Category Archives: Liquid natural gas

Derailment explosion – 3rd accident in North America involving upgraded DOT-117R tank cars

Repost from DeSmog

Ethanol Train Derails and Burns in Texas, Killing Horses and Spurring Evacuation

By Justin Mikulka, April 25, 2019
Fort Worth ethanol train fires
Screen shot of emergency personnel watching an ethanol train burn near Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

Early in the morning on April 24, an ethanol train derailed, exploded, and burned near Fort Worth, Texas, reportedly destroying a horse stable, killing three horses, and causing the evacuation of nearby homes. According to early reports, 20 tank cars left the tracks, with at least five rupturing and burning.

While specific details have not yet been released, it appears to be a unit train of ethanol using the federally mandated DOT-117R tank cars, based on the images showing tank car markings. This is now the third accident in North America involving the upgraded DOT-117R tank cars, all resulting in major spills of either oil or ethanol.

This latest fiery derailment highlights the dangers to the estimated 25 million people living within the blast zone along rail lines across North America. While this incident had no human fatalities, the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people, devastating the small Canadian town. As I’ve exhaustively reported, the same risk factors for hauling oil by rail, and increasingly, ethanol, are still in place years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

In Texas, first responders were quickly on the scene and able to contain the fire, preventing the situation from worsening. When ethanol rail tank cars are involved in fires, the unpunctured tanks can explode as the fire increases the temperature and pressure in the full tanks.

For example, after a BNSF train derailed in Montana in August 2012, eight of the 14 cars carrying ethanol caught fire, resulting in an explosion and the signature “bomb train” mushroom cloud–shaped ball of fire.

Video: Fort Worth ethanol train derailment. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

Ethanol Industry Adopting Risky Oil Train Practices

In 2016 DeSmog published a series of articles analyzing why oil trains were derailing at over twice the rate of ethanol trains. Likely contributing factors included the fact that the derailing oil trains were longer and heavier than ethanol trains.

The oil industry was moving oil using “unit trains,” which are long trains dedicated to a single commodity, while the ethanol industry was using shorter trains. The majority of ethanol was shipped as part of manifest trains, carrying multiple types of cargo and not just ethanol.

As part of the analysis, DeSmog found that derailing ethanol trains tended to be longer trains of 100 or more cars.

However, longer trains are more profitable, and in 2016 the ethanol industry noted it intended to follow the lead of the oil industry and begin to move more ethanol via long unit trains. This announcement led to the following conclusion in the 2016 DeSmog series:

“Based on the ethanol industry’s interest in using more unit trains for ‘efficiency,’ and the fact that it is allowed to transport ethanol in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars until 2023, perhaps it won’t be long before ethanol trains are known as bomb trains too.”

And while the DOT-111 tank cars are less robust than the DOT-117R tank cars, both have a history indicating neither are safe to move flammable liquids in unit trains. And DOT-117R tank cars are heavier than DOT-111s, adding another factor that increases chances for train derailment.

Bomb Train Risks Continue to Grow

After a string of oil trains filled with volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale derailed and exploded in 2013 and 2014, there was a push for new safety regulations for trains carrying flammable materials including crude oil and ethanol.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new regulations, which, as DeSmog noted at the time, were a big win for the oil and rail industries and their lobbyists. While touted as increasing safety, these watered-down rules did not address the trains’ known risk factors or require the oil and rail industries to implement proven safety technologies. The one requirement in the new 2015 regulations that would have greatly improved safety mandated that railroads transition to modern braking systems. That requirement has since been repealed.

The rail industry frequently calls the upgraded tank cars, which include DOT-117Rs and were required by federal regulators, a safety improvement. However, in the first two derailments involving the new cars, those purportedly safer tank cars led to major oil spills. One of those occurred in February in Manitoba, Canada, and now the Fort Worth derailment appears to represent a third example of these upgraded rail cars’ failed safety.

In 2014 during rail safety discussions, the rail industry was recommending using much more robust tank cars — known as “pressure cars” — to move the volatile crude oil implicated in oil train explosions, but federal regulators did not incorporate the recommendation into the final rules. That is why oil and ethanol continue to be moved in rail cars that fail and lead to large leaks and fires during derailments.

In Utah a train carrying propane in pressure cars recently derailed, highlighting the risk of even those more robust tank cars. That derailment caused a propane leak, and hazmat experts decided the safest thing to do was detonate the tank cars, a situation possible when in rural Utah. However, health experts were concerned about the impact on air quality for local residents.

Despite the many examples of the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail, President Trump recently issued an executive order mandating federal regulators allow moving liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail as soon as next year.

These risks are why a group of people were just arrested for blocking oil train tracks in Oregon. And why legislators in the state of Washington have passed legislation requiring oil be stabilized — to make it less volatile and likely to ignite — prior to its loading on rail tank cars for shipment. Several states also are looking at passing laws requiring two-person crews for freight trains to improve safety. One of the factors cited in the deadly Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster was that the train was operated by a single person.

States are moving to address these very real, well-documented, and preventable risk factors because the U.S. federal government has fallen short in mitigating those risks to American communities from the oil and rail industries. These regulatory shortcomings, which began under President Obama’s administration, have only intensified under the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory approach. With the prospect of LNG trains in the near future — along with record amounts of oil trains coming from Canada to U.S. ports and refineries — the risks of “bomb train” accidents (the nickname bestowed by nervous rail operators) continue to grow.

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    Trump Order to Allow LNG by Rail Would Expand ‘Bomb Train’ Risks

    Repost from DeSmog

    Deadly explosion in Durham, North Carolina on same day as Trump’s order

    By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, April 17, 2019 – 15:13

    Fiery detonation of a propane train in Utah

    On April 10, first responders in Durham, North Carolina, responded to a suspected natural gas leak. While they were evacuating people from the area, the gas exploded, killing one person and injuring at least 25.

    The same day Durham was dealing with the aftermath of a deadly natural gas explosion, President Donald Trump was issuing an executive order directing federal regulators to create new rules allowing rail companies to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) by train in the next 13 months, or less.

    The gas and rail industries have lobbied for years to allow LNG by rail, and have found a willing partner in the Trump administration. Last week’s executive order was cheered by lobbyists for both natural gas and rail. One lobbyist, Charlie Riedl of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, immediately spoke about the purported safety of moving natural gas in any form.

    It’s really hard to even get it to ignite to begin with in a gaseous format, let alone in a liquid format,” Riedl told Bloomberg.

    Durham, however, might disagree.

    Are Federal Regulators Testing the Safety?

    As I wrote in January 2017, Robert Fronczak, a top official at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a railroad industry lobbying group, gave the industry position on LNG by rail in a late 2016 presentation titled, “Getting LNG Onto the Rails.”

    At the Energy by Rail conference, Fronczak noted that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was researching the risks of transporting LNG by rail, but that according to Fronczak, “That could take several years to do and we don’t think it’s necessary to wait all that long … We think they should allow it immediately.”

    Fronczak’s presentation also included a slide titled, “What DOT Should Do?” (DOT refers to the Department of Transportation.) His presentation recommended transporting LNG in a class of refrigerated tank cars called DOT-113, which is used to move the hydrocarbon ethylene.

    From Getting LNG Onto the Rails presentation October 27, 2016. Credit: Robert Fronczak, AAR

    In 2017, DeSmog asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the planned testing around LNG by rail, but the response provided few details: “The testing is still ongoing … there’s no prediction yet on a completion date.”

    Last week DeSmog inquired again about the status of this research and received a similar response: “Additional tests are planned this year and next but full details are not yet available.”

    These answers are typical of the communication from the FRA these days.

    In a follow-up email I asked one question, “Simply put, how can we assure people that this is safe when the research hasn’t been done?”

    The FRA‘s emailed response did not answer the question directly but, just as in Fronczak’s presentation, referenced the refrigerated tank cars used to transport ethylene: ”DOT-113 cryogenic tank cars have been in service for approximately 50 years transporting ethylene, refrigerated liquid (ethylene and methane have the same cryogenic and flammable characteristics) with a good safety record.” (Natural gas is primarily methane.)

    The president has mandated that regulations allowing LNG by rail be in place in 13 months. However, the FRA currently isn’t providing any public information on actions the agency is taking to ensure this can be done safely. And while it is true that the DOT-113 tank cars have been moving hazardous materials safely for years, the number of these tanks cars in service is quite low compared to crude oil and ethanol. In 2015 there were under 13,000 car loads of product moved using DOT-113 tank cars.

    To put that in perspective, according to a 2014 AAR documentU.S. railroads were transporting 9,500 carloads of crude oil in 2008 but by 2013, that number skyrocketed to 407,761 carloads. Crude oil trains weren’t experiencing major derailments before rail companies shifted to transporting oil in long unit trains of 100 cars or more at high volumes, which was the case in 2013, the year of the deadly Lac-Mégantic crude oil derailment.

    The problems with moving oil by rail showed up once large amounts of crude oil began moving in these long trains dedicated to just moving crude oil (unit trains). As I’ve noted on DeSmog, the oil-by-rail boom also coincided with the use of heavier rail cars that could hold up to 286,000 pounds when fully loaded. The DOT-113 tank cars likely to carry LNG can hold the same weight.

    In pushing for LNG by rail, Fronczak was just doing his job, which is to promote rail industry interests, that is, profits. That is what lobbyists are paid to do.

    When contacted for comment, the AAR pointed to its recent press release on Trump’s executive order and the AAR‘s petition to allow LNG by rail. The rail lobbying group did not address questions about the AAR‘s current position on unit trains and train length regulations for LNG.

    However, unlike the AAR, the FRA‘s job is to regulate the rail industry and protect the public from unnecessary risks.

    Misleading Media Headlines

    A headline on a story from the oil and gas trade site Oilprice.com, which also appeared on Yahoo Finance, dismisses concerns about the dangers of LNG by rail: “Environmentalists’ “Bomb Train” Concerns Are Overblown.” (“Bomb train” is the nickname rail operators gave oil trains after they began exploding with giant fireballs after derailing.)

    While the headline is dismissive, the story itself includes information contradicting the headline and spelling out the very real safety concerns regarding LNG by rail. It mentions “plenty of cautionary tales from previous experiments in sending oil and gas by rail, from spills, explosions, and accidents” to the oil train disaster that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

    Despite its headline and after citing industry views on the relative safety of LNG, the story goes on to say, “While that sounds like any cause for alarm and cries of ‘bomb trains’ is overblown, however, there is still a wide margin for risk if a tank of LNGwere ruptured or caused in any other way to come into contact with air.”

    Utah’s Propane Bomb Train Previews LNG by Rail

    An important detail in this conversation about moving LNG by rail is that the LNG likely would travel in much more robust, safer tank cars, the DOT-113 line, than even the new cars used to move ethanol and oil. Even though rail companies now are transporting oil in newer tank cars, those cars have failed repeatedly during derailments, resulting in large oil spills.

    Liquefied propane currently travels in DOT-112 tank cars, which are also more robust than the ones used for oil and ethanol. At the end of March, a train moving propane in Utah derailed and the damage led to some propane leaking. However, the derailment was nothing like the typical oil train derailment, with multiple ruptured cars and major product releases.

    Why aren’t oil and ethanol moved in the same tank cars as propane? This idea was floated at one point as the Department of Transportation was preparing its 2015 oil-by-rail regulations, but industry lobbyists quickly vetoed it. As a result, the tank cars that oil and ethanol travel in remain one of the many risk factors surrounding these products’ transport.

    The accident in Utah showed that the tank cars used to move propane do a better job at preventing product leases than the ones used to move crude oil. However, it also highlights the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail.

    While the train in Utah didn’t explode on its own after derailing, the damage to the rail cars carrying the propane and its explosion risks led responders to decide the best way to deal with the derailed cars was to detonate them in place.


    Video of propane tank car detonation in Juab County, Utah. Credit: Juab County Sheriff’s Office

    This was possible because it was in rural Utah, more than 70 miles from Salt Lake City and six miles outside a town of less than 700. However, the natural gas and rail industries’ top priority for introducing LNG by rail is to move LNG to the Northeast, which is experiencing pipeline bottlenecks.

    That means trains carrying LNG would go by and through major cities.

    Can you safely detonate rail cars full of flammable gas in a major population center?

    As the U.S. grapples with a potential boom in moving fracked natural gas-turned-LNG across this country using long, heavy unit trains, it seems like a question the FRA should be examining. As I’ve documented over the years, we know what happened when federal regulators failed to do this before the crude-by-rail boom: We discovered “bomb trains.”

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      Rail Safety bill passes off California Senate Floor with bipartisan support

      Press Release from California Senator Lois Wolk

      Rail Safety bill passes off Senate Floor with bipartisan support

      Bill requires minimum two–person train crews

      5/11/2015 12:21 PM

      SACRAMENTO—Legislation by Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) to protect communities along rail lines by requiring trains and light engines carrying freight within California to be operated with an adequate crew size for public safety reasons secured passage from the Senate last Thursday on a bipartisan 23-11 vote.

      “Today’s freight trains carry extremely dangerous materials, including Bakken crude oil, ethanol, anhydrous ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, and acids that may pose significant health and safety risks to communities and our environment in the case of an accident,” said Wolk. “With more than 5,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the state through wilderness and urban areas, the potential for derailment or other accidents containing these materials is an ever present danger.”

      SB 730 prohibits a freight train or light engine in California from being operated unless it has a crew consisting of at least 2 individuals.   It also authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission to assess civil penalties, at its discretion, against anyone who willfully violates this prohibition.

      The California Public Utilities Commission supports SB 730, stating that requiring two-person crews is a straightforward way of ensuring two qualified crew members continue to operate freight trains in California.  According to the Commission, of all the industries subject to their oversight — energy, water, telecommunications, and transportation –rail accidents result in the greatest number of fatalities each year.

      “Senator Wolk’s legislation helps keep us at the forefront of rail safety, ” said Paul King, Deputy Director of the Office of Rail Safety for the California Public Utilities Commission. “Senator Wolk’s bill would ensure that freight trains continue to have the safety redundancy that a second person provides. Such redundancy is a fundamental safety principle that is evidenced in certain industries, such as using two pilots in an airplane cockpit, or requiring back-up cooling systems for nuclear reactors.”

      SB 730 will be heard next in the Assembly sometime in June.

      ###

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        Union Pacific aims to be first railroad to haul liquefied natural gas

        Repost from The Omaha World-Herald

        Union Pacific aims to be first railroad to haul liquefied natural gas

        By Russell Hubbard, March 19, 2015 1:00 am
        Union Pacific
        THE WORLD-HERALD

        Union Pacific Railroad has applied for permission to haul liquefied natural gas, which would add another combustible cargo to a U.S. rail network already being criticized for transporting ethanol and crude oil through populated areas.

        The Omaha-based railroad said the application for a permit from the Federal Railroad Administration is in response to a request for liquefied natural gas transportation from an existing customer. Union Pacific operates 32,000 miles of track in the western United States, which is home to many natural gas production and storage installations.

        If Union Pacific is granted the permit, it would be a first. The Association of American Railroads said none of the six other Class I freight railroads are hauling liquefied natural gas.

        The permit application coincides with a major bump in railway ethanol and crude oil cargo, which has attracted heavy opposition after a fatal oil train explosion in Canada in 2013 and three oil train fires so far this year in the United States and one in Canada.

        “The timing for U.P. is awkward given recent accidents and mounting public apprehension,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation sciences professor at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I am sure there will be pressure for a go-slow approach on it, but the fact is that railroads are the best bet to get significant amounts of natural gas to market given the decades it takes to permit and construct pipelines.”

        Details about the application are secret. A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said application and supporting materials are not available for public inspection during the review process. “Federal law limits our disclosure” of which customer is requesting transport of liquefied natural gas, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said.

        Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, however, is a well-known commodity. Liquefying the fuel — which most often moves via pipeline, truck and ship — compacts it enormously. That makes it attractive to shippers and those who want to store large quantities. Liquefied gas takes up 1/600th the space of the gaseous form. The liquid gas can then be converted back into its gaseous state for use or further shipment in pipelines.

        Union Pacific’s permit request comes as U.S. natural gas production is climbing, up 37 percent since 2000. Part of the boom is the conversion of coal-burning electric plants to natural gas. There also are 128,000 vehicles in the United States running on compressed natural gas, up 12 percent since 2010.

        “It has only been a matter of time for the railroads to get in on the natural gas boom,” Schwieterman said. “It is a fast-growing industry with fast-growing logistical needs.”

        But some people are holding back. Eddie Scher, an officer with ForestEthics, a California-based lobbying group that advocates the gradual elimination of fossil fuels, said that transporting another flammable cargo on the rail network is a very poor idea.

        “The rail system in America was built to connect population centers, with trains going through every downtown in the country,” Scher said. “It was never designed to haul hazardous materials, and in fact, you could say that if you were to design a rail system for hazardous materials, the one we have is the opposite of the one you would design.”

        Scher said federal safety rules are already out of date for oil trains and their tank cars, with millions of gallons of oil a day riding the rails, up from nearly zero only five years ago, courtesy of skyrocketing production from new fields in Montana and North Dakota.

        “To entertain the idea of new and potentially more dangerous cargo makes no sense at all,” Scher said.

        Hauling dangerous cargo is nothing new for Union Pacific and other railroads, which haul chlorine, explosives and sulfur.

        Safety is a main point of emphasis for every cargo, said Hunt, the Union Pacific spokesman. The national train accident rate has fallen 42 percent since 2000 and 79 percent since 1980, according to the railroad association. At Union Pacific, derailments have fallen about 7 percent since 2010, to three for every million miles of train travel.

        “We have the same goal as everyone else, and it’s in the best interest of our customers, shareholders and the communities where our employees and their families live, work and play to operate as safely as possible,” Hunt said.

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