Category Archives: Federal Regulation (U.S.)

Six States’ Attorneys General To Trump Administration: Close Loophole Allowing Trains To Carry Explosive Crude Oil Through Communities

Press release, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
[Editor: Six state attorneys general, including California’s Xavier Becerra, are asking federal regulators to place new restrictions on crude oil trains that pass through their states.  – RS]

A.G. Schneiderman, Fellow AGs To Trump Administration: Close Loophole Allowing Trains To Carry Explosive Crude Oil Through Communities

Eric T. Schneiderman Press Release, May 22, 2017

“Bomb Trains” Carrying Millions Of Gallons Of Crude Oil Routinely Travel Through Cities And Towns In NY And Across Country, Without Any Limits On Explosiveness And Flammability 

Six-State Coalition Calls For Immediate Action To Set National Limit On Vapor Pressure Of Crude Oil To Minimize Threat Of Explosions And Uncontrollable Fires From Rail Accidents 

Schneiderman: It’s Time For The Federal Government To Close This Dangerous And Nonsensical Loophole

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of six state Attorneys General, is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole that allows highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil to be shipped by rail through communities in New York and across the country. These so-called “bomb trains” are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people; in New York alone, these trains cover roughly 700 miles of the state.

In comments filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the coalition calls on the agency to take immediate steps to require that all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure – a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability– of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). The comments were filed by the Attorneys General of New York, California [Attorney General Xavier Becerra], Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington

**Click here to read the comments filed by the Attorneys General.**

“Because of a regulatory loophole, these trains can carry crude oil through some of our most densely populated areas without any limit on explosiveness or flammability – creating ticking time bombs that jeopardize the safety of countless New Yorkers and Americans,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “It’s time for the federal government to put New Yorkers’ safety first and take immediate action to close this dangerous and nonsensical loophole.”

In December 2015, Attorney General Schneiderman filed a petition for rulemaking with PHMSA to set the national limit on vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail at less than 9.0 psi . In December 2016, specifically citing the Attorney General’s petition, the agency announced that it would issue an ANPRM in order to gather public comment on vapor pressure limits and the safety benefits of utilizing such a limit in regulating the transport of crude oil and other dangerous materials.

Accidents of trains carrying crude oil have resulted in devastating explosions and uncontrollable fires – including the 2016 train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, where the resulting fire caused the evacuation of nearly one-quarter of the town’s residents, and the infamous 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec accident, where a derailed train burst into flames, destroyed the downtown area, and killed 47 people.  Despite the catastrophic impacts that these and other rail accidents have had on communities, currently there is no federal limit on the vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail. In the comments filed with PHMSA on Friday, the Attorneys General argue that reducing crude oil vapor pressures to levels below 9.0 psi is not only practical, but is necessary for minimizing the explosion and fire danger involved in transporting crude oil by rail.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 requires PHMSA and the federal Department of Energy to report the results of a multi-year study conducted by Sandia National Laboratories to assess the volatility of crude oil and make recommendations on improving the safety of its transport. The completion of this study and the development of accompanying recommendations may take years. For this reason, the coalition is urging PHMSA to recognize the substantial present danger that oil trains pose to communities by taking immediate action to set a vapor pressure standard less than 9.0 psi until a final standard is promulgated.

It has been reported that up to 44 “unit trains” – chains of 70 to 120 tank cars – travel on rail routes that bisect New York each week, each carrying from 2 to 3.5 million gallons of crude oil.  These trains cover approximately 700 miles of the state, passing through small communities as well as the heart of population centers such as Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Kingston, and Newburgh, and within a few miles of New York City.  An oil train accident along these routes of the size and intensity of those seen in Quebec and other locations, could endanger the safety of thousands of New Yorkers who live, work, travel, and recreate along the trains’ paths.

Vapor pressure is a key contributor to crude oil’s explosiveness and flammability.  Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures – such as those produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota – have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane, and other highly volatile gases.  While the vapor pressure of the crude oil involved in train accidents is frequently not disclosed, in the limited number of instances it is known – including the Mosier (Oregon) and La-Mégantic (Quebec) accidents – vapor pressures have exceeded 9.0 psi.

PHMSA’s stated mission is to protect people and the environment from the risks associated with the transportation of hazardous materials, including crude oil.  In July 2015, in response to concerns raised by rail accidents involving crude oil shipments, the agency adopted a new rule that sought to enhance the structural integrity of train cars that ship crude oil, and lessen the chances of train derailments.  Although the new rule imposed new regulations on the design and operation of train cars, it did nothing to increase the safety of the highly combustible liquids carried by these cars.  Because of this, under federal law, crude oil can still be shipped through some of New York’s most densely populated communities without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability.

According to the Association of American Railroads, crude oil shipments by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 493,126 carloads in 2014, representing an increase of over 5,000 percent.  While rail shipments of crude oil have dipped somewhat in recent years, rail is expected to continue to be an important mode of transporting the resource in the future, particularly as crude oil prices and total U.S. production rebound as expected.

“No one should have to live with dangerously explosive materials rumbling through their backyards,” said Congresswoman Nita Lowey. “In Rockland County, trains carry crude oil directly through towns and neighborhoods where children and families live, work, and play. The risk of a crude oil tragedy in New York and across the country is far too great, and I am pleased Attorney General Schneiderman is fighting for this important step to protect our communities. As Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, I will continue working with partners at all levels of government to prevent a crude transport disaster.”

“I join and commend Attorney General Schneiderman in his call for immediate action at the federal level to mandate a safer vapor pressure standard of 9.0 or lower for crude oil transported by rail. The Capital Region remains a major hub for oil train traffic and as long as volatile crude oil is permitted to be transported through the area, residents remain at risk. Almost two dozen Assemblymembers wrote the Administration last fall supporting this safety change,” said Assemblymember Patricia A. Fahy.

“I join Attorney General Schneiderman in calling on the Trump administration to take immediate action to protect our community by reducing the volatility of crude oil shipped by rail to mitigate the impact of accidents involving oil trains,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “I believe the lower threshold would reduce the possibility of explosions and go a long way toward holding rail shippers accountable for the risks we face every day. I have called for lower thresholds since 2014 after we found out that the Bakken crude in the Lac Megantic disaster had a psi between 9 and 9.3 and my Expert Advisory Committee on Crude Oil Safety Issues made the same recommendation that I sent to the former Secretary of Transportation.  As we near the fourth anniversary of that disaster, we must take every precaution necessary to protect our residents. I applaud the Attorney General for pursuing this requirement and offering his comments to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on behalf of New Yorkers.”

“I fully support Attorney General Schneiderman’s efforts to improve the safety of crude oil that is transported by rail through cities like Albany every day,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “Improving vapor pressure standards will help to protect our communities from the harm that can occur if a derailment or accident occurs.  I applaud the Attorney General’s leadership on this important issue.”

“The City of Plattsburgh cares deeply about the movement of the most volatile crude oil products by train through our dense urban core and along our lake. Reducing the permissible vapor pressure for crude oil and chemical containers reduces both the potential for explosions and for chemical inhalation should an accident or puncture occur. I fully support the OAG’s effort to keep our population safe by restricting the allowable vapor pressure of these volatile chemical cars,” said Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read.

“In the past 10 years, U.S. production of crude oil has nearly tripled—and most of it is now being shipped by rail.  The frequency of related deadly fires and explosions has also skyrocketed across the country,” said Kimberly Ong, Staff Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council.  “Communities nationwide urgently need the Department of Transportation to put existing safety technology to use to limit crude oil vapor pressure and greatly reduce the likelihood of these dangerous incidents nationwide.  We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and his colleagues for pushing for immediate action on this critical matter of public safety.”

“Until the state achieves its goal of 100% clean, renewable energy powered economy, an oil train tragedy in New York is sadly a matter of when, not if,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “The federal government should immediately act on Attorney General Schneiderman’s call for less volatile oil on the rails in our communities.  It could be a real life saver.”

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Mihir Desai, Environmental Scientist John Davis, and Policy Analyst Jeremy Magliaro under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chiefs Lisa Burianek and Monica Wagner of the New York Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Lemuel M. Srolovic and is part of the Division of Social Justice, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg.

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Washington Republican asks USDOT to consider further crude-by-rail regulations

Repost from American Shipper

Lawmaker asks USDOT to consider further crude-by-rail regulations

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., has requested the Department of Transportation study potential methods for reducing the combustibility of crude oil trains.
BY BEN MEYER |FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2016

U.S. House Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., is urging the Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider further regulation of freight trains carrying crude oil.

Beutler earlier this week sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Federal Railroad Administrator Sara Feinberg and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez asking DOT to study potential methods for reducing the combustibility of crude oil trains.

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.

On the federal level, DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration, in August released final rules amending the federal hazardous materials regulations related to the transport of crude oil and ethanol by rail.

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.”

The Senate in May unanimously passed the Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs, and Safety Evaluation (RESPONSE) Act, which aims to provide additional training for first responders, specifically for handling freight train derailments that include hazardous materials such as crude oil.

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.”

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SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

“We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

“It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

“The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

“It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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