Category Archives: Hazmat notification

CHICAGO MAGAZINE: BOMB TRAINS – The scariest threat you didn’t know about

Repost from Chicago Magazine

BOMB TRAINS – THE SCARIEST THREAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT

They’re explosive. Pervasive. And their movements are cloaked in secrecy. Their nickname? Bomb trains. And they roll through the heart of Chicago.
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A train carrying hazardous material, potentially crude oil, heads south through Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park, photographed at dusk on March 15, 2016. PHOTO: JON LOWNENSTEIN

BY Ted C. Fishman, April 25, 2016 9:35 A.M.

They could not look more ominous. The long coal-black tubes announce themselves by their distinctive shape and color, their markings too small to read from the street. The 30,000-gallon tank cars roll, sometimes 100 at a time, in trains of up to one mile in length. Their cargo? Crude oil—as much as three million gallons per train. Nearly all of it is light sweet Bakken crude, a type that is particularly explosive. In whole, these trains constitute likely the biggest, heaviest, and longest combustibles to ever traverse America, and they do so routinely. More pass through Chicago than any other big metro area. Their blast potential has earned them a terrifying nickname: bomb trains.

Stand long enough at 18th and Wentworth, on the traffic bridge that separates the newer sections of Chinatown from the largely residential South Loop, and you will spot the tank cars wending their way across neighborhoods on the Near South and West Sides, past playgrounds, schoolyards, and row after row of houses. An estimated 40 of these trains cut through the metro area weekly. There’s no public information on exact routes or timetables; revealing their paths, the logic goes, might aid potential saboteurs, a real risk in an age of terrorism.

Until recently, crude on the rails was relatively rare. But since 2008, when Bakken oil began rolling out of newly active fields in the United States—North Dakota is the biggest producer—and toward Eastern refineries, the number of oil tank car shipments has grown 50-fold. That’s pushed the number of accidents up, too. According to U.S. government data, from 1975 to 2012, an average of 25 crude oil spills from tank cars occurred on the rails each year. In 2014, that number rose to 141. Most incidents are minor, such as small leaks. But in cases of a major derailment, the result can be catastrophic, even fatal (see “Terrifying Incidents,” below).

Chicago found that in the last three years there were 17 derailments of crude oil trains in North America significant enough to generate news coverage. In eight of them, the tank cars blew, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air, filling the sky with black mushroom clouds. In the most severe cases, the flames produced are so hot that firefighters almost inevitably choose to let them burn out, which can take days, rather than extinguish them. (The Wall Street Journal calculated that a single tank car of sweet crude carries the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite.) Even when there are no explosions, the spills can wreak havoc on the environment: five of the 17 accidents resulted in the pollution of major waterways, affecting thousands of people across the continent.

Chicago is particularly vulnerable. As the Western Hemisphere’s busiest freight hub, the city has become a center for crude oil traffic, too. High volumes, combined with a densely populated urban setting, have watchdogs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council alarmed. Henry Henderson, the NRDC’s Midwest program director, sums up the threat this way: “Trains with highly explosive materials are traveling through the city on aging tracks in cars that are easily punctured, which can result in devastating explosions.”

Many of these trains cut through what were once industrial rail yards in the city and suburbs. Over the last 35 years, however, much of that property has turned into residential and commercial clusters. “You should assume that if you live in the Chicago area, near a railroad track, that there are trains carrying Bakken crude oil,” says Jim Healy, a member of the DuPage County Board.

Though Chicago has so far been spared a crude oil train crash, the potential of one presents a horrifying picture. One particular nightmare is emblazoned in the minds of first responders, and regulators. On July 6, 2013, a runaway crude oil train, which had been left unattended, sped through the center of the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Sixty-three cars derailed. Forty-seven people were killed, some literally incinerated while they drank at a bar.

The catastrophic 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic

The catastrophic 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic PHOTO: PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Emergency responders in the Chicago area say they are confident any derailment here could be managed before it reached neighborhood-destroying levels. “Crude is not the threat that everyone says it is,” says Gene Ryan, chief of planning for Cook County’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Ryan and a group of first responders looked closely at 29 major accidents across North America and found that “even though the crude is full of all kinds of volatile materials, the cars did not completely blow apart and hit homes,” he says.

But in a city as dense as Chicago, it takes only one freak incident to have a titanic effect on the urban landscape. Just last year, on March 5, on a stretch of track near Galena, Illinois, 21 BNSF Railway train cars carrying 630,000 gallons of Bakken crude derailed and tumbled down an embankment. Five of them burned for three days. At the time, James Joseph, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, told the Chicago Tribune: “We’re fortunate this occurred where it did, in a remote area, and there were no homes around it.”

Experts believe the train was likely headed for Chicago, 160 miles to the east.


Historically, oil in America moved from south (think Texas and Louisiana) to north mostly through pipelines, the safest conduits for it. When newly deployed technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—opened access to sources of oil in North Dakota and elsewhere in the West, few pipelines were in place to move the crude to the refineries back east that could handle it. (A proposed pipeline for Bakken crude running from Stanley, North Dakota, to Patoka, Illinois, has faced political and jurisdictional challenges.) With limited alternatives, oil producers and refiners turned to railroads. In 2014, trains carried 11 percent of the nation’s crude oil.

ChiMag_ImpactZoneSo what paths do these tank cars take? The exact routes are state secrets. But assuming 40 trains, carrying three million gallons of crude oil each, pass through the Chicago area weekly, that means more than 17 million gallons roll through the city daily. It’s an inexact count, and the NRDC has continued to push to get accurate information. “A lot of people don’t know their residences are adjacent to hazardous cargo,” says Henderson. “The issue should be subject to public discussion, but the public has been cut off from it.”

Using freight maps and firsthand reporting, the West Coast environmental advocacy group Stand has assembled a national map of the most common crude oil train routes and created an interactive website that allows users to determine how far any U.S. location is from these routes. For example, according to the site, half of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, home to 32,000 people and U.S. Cellular Field, falls squarely within a half-mile “evacuation zone,” established by the U.S. Department of Transportation for areas vulnerable to crude oil train explosions. Stretch that to the one-mile “impact zone” and you include the Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Cook County Juvenile Court.


 

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It’s not just Chicago proper that sees traffic from crude oil trains. They cut through Joliet, Naperville, Barrington, Aurora, and dozens of other suburbs. “I can look outside my office and see them passing through downtown,” says Tom Weisner, Aurora’s mayor. “About 120,000 tanker cars a year now come through our city.”

Last April, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered a maximum speed for crude oil trains of 40 miles an hour in populous areas. The majority of railroads run them 10 miles slower than that, an acknowledgment, in effect, that the trains aren’t invulnerable. Most often, it is a flawed track, wheel, or axle that leads to a derailment, which can then cause tank cars to rupture.

Bakken crude was first shipped using tank cars designed for nonhazardous materials and ill suited to its volatility. (Most tank cars are owned not by the railroads but by the oil producers and refiners, such as Valero Energy and Phillips 66, that ship crude.) Those first-generation tank cars, called DOT-111s, have almost all been subjected to new protections, including having their shells reinforced with steel a sixteenth of an inch thicker than used in earlier models. Federal regulations passed in 2015 mandate that by 2025 haulers must replace all cars with new models featuring even thicker steel shells and other safety measures.


 

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Railroads know the dangers. In addition to the human and environmental costs, one terrible accident could put a railroad company out of business. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which ran the train that devastated Lac-Mégantic, could only cover a fraction of its hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities and went bankrupt.

The big railroads hauling crude in the United States and Canada have spent heavily on new technology to make their lines safer, including an Association of American Rails app called AskRail, which identifies the contents and location of rail cars carrying hazardous materials. What railroad companies cannot yet do is reroute trains away from the populous areas whose growth their lines once spurred. There simply isn’t the infrastructure in place to do so.

And while the American Association of Railroads reports that rail companies have spent $600 billion since 1980 improving their current routes, even well-maintained tracks remain vulnerable. Department of Transportation accident data shows that broken rails were the main cause of freight derailments from 2001 to 2010. What’s more, the Federal Rail Administration, the agency charged with overseeing the integrity of America’s tracks, says it can only monitor less than 1 percent of the federally regulated rail system annually due to a shortage of manpower.

“There’s a lackadaisical attitude among people, including officials, about infrastructure that is not up to the threats against it, even as the threats are manifesting,” says Henderson. “You saw that in Flint, Michigan, and in other places with drinking water. And now with crude oil trains, which deal with very serious materials moving [on a system] not adequate to protect people from mistakes.”


10 Terrifying incidents

With crude oil rail shipments growing 50-fold in the last eight years, the number of accidents has risen too. Below, 10 of the most damaging. —Katie Campbell

JULY 6, 2013

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

In the worst recent accident, 63 cars on a runaway train derailed in the heart of this Canadian town. The resulting blast and flames killed 47 residents and destroyed 30 buildings in the small downtown.

NOVEMBER 8, 2013

Aliceville, Alabama

Outside this tiny Southern town, 25 cars spilled nearly 750,000 gallons of oil into surrounding wetlands, creating an environmental nightmare.

DECEMBER 30, 2013

Casselton, North Dakota

After two trains collided, 18 cars on the one carrying crude oil spilled nearly 400,000 gallons.

FEBRUARY 13, 2014

Vandergrift, Pennsylvania

Enroute from Chicago, a train went off the track and crashed into a downtown industrail building.

Lynchburg PHOTO: STEVE HELBER/AP

APRIL 30, 2014

Lynchburg, Virginia

A train from Chicago derailed near a pedestrian waterfront area, sending three cars—and 30,000 gallons of oil—into the James River.

FEBRUARY 16, 2015

Mount Carbon, West Virginia

After 27 cars went off the track during a snowstorm and exploded, the fire burned for four days.

Galena PHOTO: MIKE BURLEY/AP/TELEGRAPH HERALD

MARCH 5, 2015

Galena, Illinois

A train likely headed to Chicago derailed on a remote stretch of track, sending cars down an embankment. Even though the cars had been reinforced with half an inch of steel, the fire burned for three days.

MARCH 7, 2015

Gogama, Ontario

Just one month after a derailment in the same area, five cars fell into the Makami River, leaking oil into waterways used by locals for drinking and fishing.

MAY 6, 2015

Heimdal, North Dakota

Five cars exploded and spilled nearly 60,000 gallons of oil. Fire crews from three nearby towns were called to help fight the blaze.

JULY 16, 2015

Culbertson, Montana

Twenty cars toppled from the track, with three spilling a total of 35,000 gallons of oil, forcing 30 people to evacuate.

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KQED NEWS: Oil Trains Face Tough Haul in California

Repost from KQED News – The California Report

Oil Trains Face Tough Haul in California

By Julie Small, February 6, 2016

A train carrying crude oil operated by BNSF railway in California. (Jake Miille/Jake Miille Photography)

A statewide conflict over whether to allow more trains carrying crude oil into California is coming to a head in communities hundreds of miles apart.

The Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo and the Bay Area city of Benicia are poised to make decisions in the coming days that would have broad implications for the future of this type of import.

Longtime San Luis Obispo resident Heidi Harmon hopes to stop trains from hauling crude through her town, citing what she calls an “elevated risk of derailment.”

Oil trains would likely have to cross a 19th century bridge just a mile from the city’s thriving downtown.

“You can see the antiquated style with which this was put together” says Harmon, gesturing to rail tracks perched on top of the trestle’s steel rods.

She describes Stenner Creek Trestle as “stunning to look at but terrifying to consider a mile-and-a-half-long oil train coming over.”

Trains hauling up to 80 tanker cars could cross the trestle bridge multiple times a week if Phillips 66 gets wins approval for a plan to build a rail spur at its nearby refinery.

The company has applied for a permit to connect its Santa Maria refinery to the nearby Union Pacific line.

A steady decline in California oil production has compelled Phillips 66 to look for ways to bring in crude from other states. The company’s landlocked refinery in Santa Maria has no pipeline connection to do that — and no nearby port terminal.

The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission held hearings that began Thursday on whether to allow the rail spur project. County staff has advised against it, saying it poses too great a risk to public health and safety.

Harmon and hundreds of other opponents packed the meeting.

San Luis Obispo resident Heidi Harmon describes Stenner Creek Trestle as “stunning to look at but terrifying to consider a mile-and-a-half long oil train coming over.”

San Luis Obispo resident Heidi Harmon describes Stenner Creek Trestle as ‘stunning to look at but terrifying to consider a mile-and-a-half-long oil train coming over.’ (Julie Small/KQED)

“We have an opportunity in San Luis Obispo to say we do not want this train” said Harmon. “We do not want the dangers — the air pollution hazards and the increased cancer risks — we do not want this in our community.”

A series of accidents, including the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that killed 47 people in Quebec, have fueled fears and community opposition.

Phillips 66 officials declined an interview for this story but said in an email the company uses “one of the most modern railcar fleets in the industry.”

Over 100 government agencies and school boards, including many from the San Francisco Bay Area, also oppose the rail spur in San Luis Obispo.

A similar project at the Valero refinery in Benicia also faces strong opposition.

Valero also wants to connect its operations to Union Pacific.

Benicia’s planning commission has set a public hearing on that crude-by-rail project Monday. Staff there is recommending approval.

Political leadership is divided, but many residents are opposed. Some of those municipal governments of nearby cities want more safeguards included in the project. To get to Benicia, the crude would first pass through communities far north, including Auburn, Sacramento and the university town of Davis.

“The rail line passes through the heart of our downtown and has a few geographic elements to it that raise concerns when oil trains are going through it,” said Mike Webb, city planner for Davis.

“We are not trying to stop the project,” Webb emphasized. “Our primary mission is to ensure that, to the extent that these trains and these materials are going through our communities, let’s make it as safe as it can possibly be.”

Davis officials and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) are pushing for a commitment from Valero and UP to use technology that automatically slows trains in densely populated areas.

“Public safety and first responder advance notification is of paramount concern,” said Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, a former council chair.

Officials also want a commitment to provide more training and funding for first responders in communities along the route and for emergency crews to get warned before an oil train comes down the line.

Chris Howe, a manager for Valero, testified at a public hearing last year on the Benicia oil-by-rail project that the company is committed to strong safety standards and modern technology.

“We have from the start planned to utilize in our project upgraded railcars.” Howe said.

Valero is also working with an experienced railroad.

San Antonio-based Valero Corp. is the nation's biggest refiner. The Benicia refinery is one of two the company operates in California.

San Antonio-based Valero Corp. is the nation’s biggest refiner. The Benicia refinery is one of two the company operates in California. (Craig Miller/KQED)

“We expect UP railroad — which is the prime railroad that we’ll be utilizing to move those trains — to do so safely,” Howe said. “Many of the incidents that have happened have occurred on much smaller, less well maintained railroads.”

Union Pacific says it has made changes to reduce the risk of hauling crude: implementing slower speeds in high-population areas and creating analytical tools to find the safest routes.

The two projects under consideration are among a handful of crude-by-rail projects proposed in recent years to take advantage of inexpensive crude from North Dakota, Canada and Texas.

But the recent plunge in oil prices has made hauling it by train more expensive, causing some of those plans to unravel.

“The rail economics have changed the calculus for some companies” said Gordon Schremp, a senior fuel analyst with the California Energy Commission.

Last year WesPac abandoned a plan to build a rail terminal in the Bay Area town of Pittsburg, citing a lack of investors for the project. Alon USA has yet to act on a permit the company acquired in 2012 to build a crude-by-rail terminal at an idle refinery in Bakersfield.

According to Schremp, even at the peak of industry interest rail imports comprised just 1 percent of California’s oil imports. By the end of 2015, those imports plummeted to one-tenth of 1 percent.

“Crude-by-rail was never a very important source supply,” said Schremp, “because we did not have the facilities constructed.”

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New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention

Repost from Center for Biological Diversity

CenterForBiolDiv_logoNew Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention

Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments

For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054

WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.

“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”

The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.

But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.

“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”

Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.

“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”

Background 

The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.

The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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