Category Archives: Emergency Readiness & Response

Washington: New rule requires railroads to show they can handle oil spills

Repost from the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
[Editor: Significant quote: "...California and Minnesota have implemented similar laws for railroads."  - RS]

Washington: Railroads must show they can handle oil spills

By the Associated Press, September 1, 2016 2:16 PM

Washington’s Department of Ecology has adopted a new rule requiring that railroads shipping oil through the state demonstrate that they can immediately respond to any spills.

FILE - This June 6, 2016, file aerial video image taken from a drone shows crumpled oil tankers lying beside the railroad tracks after a fiery June 3 train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. Federal investigators on Thursday, June 23, 2016, blamed Union Pacific Railroad for the derailment along the Oregon-Washington border, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track. Preliminary findings on the derailment raise questions about why the company didn't find the broken bolts that triggered the wreck when it inspected the tracks right before the derailment.

FILE – This June 6, 2016, file aerial video image taken from a drone shows crumpled oil tankers lying beside the railroad tracks after a fiery June 3 train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. Federal investigators on Thursday, June 23, 2016, blamed Union Pacific Railroad for the derailment along the Oregon-Washington border, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track. Preliminary findings on the derailment raise questions about why the company didn’t find the broken bolts that triggered the wreck when it inspected the tracks right before the derailment. Brent Foster AP

OLYMPIA, WASH.  |  Washington’s Department of Ecology has adopted a new rule requiring that railroads shipping oil through the state demonstrate that they can immediately respond to any spills.

The department said Thursday the rule takes effect Oct. 1, and it brings railroads into line with rules for companies moving oil by pipeline and by vessel.

Railroads will have to provide Ecology with contingency plans detailing steps the railroad will take if oil spills or a substantial risk of a spill occurs during transport. Officials say they’ll review each plan and require that they be tested through appropriate drills.

The state says California and Minnesota have implemented similar laws for railroads.

This fall, Washington is also beginning to require that facilities receiving shipments of crude oil by rail notify Ecology, which will share notice of those plans with local first responders.

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None on Kentucky hazmat team got new training for rail oil spills

Repost from the Lexington Herald Leader
[Editor:  I asked a knowledgeable friend about permitting in Kentucky: Was crude oil envisioned for Somerset back before its opening in 2007? Was there a more recent Continental permitting process before they could begin shipping crude by rail? Any environmental impact reports? Are folks in Kentucky opposing this?  Here is my friend’s response: “Long story short: Kentucky is pretty relaxed when it comes to permitting. Whatever business they envisioned at the rail park 10 years ago is what they can do. The area is nonattainment, so no air quality permits were required. All the environmental scrutiny the facility ever got was an EPA-supervised cleanup of the site, which was a former steam locomotive maintenance shop. Did that, got their wastewater discharge permit, and they were off to the races. There won’t be any meaningful opposition. That area has a strongly pro-business, anti-regulation bent. They built the county’s landfill over top of a cave system that feeds into the local drinking water supply and didn’t even bat an eye.”  - RS]

None on Kentucky hazmat team got new training for rail oil spills

By Curtis Tate & Bill Estep, McClatchy Washington Bureau, August 26, 2016 5:59 PM
Continental Refining has begun shipping oil and oil products by rail through the Somerset Rail Park in southern Kentucky.

Continental Refining has begun shipping oil and oil products by rail through the Somerset Rail Park in southern Kentucky. | Continental Refining

A Kentucky oil train terminal illustrates a persistent gap between the risks posed by increasing volumes of crude oil moving by rail and the training available to local first responders specifically for it.

Continental Refining, which operates a 5,500-barrel-a-day refinery in Somerset, Kentucky, announced this week that it plans to move oil and oil products through the Somerset Rail Park, an $8 million rail-to-truck cargo transfer facility that opened in 2007.

But no one on the 12-county hazardous material team that would respond to an oil spill or fire at the facility has received the training that’s been developed in the past few years for such incidents.

That’s in spite of a $2.6 million federal grant last year to Somerset’s Center for Rural Development to develop training for rural or volunteer firefighters to respond to oil train derailments.

$8 million
Federal funds earmarked to build the Somerset Rail Park

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress tightened safety standards for shipping oil by rail in the wake of a string of fiery derailments across North America. The worst of those killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Last year alone, there were seven derailments involving oil and three involving ethanol across North America.

Continental declined to respond to questions about the safety of its Somerset operation, including whether the rail cars it uses meet the new federal standards and whether it had notified local emergency responders about the shipments and offered them training.

$2.6 million
Federal grant to the Center for Rural Development for firefighter training

Doug Baker, the chief of the Somerset-Pulaski County Special Response team, said the refinery had a history of working well with the hazmat team and other local first responders.

Continental had not notified him specifically about its shipments to the Somerset Rail Park, Baker said, but the refinery had made an effort in the past to include the hazmat team and fire department in emergency planning.

Baker said the special response team had trained technicians at the refinery and helped develop its safety plan. In case of an oil train fire, he said, his team had access to a supply of firefighting foam in the county and the trucks to pump it.

“We’re as prepared as anyone can be for a railroad derailment,” he said. “The response here, to me, would be as good as any you would find anywhere in the state and maybe the nation.”

People killed in the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil train derailment in 2013

Railroads have offered new training opportunities to emergency responders since the Lac-Megantic disaster. Norfolk Southern, which serves the Somerset Rail Park, operates a safety train, a traveling classroom used to educate fire departments.

According to the safety train’s 2016 schedule, the closest it came to Somerset was Knoxville, Tennessee, about 100 miles away, in early August.

Norfolk Southern and other major railroads have also paid for firefighters from across the country to attend an advanced training class at the railroad industry’s testing facility near Pueblo, Colorado.

Baker said no one on his team had participated in the training in Tennessee or Colorado.

Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said first responders in Kentucky were welcome to contact the railroad about training opportunities by going to the safety train’s website.

1 million
Barrels of oil a day transported in trains across the U.S. in 2014

At the peak in 2014, about 1 million barrels a day of oil were moving across the country by rail. But because of low oil prices and new pipeline capacity, that number has fallen nearly by half.

Continental declined to specify where it sources its oil, but the refinery is capable of refining the light, sweet crude that’s produced in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency report, Continental’s Somerset refinery processed more than 200,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil recovered from the March 2015 derailment of a BNSF oil train in Galena, Illinois.


The shippers of oil products and ethanol are supposed to begin phasing out older, less-protected tank cars in rail transportation starting in January 2018. New cars must be built with thicker shells, better crash protections and thermal blankets to protect from fire exposure. Older cars must be retrofitted with those features.

Depending on the type of product and the risk it poses, the older cars can be used through 2029, with a two-year extension possible if the industry can’t complete the retrofits fast enough.

In a series of stories over two years, McClatchy showed that fire departments across the country lacked the resources and training to deal with derailments of trains carrying millions of gallons of flammable liquids.

McClatchy also used open records laws in more than two dozen states, including Kentucky, to obtain information about large shipments of oil by rail.

In 2014, the federal government required railroads to notify first responders about the shipments. Norfolk Southern sued the Maryland Department of the Environment before it could release the records to McClatchy, but a judge eventually ruled against the railroad.

Estep, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Somerset, Kentucky.


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IN MEMORIAM: Benicia’s Joel Fallon: Is Crude by Rail really do or die?

Is this really adios?

[Re-posting today in memory of Joel Fallon, who died on August 11, 2016 (obituary). Joel was Benicia’s first and most beloved Poet Laureate, an inspiration to all who knew him and a thoughtful, visionary activist. Originally reposted from The Benicia Herald and here on the Benicia Independent.]

April 25, 2014 by Joel Fallon

WHAT AM I MISSING HERE? Are Benicians just kittens in a burlap sack, down by the riverside, resigned to the inevitable?

Let’s see if I’ve got this right.

(a) We’re in earthquake country (see evidence of the Green Valley fault in terrain on the way to Cordelia);

(b) We’re next to fragile wetlands (for spectacular views, click Google Maps/Benicia, hybrid setting, find rail line and follow to Sacramento);

(c) We’re contiguous with an important commercial waterway;

(d) We host an outfit whose headquarters has fought attempts to safeguard our environment (see Valero Energy Corporation’s position and funding regarding Proposition 23);

(e) A local outfit, under direction from its far-off headquarters, plans to process a dangerous, toxic product;

(f) The outfit is served by a rail system with a recent history of tank car derailment;

(g) Parts of this railroad system (built by Central Pacific RR in 1877), running through marshland to the Carquinez Strait, repeatedly sank into unstable marshy terrain, requiring hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, gravel and other materials to stabilize it;

(h) Other parts of the antique rail infrastructure seem poorly maintained and may be unsafe, e.g., the Benicia-Martinez rail bridge, built between 1928 and 1930 for Southern Pacific RR to replace the train ferry to Port Costa;

(i) Old tank cars are a problem — an area newspaper reports that BNSF railway officials told federal regulators in March of concerns that older, less robust tank cars will end up transporting crude oil because of Canadian rail pricing policies;

(j) Emergency responders are unprepared to handle spills or fires in the event of derailment of cars headed to any of five Bay Area refineries. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, after listening to testimony from emergency responders, said, “There is a potential for very serious problems and very disastrous problems.” Chief of the Contra Costa Fire District is quoted saying, “… with the sheer volume that will be coming in, we are going to see more accidents.” The 2007-08 Solano County Grand Jury, after investigating the county’s fire districts, reports a general need for more funding, heavy dependence on dedicated volunteers and the preponderance of old fire trucks, while noting the high cost of HAZMAT suits and problems with communications caused by incompatible equipment and radio frequencies.     

And yet, despite this unbelievably horrific backdrop, certain elements in town warn us to hush lest Valero be forced out of the competitive (i.e., tar sands crude) market, destroying its “desire to remain in Benicia.”

Clearly, Valero Benicia Refinery cannot be faulted for all of the foregoing. Good workers deserve good jobs; they should be able to tell their grandkids they helped, rather than harmed, the environment. Valero Benicia is just one of many links in a chain of factors that could lead to the disaster so many in this community fear.

Am I “agenda driven” as charged? Bet your raggedy backside I am. My agenda involves doing homework to find threats to my home, my town, my state and my nation, and advising others of my findings (just in case they might care). If you detect it, yell “GAS” to alert the rest of the platoon; then put on your mask, while you can still breathe.

For a glimmer of the scope of Big Oil’s operations from sea to shining sea and beyond, see the astounding number of outfits similar to Valero Energy Corp. in the U.S and Canada. Find ’em in Wikipedia (“independent oil companies — Americas”). Select a company to see its history of oil spills. Wonder why the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to extend to Texas? Check out which corporations own the pipeline and the benefits associated with Foreign Trade Zones (32 FTZ in Texas compared to 17 in California, and 15 in New York).

If folks look around a bit they may discover that Big Oil, like Big Coal and other corporate behemoths, extends powerful influence throughout the land of the free and the home of the brave. Many were hoodwinked by Operation Iraqi Liberation, in which Big Oil colluded with Big Government to achieve absolute power of life and death over us and our enemy — the one with phantom WMDs and a vast, very real amount of oil.

Is this really adios, Pilgrim? — or just “I double-dog dare you”? I don’t believe it’s Valero’s style to leave town. It’s not in the corporation’s best interests and shouldn’t be its preferred option.

What are those options? They include:

Option 1. Stay put, but back away from risky tar sands crude and focus on products involving minimum environmental risk. Backing away for good business reasons is not the same as “backing down.” CVS decided to stop selling cigarettes. The firm considered it “the right thing to do for the good of our customers and our company. The sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose — helping people on their path to better health.” Barrons online says, “We think that CVS — like anyone who quits smoking — is making a good long-term decision, even if it makes things rough short-term.” Others consider it a PR coup! CVS gained the respect of millions of customers for what is perceived as a moral and ethical decision. I shop CVS more often since they made that brilliant call; so do my friends.

Backing away from tar sands crude would take similar corporate guts; but the public would be pleased with the image of a moral, ethical, highly principled corporation — a Valero that gives a damn. Sales at Valero service stations might even increase.

Option 2. Continue to pursue tar sands crude; seeking high profitability despite increased environmental risk. The downside: prices at the pump are too high. Californians are already angry; they may avoid Valero service stations and products. I’ll urge my friends to do so. Word of mouth is powerful and spreads quickly. Contempt for an outfit that doesn’t respect its customers or our environment could lead to loss of sales in the country’s most populous state. Cesar Chavez showed us boycotts work. Most folks I know didn’t buy grapes.

Option 3. “Re-purpose” Valero’s operations in Benicia (and elsewhere) to enhance instead of degrade the environment while remaining profitable. Valero is an energy outfit. Turning to alternate sources of energy is ultimately inevitable. Valero should expand its vision and not limit itself to fossil fuels. Farmers in Ireland who grew only potatoes learned about diversification too late.

(a) Pursue wind farming if feasible and profitable. A recent Mother Earth News article about mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia cites a 2007 study that determined placing wind turbines on Coal River Mountain would provide power to 70,000 West Virginia homes while generating $1.7 million in local taxes each year. Better than ripping off the tops of mountains and dumping enormous amounts of debris into streams and rivers.

(b) Pursue solar energy if feasible and profitable. Produce solar products for sale and/or operate a solar power facility to resell power. See an article by Don Hofmann, president of RegenEn Solar LLC, looking at mountaintop removal mining and suggesting solar power instead. He recognizes there are challenges but is optimistic about lower-cost solar cells and technology in the future. He notes that the U.S. fossil fuel industry received $72 billion in subsidies from 2002 to 2006 and asks us to imagine that kind of money put into solar development.

(c) Pursue other approaches (geothermal, tidal, et al.) if appropriate and profitable.

Option 4. Determine feasibility of combining 3a, 3b and/or 3c. If appropriate and profitable, pursue the combination.

Option 1 would be the easiest and would be enthusiastically supported by most folks in Benicia, applauded by most Californians and recognized as a principled business decision.

Option 2 is the least desirable from an environmental standpoint. While profitability is high, it may incur the contempt and wrath of the public, possibly leading to damaging boycotts and a decline in profitability.

Option 3a thru 3c may seem starry-eyed, wild and outside the box. They would require imagination, foresight and courage. It can be done. CVS is showing the way and TESLA is succeeding with electrically powered cars. Examine pluses and minuses — Valero could take a quantum leap and be regarded as an industry trailblazer. Its reputation would be enhanced. Envious competitors might scoff and want Valero to take a pratfall but ultimately they would have to follow suit.

In conclusion the priority order of Valero’s options should be:

Option 1 — Most desirable (preferred)
Option 3/4 — Most “outside the box” (defer initially, but plan for the future)
Option 2 — Least desirable (avoid).

If Valero is really in the long-term energy game, it should choose Option 1 and start thinking seriously about Option 3. If, instead, its focus is on short term — high profits while risking irreparable harm to the environment — then Option 2 is their ticket.

If Valero wants to be recognized as rich, principled, brave and famous instead of rich, unscrupulous and infamous, then it should open door No. 3 as soon as possible.

Finally: I don’t believe it is “adios” for Valero Benicia Refinery. Unfortunately, I think Valero will not choose a clean path. They will probably press on with dirty tar sands crude. After that, “¿Quien sabe?”

I don’t intend to “go gentle into that good night.” Instead I prefer to “rage against the dying of the light.”

This whole thing could be like a colonoscopy, but a lot less fun.

Joel Fallon is a Benicia resident.

The Benicia Herald’s Poetry Corner was recently dedicated to Joel Fallon…

“For Joel Fallon” by Ronna Leon

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

You called them “dead Mother poems”
and scorned their cloying sentiment, easy forgiveness.
Your poem about your Mother named her Kali.
You hungered for life – anger, difficulty, competition, sex.
You insisted that wringing a tear from a stone
was superior to opening well oiled floodgates.


Now you are dead and my tears come unbidden
looking at the bookshelf, pulling a stubborn weed,
eating a pastry.
“Keep smiling” you’d instruct,
but I don’t want to brush these tears away,
each glistens with memory, swells with loss.
You are in them, like it or not.Ronna Leon was Benicia’s third poet laureate from 2010 to 2012

“Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Dedicated to Joel Fallon)” by Johanna Ely

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words
and never stops-at all”
-Emily Dickinson


If such a tiny bird,
perhaps left for dead,
or suffering from an injured wing,
its feathers matted and torn,
finds refuge in your broken heart,
then reach inside yourself
and touch this living thing called Hope,
gently bind its limp and useless wing
with Love’s tattered cloth,
and press it to your shattered heart
until it heals,
until this lovely creature sings again,
then let it fly,
and nest in someone else’s heart,
the stranger,
the neighbor,
the old friend,
the one who just like you,
needs to hear its song.
Johanna Ely is Benicia’s current poet laureate

“Joel’s Passing” by Mary Susan Gast

Reposted from the Benicia Herald, Poetry Corner, August 19, 2016

“So, I may have been wrong after all – this damn cancer may indeed be the death of me.”
-Joel Fallon, in an email of June 30, 2016

He died on the morning of August 11.
That night, meteor showers dazzled the skies:
The Perseids, at their peak.
No reason to doubt that Joel hitched a ride
On that celestial glory train,
Meeting up with all the other streaming luminaries,
Fireball to fireball.

Mary Susan Gast served as Conference Minister of the Northern California Conference United Church of Christ, now retired, and is a member of Benicia’s First Tuesday Poetry Group
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