Category Archives: Explosion

All about Bakken Crude, by Guy Cooper, Martinez Gazette

Repost from The Martinez Gazette

Martinez Environmental Group: The oil, pick your poison

By Guy Cooper | April 20, 2014

Two types of North American crude will roll through our towns. There’s the Bakken crude fractured from the shale beds of North Dakota and the oil/tar sand derivatives rent from the wilds of Alberta, Canada. The former has the potential to vaporize you and your neighborhood.  The latter can slowly render your land and water and body uninhabitable.

It was Bakken crude that blew up the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July, exploded and poisoned the wetlands of Aliceville, Ala., in November, and just missed annihilating the town of Casselton, N.D., in December. That’s just a sample.

Lac-Mégantic was the eye opener. An improperly equipped and under-staffed 70-car tanker train heading east from the oil fields of Dakota was left parked on the main line above the town with an incorrectly set brake. In the early morning hours, the train broke free and careened down the hill, derailing in the center of town. OK. A train derailment due to human error.  An unfortunate accident. One would expect a nasty oil spill and big clean up to follow.

That’s not what happened. The train exploded in concussive fireballs that flattened the downtown and instantly killed 47 people. Aerial images show an area the size of downtown Martinez reduced to rubble. Flaming oil flows poured like lava from the burning train into the nearby river and lake, cooling into an intractable underwater toxic waste deposit. It took four days just to extinguish the fires. Who knows how long it will take to clean up the mess. And, of course, 47 lives lost.  The town will never be the same.

That tragic episode got people’s attention. Crude oil is not supposed to explode. It was first thought an anomaly. Maybe the train crashed into tanks of propane. That was disproved. Then there were the pools of carcinogenic benzene fire crews found themselves slogging through. Not normal.

Well, it won’t happen again. Then it did, at Aliceville and Casselton.

What was this stuff that reacted in such an uncharacteristic way? People living beside the tracks wanted to know. Emergency responders wanted to know. Local officials and the Canadian and U.S. government agencies responsible for public safety, train regulation and hazardous materials handling sought answers. Investigations and regulatory hearings commenced. About the only people not publicly showing a lot of interest, besides issues of liability, were the companies responsible for the oil production, movement and refining. Accidents happen. Normal precautions were taken. Regulations were followed. We know what we’re doing. Let’s get the PR, lawyers and lobbyist guys on this.

In response, Grant Robertson of the Toronto Globe and Mail visited the Bakken oil fields. An oil worker invited him in and produced a mason jar of fresh-out-of-the-ground Bakken crude.  “Smells like gasoline, doesn’t it? Some guys around here pour it directly in their trucks.”  The local joke is if most crude looks like a pint of Guinness, Bakken looks like Miller Lite.

The Chemical Engineer, an industry source, reported the results of chemical analysis by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) that largely corroborated Mr. Robertson’s hands-on experience. Flashpoint refers to the temperature at which the crude gives off enough vapor to ignite. The lower the flashpoint, the more explosive the crude. The TSB results indicated a flashpoint from Lac-Mégantic samples so low that the measuring machine could only show that it was less than -35 C. The report concluded that “It is apparent that the occurrence crude oil’s flashpoint is similar to that of unleaded gasoline.”

High vapor pressure was also found, another explosive indicator. As I understand it, vapor pressure suggests the combustible gas content of an oil. The refiner Tesoro reported in early 2013 a reading of 12 psi for Bakken. Marathon Oil reported readings of 9.7 and 8.75 between 2010 and 2013, then in 2014 (after the explosions of 2013, just saying …), reported a 5.94 result.  Analysts consider that low reading an aberration, but even that number is about twice the average of most crude oils.

This is the problem. The Lac-Mégantic train cargo was assigned a packing group III classification by the largely self-regulated oil producers based on an either missed or deliberately misleading evaluation of the real volatility. Fact is, the higher the classification number, the lower the cost of transport. Class III is considered low risk. A more realistic classification I or II would have required more train staffing, beefier cars, enhanced disaster planning and other safeguards.  In other words, there would have been someone else to double check on the brake and the train could not have been left unattended on the main line while the sole engineer went five miles away to a hotel for the night. A spot check of trucks transporting Bakken from the well-heads to rail-loading facilities found a similarly pervasive cargo mis-classification. The fact is, that left to their own devices, without adequate independent regulatory oversight, oil producers, transporters and refiners are invariably going to pick the lowest-cost strategy to bring their product to market. This is the current state of the surrounding industry we are entrusting with our safety. Not a good idea.

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DOT-111 – the ‘Soda Can’ of tank cars – Long wait for safety rules

Repost from WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, NPR

The Long Wait On Safety Rules For The ‘Soda Can’ Of Rail Cars

By David Schaper, April 15, 2014
Safety advocates have been pressuring Canadian and U.S. officials to create new safety standards for tank cars and to make old DOT-111s like this one more puncture-resistant.   Nati Harnik AP

Freight trains roll through the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill., every day, many pulling older tank cars known as DOT-111s. They’re known as the “soda can” of rail cars, says village President Karen Darch, because their shells are so thin.

Many of the DOT-111s are full of heavy Canadian tar sands crude oil. Some carry ethanol. And more and more of them are loaded with light Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

“The worry is that if there’s a derailment and the car is punctured, if any of the flammable materials in it … spills out and explodes, it will create a huge fire, as we saw last summer in Lac-Megantic,” Darch says.

The center of that small town in Quebec just north of the U.S. border was incinerated in July after an unattended oil train rolled downhill and derailed. More than 60 of the DOT-111s on that train exploded into flames, killing 47 people. Since then, safety advocates have been pressuring Canadian and U.S. officials to create new safety standards for tank cars and to make the old DOT-111s more puncture-resistant.

But the regulatory authorities have not acted yet — not even after three fiery derailments of oil trains since, all in rural areas in which no one was injured. Darch believes it’s only a matter of time before there is another.

“In towns like ours, it can derail blocks from a high school with 3,000 kids, right by houses, neighborhoods where people are sleeping in the middle of the night. And even with the best response, you’re going to have very catastrophic results,” she says.

And it’s not just those living near railroad tracks who are increasingly concerned.

“The regulatory uncertainty of not having regulations to build new cars to, or not having regulations to modify the current fleet, is starting to adversely impact my industry,” says Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, which represents rail car manufacturers.

Simpson says that since 2011, the industry has been building to a stronger standard on its own, making new tank cars more puncture-resistant. But some are recommending an even stronger standard than that — and there’s some disagreement between manufacturers, oil companies and the railroads over just how robust the new standard should be.

Manufacturers are becoming frustrated, he says.

“We are willing to build new cars to a tougher standard. We are willing to modify the current fleet to a tougher standard to continue to remove the risk of moving hazardous material by rail, but we would not take that step until we are certain that the steps we do take would be approved by the federal government,” Simpson says.

And that lack of momentum was the focus of a Senate subcommittee hearing on the topic last week. Republican Susan Collins of Maine tried to pin down Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on when the new tank car standards would be ready.

His target date, Foxx said, is “as soon as possible.”

“That’s a frustrating answer,” Collins said.

“I understand. It’s frustrating for me to give it to you,” Foxx said. “But I can promise you, senator, that we are working as hard as we can to get the rule done as quickly as we can.”

When pressed, Foxx says he hopes the new rule will be ready before the end of this year. But that vague response leaves industry groups, safety advocates and community leaders somewhere they don’t want to be: in oil tank car limbo.

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Lac-Mégantic Coroner – final sad admission

Repost from The Montreal Gazette

Coroner identifies 40th victim of Lac-Mégantic disaster, Admits that remaining 7 missing people will never be identified

 By Anne Sutherland, THE GAZETTE April 9, 2014

MONTREAL — Using microscopic bone fragments and DNA samples, forensic anthropologists have identified the 40th victim of the train derailment at Lac-Mégantic last July.

Jimmy Sirois, 30, has been positively identified and removed from the list of missing persons.

The Quebec coroner’s office had a monumental task after the explosion and fire that decimated the town of Lac Mégantic on July 6.

In all, 47 people were reported dead and with the positive identification of Sirois there are still seven officially classified as missing.

In a statement, the coroner’s office said that due to the intense heat of the fire, fed by tanker trucks full of volatile petroleum products, and the destruction to human remains, it will be impossible to identify any more of the missing, who are:

Jacques Giroux, 65, Denise Dubois, 57, Marie-France Boulet, 62, Richard Veilleux, 63, Louisette Poirier, 76, Willfried Ratsch, 77 and Bianka Charest Bégnoche, 9.

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