[Today’s news is welcome. Rep. Garamendi doesn’t represent Benicia, but he does represent uprail cities that would have been affected by Valero’s dangerous and dirty proposal to bring oil trains across California. Garamendi’s bill, HR 5553, has 4 co-sponsors, but does not include Benicia’s representative Mike Thompson. Let’s hope Mike will get behind this effort! – R.S.]
John Garamendi introduces crude-by-rail safety bill
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Solano, introduced legislation Wednesday to ensure safer standards for the transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials by train.
House Resolution 5553, also known as the “Crude By Rail Volatility Standards Act,” aims to establish a safety standard for the maximum volatility for crude oils and similar materials transported by rail. It also requires that all crude by rail in America adhere to the New York Mercantile Exchange’s maximum Reid vapor pressure for crude-oil futures contracts of 9.5 pounds per square inch, Garamendi’s office wrote in a news release.
The current industry standard would remain in place until the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) completes the rule setting a maximum volatility standard that was first announced in 2017 after the attorneys general of six states, including California, petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation and PHMSA to finalize the regulation nationwide.
“Every day we delay the implementation of a stronger safety standard for the transport of Bakken crude oil-by-rail, lives are at risk,” Garamendi said in a statement. “My bill simply requires oil companies to decrease the volatility to market levels, rather than carrying unstable products through communities. I am committed to enacting this legislation into law this year as part of the surface transportation reauthorization.”
Garamendi, who is a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has been trying to get legislation passed since 2015 to prohibit crude oil from being transported by rail unless it adheres to the New York Mercantile Exchange’s maximum Reid vapor pressure. Garamendi’s office wrote that the actions were influenced by numerous crude-by-rail derailments in previous years, including an accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in 2013 which killed 47 people and led to changes in operations for Canadian railways.
The topic of crude by rail became a hot-button issue in Solano County in 2013 when the Valero Benicia Refinery announced plans to extend rail lines to have crude-oil delivered to its plant by train rather than by boat. The project — which would have passed through Dixon, Suisun City and Fairfield — was met with opposition and was subsequently voted down by the Benicia Planning Commission and then the City Council.
Garamendi’s co-sponsors on the bill are Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.; and Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.
The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as coal ash, as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.
The new rules would allow extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for as long as eight additional years. The biggest benefits from the rule governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.
Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings and to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration. They also reflect President Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers.
Under the Obama-era rule, coal ash ponds leaking contaminants into groundwater that exceeded federal protection standards had to close by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline to October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.
In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into groundwater.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”
“These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”
Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can convince regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.
Moreover, if a company can demonstrate it is shutting down a coal boiler, it can petition to keep its storage ponds open for as long as eight years, depending on their size. Slurry ponds smaller than 40 acres could get approval to stay in place until Oct. 15, 2023, officials said, while larger ones could remain open until Oct. 15, 2028.
In a phone interview Sunday, American Public Power Association general counsel Delia Patterson said the proposed rules reflect the fact that it can take time to design, permit and construct new facilities that can pass muster.
“I think the EPA is actually acknowledging the reality of the situation. It’s just really not in anyone’s interest to rush this,” said Patterson, whose group represents publicly owned utilities that provide 15 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Environmentalists have sharply criticized the proposals, arguing that these containment sites pose serious risks to the public at a time when more frequent and intense flooding, fueled in part by climate change, could destabilize them and contaminate drinking water supplies that serve millions of people. The rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days.
During the past decade, Tennessee and North Carolina have experienced major coal ash spills that have destroyed homes and contaminated rivers, resulting in sickened cleanup workers and extensive lawsuits.
The question of how to handle coal waste, which is stored in roughly 450 sites across the country, has vexed regulators for decades. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address the waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.
Lisa Evans, an attorney specializing in hazardous waste litigation for the environmental group Earthjustice, said allowing the electric industry to extend the life of coal ash pits represents a particular threat to low-income and minority Americans, who often live near such installations.
“Allowing plants to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking coal ash ponds for another 10 years will cause irreversible damage to drinking water sources, human health and the nation’s waters,” Evans said in an email. It was not surprising, she added, that the coal industry had lobbied against closing these storage sites. “Operating ponds is cheap. Closing them costs the utilities money,” she said.
It is also likely to add to consumers’ costs. Last year, for example, a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission estimated it could cost ratepayers as much as $3.30 a month over 20 years — between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion — to clean up Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills in the state.
The EPA’s proposals will retain several of the monitoring and public disclosure standards put in place in 2015, officials said, requiring companies to monitor nearby groundwater, publicly report the data and address any leaks that pollute area waterways. The “vast majority” of slurry ponds “are on the road to closure” under the new rule, an EPA official said.
Using monitoring data disclosed for the first time under the 2015 rule, a report published jointly earlier this year by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater.
The vast majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at hundreds of power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater at facilities from Texas to Pennsylvania to Maryland, according to that analysis. The report acknowledged, however, that the groundwater data alone does not prove drinking-water supplies near the coal waste facilities have been contaminated. Power companies are not routinely required to test nearby drinking water wells. “So the scope of the threat is largely undefined,” the report stated.
The EPA on Monday will also revise requirements for how power plants discharge wastewater, which contains some of the same kind of contaminants. Under the Obama administration, EPA staff had concluded it was feasible to prohibit any releases of such toxic materials by having the units continually recycle their water. The agency has now concluded this is much more costly than originally anticipated, and technological advances have made it cheaper to filter and capture the waste through a membrane system, officials said.
Under the new rule, plants would be allowed to discharge 10 percent of their water each day, on a 30-day rolling average. The administration projects the regulation would prevent 105 million pounds of pollutants from being released compared with the old standards because 18 affected plants would voluntarily adopt a more advanced filtration system. The administration also estimated it would save the industry $175 million each year in compliance costs and yield an additional $15 million to $69 million in annual public health and environmental benefits.
However, even if the 18 plants voluntarily adopted more advanced filtration techniques, they represent a minority of the nation’s total plants.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water, said the proposed rule “relaxes the 2015 treatment requirements allowing increased selenium discharges and [the] release of contaminated water from coal ash handling. Even worse, it exempts a large number of plants from these relaxed requirements, allowing them to discharge more pollutants and continue disposing of ash in leaking ponds.”
Patterson said although it may be “just hard to understand” why companies need more time and flexibility, plant operators have no interest in contaminating nearby waterways. “They live in and around these communities,” she said.
Evans said environmentalists are likely to challenge the new rule on coal ash storage, and the federal government could again reverse course if a Democrat wins the presidency next year. She noted that, because 95 percent of coal ash ponds remain unlined, two-thirds lie within five feet of groundwater and 92 percent leak more than federal health standards allow, they could pose a risk to the public even as litigation winds its way through the federal courts.
“We have to hope that no wells are poisoned and no toxic waste is spilled in the interim,” she said. “Crossing your fingers is not a legal or sane way to regulate toxic waste.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which eliminated restrictions on corporate campaign spending.
The amendment would allow Congress and states to put limits on campaign contributions, according to a statement from Schiff’s office.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned decades of legal precedent and has enabled billions in dark money to pour into our elections,” Schiff said in a statement.
The amendment would also allow states to enact laws creating public financing of campaigns.
“Amending the Constitution is an extraordinary step, but it is the only way to safeguard our democratic process against the threat of unrestrained and anonymous spending by wealthy individuals and corporations,” he added. “This amendment will restore power to everyday citizens.”
Schiff also announced the amendment on Twitter.
“Our democracy is not for sale,” he wrote. “We must stop the flood of dark money from drowning out the voices of everyday citizens.”
Our democracy is not for sale. We must stop the flood of dark money from drowning out the voices of everyday citizens.
That’s why I just introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore power to the American people. pic.twitter.com/YNYzb35uSf
The 5-4 Citizens United ruling prohibited the government from limiting spending by companies, nonprofit organizations and unions on political campaign advertisements. The majority argued that such provisions would inhibit freedom of speech.
Federal Government Foot-Dragging Helps Oil Industry Delay Oil-by-Rail Rules
By Justin Mikulka, April 5, 2019 – 13:18
In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a measure of the volatility of flammable liquids and correlates to their likelihood of igniting. Higher vapor pressure means an oil is more volatile and more likely to ignite and burn when a train derails.
“If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”
Billig’s comments point to the federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America.
The Obama administration specifically left this issue out of the Department of Transportation’s 2015 regulations on moving oil by rail. In May 2017, half a dozen state attorneys general petitioned the federal government to regulate vapor pressure, which resulted in a proposed rule at the end of the Obama administration.
This oil train vapor pressure rule has gone nowhere in the Trump administration.
The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, North Dakota. Credit: U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration
Unsurprisingly, the state of North Dakota, where much of the highly volatile crude oil moved by rail in America is produced, opposes Washington state’s rule and is preparing to sue the state over it.
However, in a surprising moment of honesty, North Dakota’s top oil regulator didn’t bother pretending this opposition was about safety and instead revealed the real motivation: money.
The crude coming out of oil fields like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale is rich in natural gas liquids such as propane and butane, which make the oil more dangerous to transport but also more valuable. A value the industry and its allies in government aren’t willing to relinquish.
However, this isn’t really news. I wrote about a similar message from a North Dakota oil producer in 2014 when he too was opposing regulations to reduce the vapor pressure of Bakken oil before rail transport.
“The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.
North Dakota Using Federal Government Delays to Avoid Regulation
Once trains carrying volatile oil from the Bakken Shale started blowing up on a regular basis in 2013, it became clear that the oil itself was part of the problem. Its high amounts of natural gas liquids make the oil more volatile and therefore more likely to catch fire and explode.
Which is true. But crude oil mixed with lots of propane and butane, such as the Bakken’s crude oil, does explode like that. And trains carrying oil from the Bakken continued to explode like that after derailing again and again.
The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t regulate oil vapor pressure because the issue was disputed scientifically and required more study. More than three years ago, I wrote that this was simply a delay tactic and that claiming the oil industry didn’t understand the fundamental science of crude oil was absurd:
“The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to run dangerous trains filled with Bakken oil through communities across North America. Do you believe them?
Despite the audacity of this position, it is being used to delay any new regulations and to support the idea that the mystery of why Bakken crude oil explodes must be studied for years before it would be possible to make any regulatory decisions.”
“The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” Krishnamoorti wrote in an email response to Al Jazeera. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.” [emphasis added]
The Departments of Energy and Transportation announced the start of a study that was supposed to resolve this issue — four years ago — in April of 2015. At the time, regulators referred to it as a two-year study.
In late 2016, at the Energy by Rail Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Suzanne Lemieux of the American Petroleum Institute gave a presentation on crude oil volatility and stabilization. While arguing once again that there wasn’t clear evidence that stabilizing oil reduces its volatility and risk, Lemieux noted that the federal study on the issue had been delayed. She said now it was expected to conclude sometime in 2018.
The explanation for the delay was that the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories were still collecting samples of the oil in late 2016 — almost a year and a half after the “two-year” study was announced.
And now, four years later, according to The Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota oil regulator Lynn Helms “encouraged [Washington] legislators to wait for the results of a Sandia National Laboratories study that was commissioned by the U.S.Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy.”
North Dakota’s top oil regulator is trying to convince legislators in Washington state that a proposal they’re considering to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil transported by rail is not supported by science.https://t.co/J0v3BNaiqh