Garamendi praises Benicia City Council for crude-by-rail vote
By Ryan McCarthy, September 23, 2016
FAIRFIELD — Rep. John Garamendi is praising the Benicia City Council for its unanimous vote rejecting a proposed crude oil by rail facility that Valero corporation would have operated and Garamendi said would have led to dangerous railcars traveling through Fairfield, Suisun City, Dixon and Davis.
“The action by the Benicia City Council is a clear signal that shipping oil by rail presents a serious safety problem that must be addressed before our communities are faced with increased oil shipments,” Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said Thursday in a news release. “The council did the right thing by forcing a pause on oil by rail through our communities.”
The congressman, who represents the 3rd District that includes Fairfield and Suisun City, authored the Bakken Crude Stabilization Act to reduce the volatility of oil transported by rail and make it safer to transport, the release said.
What Benicia can learn from the Oregon train derailment
By Steve Young, June 7, 2016
On Friday, June 3, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Mosier, Ore. Fourteen rail cars came off the tracks, and four exploded over a 5 hour period.
There are several things that the City Council needs to keep in mind whenever they re-open discussion of the appeal of the Planning Commission’s unanimous decision to reject the Valero Crude-by-Rail project. Many of the assurances given to the public about the safety of transporting crude by rail have been called into question by this derailment.
The train cars that derailed and exploded are the upgraded CPC-1232 version promised to be used by Valero for this project.
The train derailed at a relatively slow speed as it passed through the small town of Mosier. Union Pacific trains carrying Bakken to Valero will travel at speeds up to 50 mph in most of Solano County.
The portion of track on which the train derailed had been inspected by Union Pacific three days before the derailment.
A Union Pacific spokesman, while apologizing for the derailment and fire, would not answer a reporter’s question as to whether the Bakken oil had been stabilized with the removal of volatile gases prior to shipment.
At the Planning Commission hearing, I tried repeatedly without success to get an answer from both UP and Valero as to whether they intended to de-gassify the Bakken oil prior to transport.
A major interstate, Interstate 84, was closed for 10 hours in both directions while first responders used river water to try and cool the tank cars to a point where foam could be used to try and put out the fire. It took more than 12 hours to stabilize the scene.
An oil sheen is in the river, despite the deployment of containment booms.
And finally, Oregon Public Broadcasting on June 4 had an exchange with the Fire Chief of Mosier, about how this experience changed his opinion about the safety of transporting crude by rail:
“Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.
“He’s changed his mind.
“After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.
“’I hope that this becomes the death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,’ he said. ’I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.’”
When the City Council took up the appeal of the Planning Commission decision in April, Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell stated their opposition to the project, while the other three councilmembers (Hughes, Schwartzman and Strawbridge) approved Valero’s request to delay a decision on this project until at least Sept. 20. There is still time for the citizens of Benicia to tell their elected officials how they feel about this project. I urge them to do so.
Steve Young, a member of the Benicia Planning Commission, is running for the Benicia City Council in November.
It is a safe bet that Jim Irving hasn’t been to Lac-Megantic, where almost three years ago a very profitable oil train derailed and exploded in the middle of downtown. The immediate damage was 47 lives lost, a massive oil spill, and the burning and contamination of the town center.
Nearly three years later, the downtown has yet to be rebuilt. And as we reported on DeSmog, there were many reasons the Lac-Megantic accident occurred. Averting any one of them could have prevented the accident. All were the result of corporate cost-cutting that put profits ahead of safety.
Also to blame were government regulators who allowed corporations to not invest in safety.
The locomotive engine fire that was the initial cause of the event? Faulty cost-saving repair.
The fact that regulators allowed full oil trains to be parked on a hill above a town, unmanned? Staffing cost savings for railroads.
The “19th century technology” air brakes that failed? More profits over safety.
Poor or non-existent employee training? More savings.
And how about those government regulators’ role in this? How could all of these moves to put profits over safety be allowed? The Globe and Mail looked at all the evidence and pointed the finger directly at the regulators.
There is one federal body that is ultimately responsible for the oversight of Canada’s railways: Transport Canada. The Lac-Mégantic disaster falls squarely at its feet.
It was recently revealed that the government of Canada contributed $75 million to the fund for the victims of Lac-Megantic to avoid further litigation. If they weren’t at fault, why would they pay up?
If you want to ask why allowing the pursuit of profits above all other concerns is a problem — Lac-Megantic is your answer.
Profits Over Safety: The Rule, Not the Exception
The old air braking system that was involved in Lac-Megantic is the standard for all oil trains. There are modern braking systems known as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes that have been described as “a quantum improvement in rail safety” by Joseph Boardman, the former head of the Federal Railroad Administration. But this quantum improvement has not been implemented.
Cynthia Quarterman was in charge of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for the majority of the multi-year process when the new oil-by-rail regulations were developed, and based on that process, she believes ECP brakes are a top priority.
“The more I think about it, the more I think that the ECP brakes may be more important than the tank car itself,” Quarterman told USA Today. “Because it would stop the pileup of the cars when there’s a derailment or when there’s a need to brake in a very quick fashion.”
So why aren’t ECP brakes required on oil trains? As DeSmog reported in March of 2015, the industry explained its opposition to ECP brakes in a presentation to regulators, and the opposition included the argument that safer brakes would be “too costly.”
And of course there is the issue of the tank cars used to move the dangerous oil. When the fracking boom happened in North Dakota and there weren’t pipelines to move the oil, the industry quickly built rail loading facilities.
Did the industry also build new safe tank cars to move the oil? No. They began filling the readily available DOT-111 tank cars with oil and started rolling them across North America through big cities and small towns — including Lac-Megantic.
The problem was that the DOT-111s were not designed to move flammable materials like Bakken crude oil, but were made to move things like molasses and corn oil.
But there was money to be made – so it was full-speed ahead with the DOT-111s for Bakken crude.
Shipping Bakken crude oil in DOT-111s has been called “an unacceptable public risk” by a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. But it continues anyway because it is profitable. Gee, what could go wrong with that?
The oil could be made safe to transport through a process known as stabilization. But that would require building stabilizing infrastructure in places like North Dakota. That would cut into profits. So it hasn’t been done.
“When it comes to undue industry influence, our rulemaking process is broken from start to finish,” Warrenexplained in March while discussing the report. “At every stage – from the months before a rule is proposed to the final decision of a court hearing a challenge to that rule – the existing process is loaded with opportunities for powerful industry groups to tilt the scales in their favor.”
The math is simple. It is much cheaper to buy lobbyists and influence than it is to invest in safety. And that is what is wrong with an approach that puts the pursuit of profits above all else.
We Can’t Take A Chance That Things Will Be Alright
While the oil and rail industries’ pursuit of profits was championed in California on Monday, a similar discussion was happening on the East Coast in Albany, NY. Albany is the largest oil hub on the East Coast and all of that oil comes by rail.
Now there is a proposal to build a pipeline from Albany to the seaport in Linden, NJ. The pipeline would be fed by oil trains that would arrive in Albany. While it was mostly a symbolic vote — unlike the one in California — the Albany city council voted to oppose the Pilgrim Pipeline this week.
In the public comment period, local Pastor McKinley Johnson, whose church is across the highway from the oil train facility, explained his opposition to the pipeline and more oil trains.
“It is time for us to take a stand,” said Johnson “We can’t take a chance that things will be alright.”
And he is right that this is about taking chances. The oil and rail industries are gambling that an event like Lac-Megantic won’t happen in a big city like Chicago — knowing full well that the proper safety measures are not in place to prevent it.
This past weekend, Albany was the site of one of the worldwide Break Free From Fossil Fuels events, and the issue of the oil “bomb trains” was front and center. City council member Vivian Kornegay, who represents the community that lives directly alongside the rail yards where the oil is offloaded, was one of the featured speakers.
She repeatedly made the point that her constituents were taking all of the risk with the trains and getting no reward, saying, “We assume 100% of the risk…and miniscule benefits.”
If you are an oil company in pursuit of profits, that is exactly how you want it.
Vivian Kornegay addresses Break Free rally in Albany, NY Photo credit: Justin Mikulka
Repost from DeSmogBlog [Editor: Many thanks to Justin Mikulka for this excellent report on “Oil Train Response 2015,” nicely summarizing the important issues as well as the event. Great photo below – click on it to enlarge so you can play Where’s Waldo. 🙂 For a local media report and some good links, see also my earlier posting. – RS]
“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats
By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – 03:58
On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries.
There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.
It is a reminder of the power of the rail lobbyists. Another example of this power is currently playing out in Congress. Earlier this year, the Senate voted to raise the amount of money that could go to victims of accidents such as the one in May. However, rail lobbyists and members of Congress are working to strip this change out of pending legislation.
Having covered the topic of oil trains for the past two years, none of this is surprising. The rail and oil lobbyists have been very effective at weakening new oil-by-rail regulations and achieving huge delays for any actual implementation of these changes.
In 2013, an oil train full of Bakken crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic resulting in a fire that killed 47 people. The existing regulations will allow trains like the one in Lac-Megantic to roll on the rails until 2023.
These known risks and lack of regulations have created new activists across the continent and the Oil Train Response 2015 conference was the first time they have all come together in one place to discuss the issue and organize together. The event was sponsored and organized by The Heinz Foundation, FracTracker and ForestEthics.
The first day of the conference was designed to inform the attendees about various aspects of oil-by-rail transportation and included presentations from first responders, politicians, Riverkeepers, legal experts and railroad safety consultant Fred Millar.
What You Are Up Against
Ben Stuckart is president of the Spokane city council, a city currently seeing 15 oil trains a week and facing the potential of as many as 137 a week by 2020 by some estimates. During his presentation, Stuckart described a trip he took to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to express his concerns about the oil trains.
“We sit down and we’re talking to him and he’s like ‘well here is what you are up against.’ He goes, ‘My first day in office. BNSF and Union Pacific just showed up and walked into our office.’ And he asked up front what’s going on, I don’t have an appointment. ‘Oh there is an open door policy.’
The railroads have an open door policy. Do you know how long it took for me to get an appointment with transportation secretary Foxx?”
This isn’t the only time Secretary Foxx learned what we “are up against.”
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that when the White House was finalizing the new regulations, Secretary Foxx requested that the regulations address the volatility of Bakken crude oil. His request was denied.
Stuckart’s recounting of Foxx’s candid explanation of the reality of regulation in Washington, D.C. is an excellent example of the power of the industry, and provides insight into why these trains continue to run despite the known risks.
We Need Not Be Polite
Much of the morning session of the first day of the conference was devoted to emergency response, featuring three different presentations on the topic. A bit later, rail safety consultant Fred Millar took to the podium and wasted no time in getting everyone’s attention. With the earlier emergency response presenters flanking him on either side of the podium, Millar did not pull any punches.
“We need not be polite with the railroads and first responders,” Millar said. And then he proceeded to point out what a farce the idea of emergency response planning is regarding Bakken oil trains.
“It’s a lie,” Millar said as he showed a slide of emergency responders operating fire hoses standing very near a black rail tank car that was on fire. Millar noted that these are public relations efforts meant to calm the public, but the reality of a Bakken oil train accident is that everyone within a half mile is evacuated and the train is allowed to burn itself out because it is too dangerous for first responders to approach. Often the fires last for days.
They Are Our Children
Things got a bit heated in the question and answer session following Millar’s presentation. One point of contention was that the first responders maintained that they need to keep information about oil trains secret so as to not help out “the bad guys” — an idea not well received by the many people in the audience living near oil train tracks.
Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management, sparked the biggest outcry when he stated that he didn’t see why “people need to know how many daycare centers are within the blast zone.” Among the responses was a woman yelling, “They are our children!”
As the session came to a close, a frustrated DeMichiei said, “Get ’em off the rails. I’ll be a happy guy.” It was one point that everyone in the room could agree on.
FRA Administrator Grateful For Luck
A week before the conference, an ethanol train derailed in Wisconsin and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The next day, an oil train derailed and spilled oil in a residential neighborhood in Wisconsin. On the first day of the conference, news broke that an oil train derailed near Philadelphia, although there was no spill.
Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, commented on the accidents in Wisconsin saying, “We feel we got really lucky.” When I pointed out on Twitter that luck is currently a big part of the oil train safety plan, she responded.
While it is true that regulators are taking many steps to improve safety, it is also true that the oil and rail industries are working hard against any real improvements to safety. The dangerous oil is not being stabilized. The unsafe tank cars will be on the rails for at least eight more years. Modernized braking systems are years away and the industry is fighting that as well. And trains continue to run through many large cities.
On my train ride home from the conference, I saw many of the signature black tank cars on the rails. Some were carrying liquid petroleum gas, some ethanol and at least one was a unit train of oil cars (although likely empty as it was traveling West). The potential of an accident involving a commuter train and an oil train didn’t seem far fetched.
A National Movement Begins
The people gathered in Pittsburgh don’t want to rely on luck to protect their communities. They are committed to fighting for real rail safety, and they were clearly energized by this event. As Ben Stuckart said, “This is so awesome. I haven’t seen this big of a group about this very specific issue since I’ve been working on it the last four years.”