads to notify state officials of such shipments last year after a train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va.

    The disclosures were opposed by railroads and their trade associations, which asked the department to drop the requirement. The department tried to accommodate the industry’s concerns in its May final rule on oil train safety by making the reports exempt from disclosure. But facing backlash from lawmakers and emergency response groups, the department reversed itself.

    Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the department would continue the disclosure requirement and make it permanent. But a new administration could take a different approach.

    “We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” Feinberg said in July.

    In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that would require railroads operating in the state to plan for their worst-case spills.

    In April, BNSF Railway told state emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil, enough to fill five rail tank cars, its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. A typical 100-car oil train carries about 3 million gallons.

    Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a mock derailment in New Jersey in March in which 450,000 gallons of oil was released.

    California passed a similar bill last year, but two railroads and a major trade association challenged it in court, claiming the federal laws regulating railroads preempted state laws. A judge sided with the state in June, but without addressing the preemption question.

    The House Transportation Committee will consider the six-year bill when lawmakers return from recess next week. The current legislation expires on Oct. 29, and the timing makes a short-term extension likely.

    After the committee and the full House vote on the bill, House and Senate leaders will have to work out their differences before the bill goes to the president’s desk.

    Samantha Wohlfeil of the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed.
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      Half Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

      Repost from DeSmogBlog
      [Editor:  See the more detailed interactive map of schools by the Center for Biological Diversity.  Note Benicia’s Robert Semple Elementary School on the Center’s map, located just 0.88 miles from a Union Pacific train route which currently carries hazardous materials and is proposed for Valero Refinery’s Crude By Rail project.  Here’s a map of Robert Semple school and the tracks.  – RS] 

      Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

      By Justin Mikulka, September 7, 2015 – 04:58

      A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.

      “Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”

      Click for larger image

      Current safety regulations for first responders dealing with oil trains recommend evacuating everyone within a half-mile of any incident with an oil train. This wasn’t much of a problem for the most recent oil train accident in July in Culbertson, Montana because there were only 30 people within the half-mile radius area. However, in populated areas like California, potential scenarios could involve large-scale evacuations and casualties.

      In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released earlier this year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods.

      As more communities across the country become aware of the very real risks these oil trains pose, opposition is mounting to new oil-by-rail projects as well as challenges to existing facilities.

      This past week in California, the Santa Clara County board of supervisors voted to keep oil trains out, citing an “unacceptable risk to our community.”

      In Minnesota, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) held a hearing on the subject and heard from concerned residents like Catherine Dorr, as reported by the local CBS station.

      We’re in the 100 foot blast zone,” Dorr said. “My house and 60 townhouse residents are going to be toast if there’s an explosion.”

      In Albany, New York which is the largest oil-by-rail hub on the East coast, this week a coalition of groups announced their intentions to sue the oil company transporting Bakken crude through Albany and challenge the validity of the air quality permit the company received in 2012.

      And even in remote places like North Dakota, where much of the oil originates, the U.S. military is concerned about the proximity of the oil train tracks to nuclear missile facilities.

      With all of this concern about the dangers of oil trains, a new report by the Associated Press (AP) paints a troubling picture about the preparedness of populated areas to respond to an oil-by-rail incident. The report was based on interviews with emergency management professionals in 12 large cities across the U.S.

      It concludes, “The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail.”

      As noted on DeSmog, one of the reasons that the oil trains pose such a high risk is that the oil industry refuses to stabilize the oil to make it safe to transport. And the new regulations for oil-by-rail transport released this year allow for older unsafe tank cars to be used for another 8-10 years.

      While the regulations require modernized braking systems on oil trains in future years, the rail industry is fighting this and a Senate committee recently voted to remove this from the regulations.

      The reality is that unless there are drastic changes made, anyone living within a half mile of these tracks will be at risk for years to come.

      And while oil production isn’t increasing in the U.S. right now due to the low price of oil, industry efforts to lift the current ban on exporting crude oil could result in a huge increase in fracked oil production. In turn, that oil will be put on trains that will head to coastal facilities and be loaded on tankers and sent to Asia.

      Despite all of the opposition and the years-long process to complete new regulations, as the Associated Press notes, it isn’t like the emergency first responders are comfortable with the current situation.

      “There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”

      And even the federal regulators expect there are going to be catastrophic accidents. As reported by the AP earlier this year, the Department of Transportation expects oil and ethanol trains “will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.”

      With the known risks and the number of accidents, so far communities in the U.S have avoided disaster. But as Senator Franken pointed out, that has just been a matter of luck.

      We’ve been lucky here in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin that we’ve not seen that kind of fatalities, but we don’t want this to be all about luck,” Sen. Franken said.

      As over 1,000,000 students in California start a new school year in schools where they can easily hear the train whistles from the oil trains passing through their communities, let’s all hope we keep this lucky streak going.

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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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