Category Archives: Massive increase in crude-by-rail

MUST READ: Hauling crude oil may be causing train tracks to fail

Repost from the Los Angeles Times

Why are so many oil trains crashing? Track problems may be to blame

Ralph Vartabedian, October 7, 2015
Oil train derailment
Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. (Mike Burley / Associated Press)

The only sign of trouble aboard a Norfolk Southern train, hauling roughly 9,000 tons of Canadian crude in western Pennsylvania last year, was a moderate sway in the locomotive as it entered a bend on the Kiskiminetas River.

The first 66 cars had passed safely around the curve when the emergency brakes suddenly engaged, slamming the train to a stop. The conductor trudged back nearly a mile through newly fallen snow to see what happened.

Twenty-one cars had derailed, one slamming through the wall of a nearby factory. Four tank cars were punctured, sending 4,300 gallons of crude pouring out of the tangled wreckage.

Freight train derailment
Cars are seen from a freight train derailment on Feb. 13, 2014, in Vandergrift, Pa. (Darrell Sapp / Associated Press)

The cause of the accident in North Vandergrift was identified as a failure in the rails — not aging or poorly maintained tracks, but a relatively new section laid less than a year earlier.

The February 2014 crash fits into an alarming pattern across North America that helps explain the significant rise of derailments involving oil-hauling trains over the last three years, even as railroads are investing billions of dollars in improving the safety of their networks. A review of 31 crashes that have occurred on oil trains since 2013 puts track failure at the heart of the growing safety problem.

Track problems were blamed on 59% of the crashes, more than double the overall rate for freight train accidents, according to a Times analysis of accident reports. Investigators and rail safety experts are looking at how the weight and movements of oil trains may be causing higher than expected track failures.

The growing number of trains hauling crude oil from Canada and the Northern Plains are among the heaviest on the rails today, many extending more than 100 cars in length and weighing a cumulative 19,000 tons or more.

Not since the early days of John D. Rockefeller’s oil trust have railroads played such a central role in moving oil from wells to refineries. Oil shipments by rail have soared — an 18-fold increase between 2010 and 2014 — as domestic oil production has escalated faster than the construction of new pipelines to carry it to market.

Concerns about the safety of hauling crude began to rise after the horrific Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec in July 2013 that left 47 people dead and the city’s downtown in ruins.

The Federal Railroad Administration is preparing in coming weeks to issue a new set of initiatives to address the track problems, after previously clamping tighter restrictions on tank car designs and railroad operations. But solving the track problems could be a formidable challenge.

Oil train crashes since 2013
Infographic: Oil train crashes since 2013

Sarah Feinberg, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency is working hard to improve safety, but preventing accidents that result from defective track involves finding a needle in every haystack along thousands of miles of track.

“We have been incredibly lucky that the accidents have happened mostly in rural areas,” she said. “Some of them have been very close calls.”

The crashes have occurred as the nation’s railroad system is being asked to do more than at any time in history, putting additional wear and tear on the tracks. Since 2001, railroads have seen a modest 12% increase in the number of cars they haul, but a 24% jump in the more comprehensive measurement of cargo that looks at the weight and train mileage the system has to bear, known as ton-miles, according to industry data.

Though railroads have significantly improved safety in general, the oil train accidents are a worrisome trend in the opposite direction and not fully understood.

Of the 31 crashes involving crude or ethanol since 2013, 17 were related to track problems and 12 a mix of other causes. The cause of the two other crashes remains unclear. The count is based on both final or preliminary government and railroad investigations that were collected by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act or in U.S., Canadian and railroad company filings.

About two-thirds of the accidents resulted in spills, fires or explosions, a record that has already prompted regulators to demand stronger tank cars and other safety measures.

Weight, oil sloshing and cold temperatures are among the issues that might be exacerbating the problem, according to rail safety experts.

Investigators at Safety Transportation Board Canada, which is investigating the eight accidents that have occurred in that country, are beginning to suspect that the oil trains are causing unusual track damage.

“Petroleum crude oil unit trains transporting heavily loaded tank cars will tend to impart higher than usual forces to the track infrastructure during their operation,” the safety board said in a report this year. “These higher forces expose any weaknesses that may be present in the track structure, making the track more susceptible to failure.”

Rick Inclima, safety director at the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, also said that oil trains could be creating unique stresses on the track. “You can certainly get some rhythmic forces in … oil trains that you might not see on a mixed freight train with cars of different sizes, weights and commodities,” he said.

The nation’s major railroads are investing record amounts of money to upgrade their tracks and improve safety. The seven class-one railroads, which haul the majority of the nation’s freight, are spending $29 billion this year on their systems, nearly double the level of 2001, according to the American Assn. of Railroads. The trade group did not have any response to The Times analysis of oil train accidents, though it said its member companies exceed federal requirements for inspection and safety.

But that has not eliminated the problem. While all types of derailments dropped 17% over the last three years, there are still more than three every day across the nation, involving trains carrying a variety of freight, according to federal safety data. Bad track accounts for about 27% of overall accidents, less than half the rate that track problems are contributing to oil train accidents.

Though railroad technology may seem antiquated in a digital age, it relies on incredible precision to control monstrously heavy loads. The track in North Vandergrift, Pa., where the Norfolk Southern accident occurred, carries about 30 million tons of freight every year.

The relentless pounding plays havoc with any metallurgical flaw. Wooden ties deteriorate as they age. And other track components crack.

Investigators attributed the Pennsylvania derailment to a “wide gauge” failure, in which the rails were pushed too far apart to keep the wheels on the tracks.

The freight tracks in the U.S. and most of the world are supposed to be 56.5 inches apart, a width known as the gauge. Just three inches of movement can cause a derailment. And even if tracks conform to federal standards, they can separate under the force of a heavy train.

“Wide gauge” is the single largest cause of accidents involving track defects. In the case of the Pennsylvania derailment, it was broken spikes that caused the rail to widen, even though the track had been replaced in 2012, according to Federal Railroad Administration officials.

Private railroad experts have suggested that the sloshing of oil inside the cars may also be involved in the derailments.

Tank cars are only partially filled with oil, allowing for expansion if the temperature increases. The tanks have internal baffles, but the liquid can still slosh as the cars move, causing higher dynamic loads, said Bill Keppen, an independent rail safety expert. “Sloshing increases the stress on the track,” he said.

Federal safety experts said if sloshing does have an effect, they do not consider it significant.

The Times examination of accident reports also shows the large majority of derailments occurred in below freezing temperatures, ranging down to 23 below zero in a crash this year in Ontario.

As temperatures drop, steel rails progressively shrink, amplifying the potential for any existing defect to cause a failure, FRA safety experts said in interviews. Frozen ballast, the crushed rock that forms the rail bed, also causes rail to undergo greater shocks under the load of heavy trains.

Federal regulators and the industry are trying to improve safety, but opinions are sharply divided about exactly what measures are needed.

The Federal Railroad Administration, for example, has ordered that crude-carrying trains can travel at no more than 40 miles per hour in urban areas. But the North Vandergrift train was going only 36 mph. Nineteen of the trains whose speeds are known were moving 40 mph or slower, and no train was going faster than 50 mph, records show.

The railroad administration has increased its track inspections and railroads have agreed to increase their own inspections, according to Matthew Lehner, the agency’s communications director.

“In the coming weeks, the Federal Railroad Administration plans to announce additional steps to prevent crude oil train derailments,” Lehner said.

Critics say that many of the safety initiatives adopted so far reflect a policy aimed at mitigating the damage caused by derailments rather than preventing them.

“The attention has changed,” said Brigham McCown, former chief of the federal agency that sets tank car standards. “I hear people say, ‘It happens, they derail.’ I think that is an untenable position. As a safety regulator, I don’t think you can ever say, ‘Things blow up,’ or ‘Things crash.’ I believe the Department of Transportation has myopically focused on incident mitigation. Prevention should be the first question they should address.”

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    States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

    Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

    States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

    Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
     By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015
    In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

    When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

    The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

    “This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

    The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

    Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

    Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

    California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

    A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

    “The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

    Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

    In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

    Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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      #StopOilTrains – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb train

      Repost from The Ecologist
      [Editor:  An excellent cheeky overview.  I’d like to see this documented: “This phenomenon [catastrophic oil train explosions] has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains.”  – RS]

      #StopOilTrains – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb train

      Stephyn Quirke, 9th July 2015
      Two things are new in the Pacific Northwest, writes Stephyn Quirke: abnormally hot, dry weather that has even killed Chinook salmon on their run upriver to spawn; and ‘bomb trains’ a mile or more long carrying thousands of tonnes of oil, with just a single sleep-deprived driver on board. What could possibly go wrong?
      StopOilTrains demo Ticonderoga NY 2015-07-07
      More than a hundred people converged in Ticonderoga, NY on 7th July for a flotilla and symbolic blockade to ‪#StopOilTrains. Photo: Rising Tide Vermont.

      Is our weather getting funny?

      Some bushes and flowers started to bloom near the end of January this year, and in the spring cherry blossoms were blooming weeks early. This capped a winter with extremely low snowfall in the Cascade Mountains.

      The abnormal heat, combined with the drought now covering 80% of Oregon, has actually raised temperatures in the Willamette River above 70 degrees, recently killing Chinook salmon as they made their way up-stream to spawn.

      In March, tribal leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians converged in Portland to discuss this ongoing phenomenon of strange weather, which they cannily dubbed ‘climate change’. These changes, they said, were related to a pattern of global warming, and were creating unique hardship on Northwest tribes.

      In 2013, the ATNI also passed a resolution opposing all new fossil fuel proposals in the Northwest, citing harm to their treat rights, cultural resources, and land they hold sacred. Now the Affiliated Tribes are discussing plans for adaptation and mitigation, and asking how to undermine the root causes of climate change.

      And that’s not all. Now there’s mile-long oil trains

      In addition to the sudden onset of strange weather, Portland has also seen the abrupt arrival of strange, mile-long trains loaded with crude oil – a very unusual sight in the Northwest until just two years ago.

      In the event of a derailment or crash, these trains are known to increase the temperature of surrounding areas by several hundred degrees – a strange weather event by any standard. This phenomenon has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains”.

      While the danger of unplanned explosions is universally recognized, the risks of strange weather, and the planned explosions that take place in our internal combustion engines, are typically less appreciated. But the connections are becoming more obvious as the figure of the oil train valiantly pulls them together.

      The sudden appearance of oil trains in the Northwest is one effect of the unprecedented crusade for oil extraction in North America – one that has produced a massive wave of opposition from residents and elected officials.

      In Washington state alone, nine cities representing 40% of the state’s population have passed resolutions that oppose oil trains. In Alberta resistance to oil politics recently replaced a 44-year ruling party with socialists. And in Portland, anger against oil trains just smashed a city proposal to bring propane trains into the port.

      In recent months rail workers have become increasingly vocal about the industry-wide safety problems that lead to fiery train accidents. They are also critical of the latest safety rules that allegedly protect the public from accidents.

      Rail Workers United, a coalition of rail workers and their unions, says that the best way to make trains safer is to increase worker control and self-management; they propose a host of reforms that profit-obsessed rail companies are not interested in hearing.

      For many rail-side communities there is a parallel interest in community control over the railroads: no fossil fuel trains are safe for them as long as trains derail and the climate unravels.

      Together, the two movements are calling for a better future for our railroads and our environment, and demanding more public influence to safeguard both.

      Who’s in control? A retrospective.

      A little over two years ago on 6th July 2013, an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. After the accident the CEO of Rail World, Edward Burkhardt, told the media that he blamed the single employee his company had charged with moving 2 million gallons of crude oil.

      Armed with his very best talking points, Burkhardt told the media: “I think he did something wrong. It’s hard to explain why someone didn’t do something.”

      According to reports, the lead locomotive’s engine had problems in the past, but had been rushed back into circulation to save the company money on a standard repair. That engine caught fire the night before the disaster, and a local fire chief shut off the engine to stop fuel from flowing into the fire, inadvertently cutting the power to the train’s air brakes in the process.

      The company told the lone crew member not to come back to the site, and instead sent two workers who did not have experience with the braking system to confirm that the train was safe. Later that night, while the engineer was asleep in a nearby hotel, the train rolled down-hill from where it was parked, hurtling toward the city.

      The impact of the explosion incinerated half the city’s downtown, and contaminated most of the remaining buildings with 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.

      ‘One man crews are safer – less distraction’

      For CEO Burkhardt, the explanation was simple – the engineer should have set more brakes that did not rely on the engine. When asked if the crew was adequate for the cargo the following week, Burkhardt told a press conference that “one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction.”

      Under financial pressure, the company had made the switch to one-person crews three years before, replacing on-board conductors with remote control systems, and saving about $4.5 million every year. One month after the tragedy in Lac Megantic, the company filed for bankruptcy. Later that month Burkhardt expressed bewilderment when the police raided his corporate offices in Quebec.

      In March, a coalition of rail workers held a conference on rail safety in Olympia, Washington, where they taught audience members (including myself) that the average train operator today suffers from chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

      Many workers in attendance attributed this to inaccurate train-lineups that do not allow for proper rest. Due to the uncertainty of when they are called to work, a train crew can be assigned to move a train full of hazardous materials without the chance to achieve needed rest from their last assignment. And with full knowledge they will be penalized for refusing a train, workers can go over 24 hours with no sleep by the time a shift ends.

      This exhaustion is a chronic background problem for rail workers, and when combined with the near-constant dismissal of safety hazards from their managers, workers are left with waning confidence in their own safety – a development that should raise red flags for rail-side communities.

      One man crews on long and heavy trains – a recipe for disaster

      According to Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of Rail Workers United, “There’s no such thing as a safe one-person train.” Looking back over some recent derailments, the facts appear to back him up.

      On 14th May an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing 8 passengers and sending over 200 people to the hospital. It was staffed by one person, and accelerated to over 100 miles per hour shortly before hitting a curve whose speed limit was 50.

      On October 28th last year, a sleep-deprived engineer in the Bronx fell asleep at his controls, causing his one-crew train to hit a curve at 82 miles per hour when the speed limit was 30. The derailment killed four people and injured more than 70.

      On July 24th, 2013 a single crew-member train derailed in Santiago, Spain, killing 79 people and injuring 139. The train was traveling at 100 miles per hour when it headed into a curve where the speed limit was 50.

      Public officials commenting on these incidents have often focused on the technology that could have stopped the trains remotely if installed – something US railroads are already required to utilize under federal law, despite constant extensions on their legal deadlines.

      According to rail workers, this is just part of the problem. Rapid attempts at cost-cutting, they say, have created both technological and human shortages, and when it comes to safety there is no question which one matters most.

      “There is no technology available today that can ever safely replace a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive”, says a statement from the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions after the Philadelphia derailment.

      Obama administration sitting on proposed two-man rule

      Prior to 1967, Washington state actually required 6 crew members on all trains. That law was repealed in 1967 after the rail corporations ran an initiative campaign that wiped it out. In the 1980s, the standard train crew was still five or six people across the country.

      But this was widdled down to two people by the 1990s – with just one conductor and one engineer. This has been the standard ever since. Now, through the use of new technology, the rail corporations have attempted to break down that number to one or even zero.

      According to Herb Krohn, the Washington State Legislative Director for Smart UTU, the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad is already using one-person crews to run trains loaded with hazardous materials – like the one that blew in Lac Megantic – including trains full of explosive gas. This line operates in Washington State between Centralia, Grays Harbor and Shelton.

      In the aftermath of Lac Megantic, the Canadian Minister of Transport mandated two-person crews for trains carrying dangerous goods. In January the US Federal Rail Administration proposed a rule on two-person crews, but the Obama administration has so far declined to consider the proposal.

      Train lengths doubled in eight years

      In addition to cutting crew sizes, the biggest rail companies have doubled train lengths since 2007, routinely moving trains a mile long or even greater. This decreases labor costs, but also weakens tracks and causes exceptional wear on rail infrastructure. Factoring in this extra length and tonnage, a two person crew today represents one-sixth the number of workers that was standard in the 1980s.

      Despite running trains that have never been longer or heavier, with quantities of hazardous material that are totally unprecedented on our rail lines, the railroads insist that an individual worker’s behavior, and not the hazards they have built in to the system, are the main reason that accidents occur.

      “The BNSF is not genuinely concerned about safety”, says Geoff Mirelowitz, a former BNSF employee. “It is concerned about legal and financial liability. Every oil train that derails, every rail worker who is hurt on the job is a potential liability to the company.

      “They are on a massive public relations campaign to ‘prove’ that if anything does go wrong it is not the BNSF’s responsibility. They frequently claim the primary safety problem is ’employee behavior’ in order to distract attention from the unsafe conditions and hazards that the BNSF itself is responsible for correcting.”

      Geoff was fired from BNSF three years ago, after working as a switchman for almost 18 years in Seattle. His entire three-person crew was fired shortly after they pressed safety complaints about switch maintenance with BNSF management. The crew has filed a Whistleblower complaint with OSHA, charging the company with a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act.

      Although OSHA has agreed that their firing deserves an investigation, the crew is still waiting for it to begin.

      Pipelines on wheels, protests on stilts

      By any metric, the volume of oil by rail has skyrocketed in recent years, with 1,000 of these trains now coming through the Columbia Gorge every year. According to Karmen Fore, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor for Governor Kate Brown, there were around 3,000 oil shipments by train in 2006, but 493,126 in 2014.

      In 2013 alone the railroads shipped over 11 billion gallons of crude oil, which has led to a commensurate rise in oil spills. Over a million gallons spilled in 2013 – more than the previous four decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2014 there were 141 spills reported – setting yet another record.

      The US Department of Transportation completed an analysis earlier this year predicting an average of 10 oil train derailments every year for the next 20 years.

      According to an analysis of industry data by OPB, hazardous material trains spill 0.01% of the time, so if the 1,000 oil trains coming through the Gorge are any representation of the larger problem, we could expect 10 of these to derail and spill each year.

      The public database at the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis shows that 15 trains actually did derail and released hazardous materials in Multnomah County between 2011 and 2014.

      Cut oil trains not conductors!

      Abby Brockway learned about these statistics first-hand after an incident in her own neighborhood. On July 24th last year a train loaded with 100 oil cars derailed in downtown Seattle.

      “The derailment under the Magnolia bridge was just a little too close to home – just a mile away from my daughter’s school,” Abby said in a phone interview. “I’ve spent years worrying about climate change, wondering why our leaders were doing nothing about it. After that day I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer – I needed to take action.”

      On September 2nd, Abby and a group of activists with Rising Tide Seattle entered the Delta rail yard, not far from the derailment. There, Abby scaled an 18-foot tripod directly on top of the train tracks, and stayed there all day to talk to the media about the danger of oil trains, and to invite others to stand up for their communities. She waved two bright flags – one in each hand – while sporting a giant sign that read “Cut oil trains not conductors!”

      After eight hours on the tripod, Abby and four other people were arrested. They now have a trial set for October 19th. Jen Wallis, a conductor with over 10 years of experience with the BNSF railroad, was fired from BNSF after reporting an injury, but re-instated in 2014 after six years of litigation. She would later write:

      “When my co-workers saw that tripod up in Everett with the sign that said ‘Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors’, they were blown away.” She added: “We understand completely now that we are fighting an industry that cares as much about us as they do the environment, which is not at all … “


      Stephyn Quirke works with Bark and Portland Rising Tide, and contributes to Earth First! Newswire, CounterPunch, The Ecologist and other media.  This article was originally published on Earth First! Newswire.

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        Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

        Repost from The Center for Investigative Reporting and KUOW.org
        [Editor:  This is an important report.  State regulators can’t get accurate oil train data from the federally regulated railroads, so Washington officials are turning to the refineries: “Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders.”  (See previous report.)  The story of Dean Smith’s Train Watch is inspiring – we should set up annual counts in all of our frontline refinery communities.  – RS]

        Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

        By Ashley Ahearn / June 13, 2015
        Dean Smith was frustrated with the lack of public information about oil train traffic so he organized 30 volunteers to count the trains coming through his community north of Seattle. Credit: Ashley Ahearn/EarthFix/KUOW

        EVERETT, Wash. – Dean Smith, 72, sits in his car by the train tracks here north of Seattle.

        It’s a dark, rainy Tuesday night, and Smith waits for an oil train to come through town. These trains are distinctive: A mile long, they haul 100 or so black, pill-shaped cars that each carry 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

        Smith has been counting the trains for about a year, noting each one on a website he built. The former National Security Agency employee does it because the railroads share little information about oil train traffic with Washington state. They don’t have to because they’re federally regulated.

        What is known: The railroads are moving 40 times more oil now than in 2008 due to an oil boom in the Bakken formation of North Dakota. Bakken crude oil contains high concentrations of volatile gas, with a flashpoint as low as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

        Derailments and explosions have occurred around North America since the oil boom began, including a 2013 catastrophe that killed 47 people in rural Quebec.

        This has prompted emergency responders to call for more information from railroad companies about oil train traffic patterns and volumes. The railroads mostly have refused; they say that releasing that information could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

        Which is why Smith decided to find out for himself. “It’s pretty hard to hide an oil train,” he said with a chuckle.

        Last year, Smith launched the first Snohomish County Train Watch. He organized 30 volunteers to take shifts counting trains around the clock for a week.

        In their first week of watching oil trains, the group collected more information about oil train traffic than the railroads had given Washington in the three years the trains have come here.

        State officials say Smith’s data is helpful but insufficient. They say they shouldn’t have to rely on citizen volunteers to get critical information in case of disaster.

        Dave Byers, the head of spill response for the state’s Department of Ecology, said his team needs the information to plan area-specific response plans to protect the public and keep oil from getting into the environment.

        “It gives us an idea of what the risk is, the routes that are taken,” Byers said. “The frequency and volume of oil really gives us an idea of what level of preparedness we need to be ready for in Washington state.”

        Oil train traffic shows no signs of slowing, which adds to the state’s sense of urgency. The oil industry wants to build five new terminals in Washington to move crude oil off trains and onto ships.

        Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to lift a federal ban on exporting crude oil that’s been in place since 1975 – allowing American crude to be shipped around the world.

        Close call in Seattle

        Anyone who has attended a Mariners baseball game in downtown Seattle likely has seen or heard oil trains passing the ballpark. The trains continue north through the city to refineries on Puget Sound.

        Seattle had a close call last year when an oil train derailed near downtown.

        Byers and his team weren’t notified for one and a half hours and initially were not told there was oil in the derailed train cars.

        No oil was spilled, but Byers is critical of how BNSF Railway, the company that moves most of the oil out of the Bakken oil fields, handled the situation.

        BNSF did not tell the state there was highly flammable Bakken crude oil in the derailed train cars – that information came five hours later from the oil refinery waiting for the train. Additionally, Byers said that when his team arrived on the scene, no BNSF representative was present, but welders were working on the derailed cars. The welders said they did not know what was inside.

        We became concerned because people were wandering off the street and taking selfies of themselves next to the rail cars,” Byers said. “There was no preparing for the potential that one of those cars could actually start leaking.”

        BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an emailed statement that BNSF Railway had its hazardous materials team quickly in place to evaluate the situation. “This derailment did not cause a release at any point, nor was there a threat of a release,” she said.

        The state and BNSF Railway have sparred over the railroad company’s reports of hazardous materials spills. Earlier this year, state regulators released an investigation and recommended that BNSF be fined up to $700,000 for not quickly reporting these spills. The company has disputed the state’s findings. A final decision is expected next year.

        Concern in Anacortes

        Workers prepare oil trains for unloading at the Tesoro refinery north of Seattle. The train that derailed in Seattle on July 24, 2014, was bound for the refinery.

        This spring, several hundred people packed into the Anacortes City Hall for information from oil companies and BNSF Railway about the oil trains moving through their community. Just that morning, a BNSF oil train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota.

        In northern Puget Sound, Anacortes is home to two refineries that receive oil by rail from North Dakota. Its residents, like others in small communities along the tracks in Washington state, have voiced concern about oil trains. Congestion woes are among their complaints; unlike Seattle, where the trains mostly pass through tunnels and over bridges, trains here disrupt traffic.

        Audience members were allowed to submit written questions only. Oil refineries’ representatives told them about safety precautions at their facilities to prevent and respond to spills. They also talked about their commitment to getting newer oil train cars.

        Courtney Wallace is a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway. The company believes that every derailment or accident is avoidable. On the day this photo was taken, a train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota. It was carrying the same type of crude oil that is currently moving through Washington state.

        Wallace, the BNSF spokeswoman, gave a presentation about the company’s commitment to safety. She said BNSF believes that every accident is preventable.

        When pressed by a reporter about how much information BNSF shares with local emergency responders, Wallace said BNSF has “always provided information to first responders, emergency managers about what historically has moved through their towns.”

        She cautioned that sharing regular updates or notifications of oil train movements could put the public at risk.

        “We’re always cognizant of what information is shared, because we don’t want to see an incident that involves terrorism or anyone else who might have that kind of frame of mind,” Wallace said.

        Fight for information

        A federal emergency order demands that railroads share limited information with states – but state officials want more.

        Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders. 

        Washington state Rep. Jessyn Farrell is a Democrat who has fought for legislation that would force oil refineries to share information about how much oil is arriving by rail.

        State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored the bill, said BNSF and the oil industry opposed the legislation from the beginning.

        “We’re going to get the information,” she said. “I don’t really care who gives it to us as long as it’s good information and it stands in court, because we need that information now.”

        BNSF Railway spent more than $300,000 on lobbyists and political contributions in Washington state in 2014.

        “I think they’re absolutely on the wrong side of this,” Farrell said. “In the public mind, and morally, they are absolutely wrong.”

        BNSF’s Wallace said the company still is reviewing the law to see how federal regulatory authority will interact with state authority.

        Back in Everett, Dean Smith said he isn’t waiting for politicians or lawyers to duke this one out.

        Instead, he’ll wait for trains, he said, and he’ll continue gathering information about them.

        Four hours into a recent train-watching shift, Smith perked up.

        “There’s something coming,” he said. He opened the door of his Chevy Volt and stepped into the rain. An orange BNSF engine emerged from the tunnel. Behind it were oil cars – about 100 of them, black as night.

        The streetlight reflected off Smith’s glasses and shadows gathered in the furrow of his brow as he stood by the tracks, shoulders hunched.

        “Sometimes I wonder, why fight it? Why not just move? That’d be the easiest thing to do,” he said. “But I think we have to fight. And I would like to see citizens groups acting like this all over the country. That’s the form of checks and balances we can create. All it takes is a few people.”

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