[Today’s news is welcome. Rep. Garamendi doesn’t represent Benicia, but he does represent uprail cities that would have been affected by Valero’s dangerous and dirty proposal to bring oil trains across California. Garamendi’s bill, HR 5553, has 4 co-sponsors, but does not include Benicia’s representative Mike Thompson. Let’s hope Mike will get behind this effort! – R.S.]
John Garamendi introduces crude-by-rail safety bill
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Solano, introduced legislation Wednesday to ensure safer standards for the transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials by train.
House Resolution 5553, also known as the “Crude By Rail Volatility Standards Act,” aims to establish a safety standard for the maximum volatility for crude oils and similar materials transported by rail. It also requires that all crude by rail in America adhere to the New York Mercantile Exchange’s maximum Reid vapor pressure for crude-oil futures contracts of 9.5 pounds per square inch, Garamendi’s office wrote in a news release.
The current industry standard would remain in place until the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) completes the rule setting a maximum volatility standard that was first announced in 2017 after the attorneys general of six states, including California, petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation and PHMSA to finalize the regulation nationwide.
“Every day we delay the implementation of a stronger safety standard for the transport of Bakken crude oil-by-rail, lives are at risk,” Garamendi said in a statement. “My bill simply requires oil companies to decrease the volatility to market levels, rather than carrying unstable products through communities. I am committed to enacting this legislation into law this year as part of the surface transportation reauthorization.”
Garamendi, who is a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, has been trying to get legislation passed since 2015 to prohibit crude oil from being transported by rail unless it adheres to the New York Mercantile Exchange’s maximum Reid vapor pressure. Garamendi’s office wrote that the actions were influenced by numerous crude-by-rail derailments in previous years, including an accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in 2013 which killed 47 people and led to changes in operations for Canadian railways.
The topic of crude by rail became a hot-button issue in Solano County in 2013 when the Valero Benicia Refinery announced plans to extend rail lines to have crude-oil delivered to its plant by train rather than by boat. The project — which would have passed through Dixon, Suisun City and Fairfield — was met with opposition and was subsequently voted down by the Benicia Planning Commission and then the City Council.
Garamendi’s co-sponsors on the bill are Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.; and Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
The Trump administration’s move to relax an Obama-era chemical safety regulation put in place after an explosion at a fertilizer plant is the latest example of the White House easing rules established in the wake of disasters.
Trump’s professed goal of rolling back “job-killing” regulations has led to weakening mandates proposed or enacted after three of the worst industrial accidents of the last decade: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan and 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train in Canada.
“There is a clear pattern of the Trump administration targeting rules that were put in place in response to massive public health, safety, and environmental disasters,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The public expects our government to respond to these types of public disasters with regulations that protect them.”
Backers of Trump’s drive to repeal rules say that there is a natural rush to regulate after a high-profile disaster that can go too far.
“Some of these rollbacks come with the wisdom of time to say ‘we went further then we needed to go now that we have more information,’” said Dan Bosch, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum, a Republican-aligned think tank.
Representatives of the White House reject the notion the rollbacks risk safety.
“Those trying to connect any health and safety risks across the country” to those efforts “are dangerously wrong — there is no evidence to support such ridiculous claims,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The administration is focused on relieving undue burdens and protecting public health and safety.”
Still, the changes have set off alarm bells with public safety advocates.
“They have picked out some of the most important safety regulations,” said Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant. “The Trump deregulation bank has a withdrawal window that’s wide open and industry is taking advantage.”
In 2015, the U.S. Transportation Department imposed regulations meant to address a series of fiery crude-train derailments, most notably the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Canadian officials determined that a crew member’s failure to appropriately secure the train was one of nearly 20 causes of the derailment.
U.S. regulators mandated, over the objections of the industry, electronically controlled pnuematic brakes to shorten stopping distances. But that measure was rescinded by the Trump administration, which cited a lack of research showing the brakes were better and questions over whether the benefits were justified by the costs.
In some cases, the Obama rules have been left intact while some key provisions have been eased. That opens the administration to complaints it is rolling back safeguards even when it keeps many pieces untouched.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to rescind portions of a risk management law following the 2013 fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people in West, Texas, retained provisions cheered by safety advocates such mandating coordination with first responders and emergency exercise requirements.
But it axed mandates that required more public disclosure about what chemicals are stored at industrial sites, automatic third-party audits after accidents and a rule that companies assess safer technology options as a way of reducing risk.
That was also the case with the White House’s decision to relax some of the mandates imposed by the Obama administration in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In May, the Interior Department rewrote about a fifth of that 2016 Obama rule, easing mandates for real-time monitoring of offshore operations and third-party certifications of emergency equipment.
But the department rebuffed oil industry pressure to lift a specific requirement for how much pressure must be maintained inside wells to keep them in check. Instead, companies now can apply for exceptions to that “safe drilling margin” requirement earlier in the permitting process.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with three of its five members Trump appointees, voted 3-2 in January to strip down a rule requiring nuclear plants to upgrade their protection against flooding and earthquakes that was meant to prevent a Fukushima-style meltdown from occurring in the U.S.
The nuclear industry argues that rather than redesign facilities to address increased flood risks, it’s enough to focus on storing emergency generators, pumps, and other equipment in concrete bunkers.
Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagrees.
“It’s just bad science and bad policy because of the philosophy that we are not going to impose any new regulations,” Lyman said. “It’s dismissing science, it’s not taking into account the impact of climate change that could lead to more severe flooding events.”
SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as part of a multistate coalition, filed a comment letter to the Department of Transportation in support of the State of Washington and in opposition to an attempt by North Dakota and Montana to preempt Washington laws that create a limit on the level of vapor pressure allowed when transporting highly-flammable crude oil by freight rail.
These trains are often known as “bomb trains” because of the high intensity fires and violent explosions that can result from accidents and derailments. These trains travel through California, passing through both highly populated communities and areas adjacent to California’s most sensitive ecological areas.
The state asserts that Washington’s rules are both permissible and necessary in light of the risks of crude-by-rail in Washington and the EPA’s inaction on establishing protective standards, putting communities at risk.
“States play an important role in protecting the health and safety of their citizens,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Millions of Californians live, work, and attend school within the vicinity of railroad tracks. We can’t afford to wait for the next disaster before taking action on the transport of dangerous and flammable oil moving through our communities. A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways. This risk is simply unacceptable.”
California supports Washington’s efforts to protect the public health and safety of its residents and its environment while the federal government dithers over adopting necessary regulations. The attorneys general underscore that their paramount concern will remain protecting the health and safety of citizens, first responders, and the environment within the parameters of the state’s existing authority.
Attorney General Becerra filed the comment letter with the attorneys general of New York, Maryland, and New Jersey.
However, Railway Age, the leading rail industry publication, attacked The Times’ coverage in an incredibly flawed critique. The title of finance editor David Nahass’s take-down is “Clickbait Journalism at The New York Times.”
In reality, both stories miss the mark on oil train safety.
The New York Times makes a major error in the industry’s favor regarding rail safety, as well as serious omissions about the risks of moving flammable cargo by rail.
Nevertheless, Nahass claims that The New York Times “sadly exhumes and retreads the memories of those lost and the pain of those who suffered trauma in order to generate readership.”
Nahass did get one thing correct in his story, which comes across like rail industry propaganda: “The perception of progress on the rail safety front is not universally perceived.” It isn’t universally perceived because, for the transport of flammable materials by rail, progress hasn’t happened. Instead, the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back the few meaningful regulations that had been put in place in the U.S. since the 2013 disaster.
To support his claim, Nahass points to three areas that he says have seen improvements in rail safety: tank car design, positive train control (PTC), and train speed guidelines.
Nahass cites the new tank car designs, DOT-117R and DOT-117J, as an industry action to improve oil train safety. But that claim is based on the premise that these rail cars do not rupture during accidents. Three accidents involving the DOT-117R tank cars have occurred in recent years, two with oil trains and one with an ethanol train.
As DeSmog has reported, all three were major disasters.
In June of 2018, an oil train derailed in Doon, Iowa. Fourteen of the DOT-117R tank cars ruptured, spilling 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. In February, another oil train of DOT-117R tank cars derailed in Canada, resulting in another major oil spill. In April, an ethanol train with DOT-117R tank cars derailed and exploded in Texas, leading to the local evacuation of a residential area and causing a large fire that burned a stable and killed three horses.
Three crashes with the new “safe” tank cars. Three major failures. Railway Age’s failure to mention these accidents can only be described as “an editorial issue” of the type Nahass accuses The New York Times as being guilty of.
The one glaring error in favor of the rail industry from the Times’ coverage is that the “effectiveness [of DOT-117 tank cars] in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.” Considering all three accidents involving these rail cars resulted in fires, spills, and evacuations, this statement is a huge error. The rail industry’s top trade magazine should have been thanking The Times instead of attacking them.
As for the claim that speed limits have improved rail safety, that claim, too, is without merit. Every major oil train accident after the Lac-Mégantic disaster has happened below the speed limits. DOT-117 tank cars appear unable to withstand derailments at low speeds, as evidenced by them failing in three out of three accidents.
The sheer audacity of Nahass claiming that the rail industry deserves credit for positive train control (PTC), a system for monitoring and controlling train movements, as a safety measure is stunning.
Nahass says, “Avoidable death is a tragedy no one should have to bear.” Hundreds of people have died because the rail industry has been fighting PTC, which includes well-funded lobbying efforts. Avoidable deaths are not a tragedy for the rail industry but a by-product of successful lobbying and higher profits.
Meanwhile, neither The New York Times nor Railway Age mentions how new regulations to require modern braking systems on trains, which still use 19th century technology were repealed under the Trump administration.
Lac-Mégantic Was ‘a Corporate Crime Scene’
Shortly after the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “The explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.”
Even the Transportation Safety Board of Canada noted 18 factors that contributed to the deadly oil train accident. The fact that Nahass only listed three of these is another example of a blatant “editorial issue.”
Deregulation Caused Lac-Mégantic Deaths and Continues to Increase Risks
Nahass purports that the worst thing about The New York Times story was that “it highlights deregulation as a possible cause for the tragedy.” I have no doubt deregulation was the root cause of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
The accident could have been avoided if a back-up braking system had been engaged. But this system wasn’t used because the rail company, Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA), wasn’t required to and instead explicitly instructed the train’s engineer not to engage it.
The train was also much heavier than allowed. MMA knew this but instructed the engineer to ignore that fact, a sign of weak regulatory oversight. Despite attempts to require two-persons crews, the train that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic was allowed to be operated with only a single crew member — another risk factor. No regulations required the oil in the tank cars to have been “stabilized,” removing its flammable vapors. At the time, modern braking systems were not mandatory for trains carrying flammable cargo, and while a rule changing that was put in place in 2015, the Trump administration has since repealed it.
That fateful night in Quebec in 2013, a train full of flammable material was parked on the top of a steep hill above a small town. It was left on the main tracks, with the engine running, and no safety measures were in place to address known causes of runaway trains — a problem that The Times correctly notes has gotten worse since 2013.
At a November 2016 conference examining lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Brian Stevens, who at the time was National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, clearly cited deregulation as the root cause of the accident.
“Lac-Mégantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of a deregulatory era for rail that continues today in both the U.S. and Canada.
Even that freedom from regulation isn’t enough for the rail industry. Its main publication wants freedom from journalistic critique as well. The attack piece in Railway Age is not just an egregious editorial failure; it represents a basic moral failure of an industry that continues to put profit over safety.