Category Archives: Rail accidents

Deregulating Rail Transportation of Liquefied Natural Gas

The Regulatory Review, by Mark Nakahara, Mar 24, 2020

Proposed rule aims to make it easier to ship liquified natural gas by rail.

A new regulation from the Trump Administration may soon make it easier for U.S. companies to ship large quantities of liquefied natural gas (LNG), an increasingly valuable product. But the new regulation also carries great risks.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently released a proposed rule that would allow for railroads to transport LNG in bulk and without obtaining special permits. Critics, however, worry that PHMSA is acting too quickly and disregarding certain safety concerns.

LNG is a cryogenic liquid—a substance that must be refrigerated below -90°C (-130°F) to maintain its liquid state. Since liquids are more compact than gases, large volumes of substances like LNG can be transported by freight trains.

PHMSA states that LNG is “odorless, colorless, non-corrosive, and non-toxic,” but safety concerns remain. LNG has traditionally been shipped by road or sea, and current regulations only allow the bulk transportation of LNG by rail after a shipper has obtained special approval from PHMSA or the Federal Railroad Administration. Observing that LNG is similar in nature to other substances that may be shipped by rail, the Association of American Railroads petitioned PHMSA to allow LNG to be shipped by rail in standard tank cars.

The issue of LNG transportation reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. In an executive order, President Trump noted that the current LNG regulations were drafted almost 40 years ago when the industry was less developed. As part of an effort to upgrade American energy infrastructure, the President specifically requested that the U.S. Department of Transportation amend the regulations to “treat LNG the same as other cryogenic liquids and permit LNG to be transported in approved rail tank cars.”

Just over six months after the executive order, PHMSA issued its proposed rule.

The proposed rule would permit the shipping of LNG in DOT-113 tank cars, which routinely transport other cryogenic liquids such as liquid hydrogen, nitrogen, and ethylene. Since LNG has similar properties to these liquids, PHMSA anticipates that the cars would be suitable for this task. PHMSA says that it also considered creating specifications for a new type of tank car that would be able to transport LNG over a longer timeframe, but it concluded that this process would only delay the rulemaking process.

The proposed rule also raises and seeks public comment on various operational issues designed to reduce safety risks should a rail accident occur. Since LNG is a hazardous material shipped at high pressure, a derailment or collision involving a tank car can have severe effects.

PHMSA is considering several methods for reducing risk. Following a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board, PHMSA has noted that cars containing LNG could be arranged a safe distance from the train crew in the locomotive. It also has suggested that speed restrictions could be imposed on trains carrying LNG, or that additional routing requirements be fulfilled when scheduling rail shipments of LNG.

Due to a lack of data on LNG rail shipments, PHMSA has not yet proposed any concrete, definitive rule changes addressing these operational issues. PHMSA anticipates that freight trains will only carry a few LNG cars at a time and the agency finds it “uncertain” whether the industry would grow to the point where entire trains would be devoted to LNG.

In a letter to PHMSA, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) expressed concern that the agency had not considered all the risks the proposed rule might create. They recalled that there have been two incidents since 2011 where the protective linings of cryogenic tank cars have been breached. Since the LNG industry continues to grow, the senators worry that increased rail transport of LNG will lead to more such incidents.

The senators have reason to be concerned. In 2016, a crude oil train derailed and caught on fire in their home state of Oregon. The accident released 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River Gorge. Due to the geography of the area, emergency response crews faced difficulties in quickly reaching the site. The senators noted that LNG’s high flammability can cause even hotter and more explosive fires than crude oil, a fact that the proposed rule does not cover in detail.

Environmental advocacy groups have similarly criticized the proposed rule. In a comment, Bradley Marshall and Jordan Luebkemann of Earthjustice have stated that PHMSA’s proposal is “unlawful” and fails to address potential adverse effects. Since LNG is more explosive than other cryogenic liquids being shipped by rail, an LNG accident in a populated area could have disastrous consequences.

Marshall and Luebkemann have reportedly found that 3.4% of DOT-113 tank cars have been damaged since 1980. Furthermore, they have observed that PHMSA provided no new data or justification to show that the safety of these tank cars has improved.

PHMSA received almost 400 comments before the comment period closed on January 13, 2020. The agency will now have to consider these comments before issuing any final rule.

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    Government deregulation without limits – FAA comes under criticism

    Repost from The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR
    [Quote: “When something bad happens, the government will take action — but over time those regulations and requirements wind up being dropped, reduced or delayed. The 2017 fatal Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, the 2016 oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2008 financial crisis and countless other events could have been prevented.”]

    Deregulating? DeFazio’s watching

    Posted Mar 27, 2019 at 12:01 AM

    The Boeing 737 jet crashes raise troubling questions that go far beyond one company’s safety record and one federal agency’s watchdog role.

    The history of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft suggests it is an example of how the government’s regulation-and-oversight pendulum has swung too far. The Federal Aviation Administration has lacked both the money and the inclination to adequately oversee aircraft development, instead relying heavily on companies to do their own testing.

    Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio is demanding answers. The Springfield Democrat chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee’s investigative staff is doing research, and DeFazio then plans to hold hearings.

    “This is really, really raising questions about the FAA as a watchdog,” he said in a meeting with The Register-Guard editorial board.

    A faulty sensor is being investigated as one cause, and Boeing is working on a software fix. The two-sensor system was developed as a safety feature to prevent a plane from stalling. But it appears the failure of just one sensor can send the aircraft into a powerful, possibly irreversible dive unless the pilots override the system within 40 seconds, according to a New York Times report this week.

    DeFazio promises a tenacious investigation. Among the questions are why the system was designed this way, whether the aircraft was unsafely rushed to market, and why the FAA and Boeing did not require extensive retraining of pilots.

    “This is the first time Boeing has put in a system that took over the plane automatically,” he said. “And they didn’t think they needed to tell people about it — because it’s different from any other Boeing plane ever made?

    “Obviously, maybe not the best idea.”

    For years, the FAA has lacked sufficient inspectors and has outsourced much of that responsibility to the manufacturers. But the FAA is not unique. We now have a government that relies on the honor, integrity and self-supervision of the industries it regulates.

    When something bad happens, the government will take action — but over time those regulations and requirements wind up being dropped, reduced or delayed. The 2017 fatal Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, the 2016 oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2008 financial crisis and countless other events could have been prevented.

    “It’s repeated time and time again,” DeFazio said. “There are limits to deregulation, which in many cases have been exceeded.”

    Oregon has its own history of unwatchful eyes. The Cover Oregon health insurance fiasco could have been averted through closer, more-knowledgeable oversight and insistence on stronger testing of the technology throughout its development. Better oversight — not to mention much-better planning in the first place — might have saved the state from wasting millions of dollars in the Highway 20 reconstruction between the valley and the coast.

    Each time, government and the public vow to learn from these lessons. Then we relax and we forget.

    When DeFazio and his congressional colleagues find the answers they are seeking, our government should heed them.

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      Earthjustice map: Crude-by-rail Across America

      Repost from Earthjustice.org
      [Editor: I’m reposting this map today – it was recently updated and still highly relevant.  Earthjustice’s map shows Major Crude-by-Rail Accidents since 2012 (Red Symbols) and communities opposing Crude-by-Rail (Green Symbols).  – RS]

      More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013, than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.

      Since late 2012, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling created a glut of oil, the industry has scrambled to transport the fossil fuel from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets.

      The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny. Oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials; trains carrying explosive crude are permitted to pass directly through cities—with tragic results. A train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people in the small community.

      In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.

      Legal Cases

      Earthjustice represents groups across the country, fighting for protections from crude-by-rail:

      FAQs: About Crude-By-Rail

      Q. What are DOT-111s?

      DOT-111s are rail cars designed to carry liquids, including crude oil, and have been in service in North America for several decades. They are prone to punctures, oil spills, fires and explosions and lack safety features required for shipping other poisonous and toxic liquids. As crude production in the United States has surged exponentially in recent years, these outdated rail cars have been used to transport the crude oil throughout the country.

      The U.S. and Canadian government recognized decades ago that the DOT-111s were unsafe for carrying hazardous materials, finding that the chance of a “breach” (i.e., loss of contents, potentially leading to an explosion) is over 50% in some derailment scenarios.

      U.S. and Canadian safety investigators have repeatedly found that DOT-111s are unsafe and recommended that they not be used for explosive or hazardous materials, including crude oil; however, the U.S. government’s proposal to phase out these rail cars fails to take sufficient or immediate action to protect the public.

      Q. What is Bakken crude oil?

      Bakken crude refers to oil from the Bakken shale formation which is primarily in North Dakota, where production has skyrocketed in recent years due to the availability of newer hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques. The increase in the nation’s output of crude oil in 2013, mostly attributable to Bakken production, was the largest in the nation’s history.

      Bakken crude is highly flammable, much more so than some crude oils. Today, Bakken crude moves in “unit trains” of up to 120 rail cars, as long as a mile and a half, often made up of unsafe DOT-111s.

      Q. Are there alternative tank cars available?

      Transporting Bakken crude by rail is risky under the best of scenarios because of its flammability. But legacy DOT-111s represent the worst possible option. All new tank cars built since October 2011 have additional some safety features that reduce the risk of spilled oil by 75%. Even so, safety investigators, the Department of Transportation, and the railroad industry believe tank cars need to be made even safer. Some companies are already producing the next-generation rail cars that are 85% more crashworthy than the DOT 111s. Petitioners support the safest alternatives available, and expect that the ongoing rulemaking process will phase out all unsafe cars.

      In the meantime, an emergency prohibition on shipping Bakken crude in DOT-111s—which virtually everyone acknowledges is unreasonably dangerous—is required immediately. (Read about the formal legal petition filed on July 15, 2014.)

      Q. What steps have U.S. and Canadian governments taken?

      The U.S. government recognizes that Bakken crude oil should not be shipped in DOT 111 tank cars due to the risks, but has done shockingly little to limit their use.

      In May 2014, the DOT issued a safety alert recommending—but not requiring—shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets for shipments of Bakken crude and to avoid using DOT 111 cars. Canada, in contrast, responded to the Lac Mégantic disaster with more robust action. It required the immediate phase-out of some DOT-111s, a longer phase-out of the remainder, and the railroads imposed a surcharge on their use to ship crude oil in the meantime.

      In the absence of similar standards in the U.S., the inevitable result will be that newer, safer cars will be used to ship crude in Canada—while the U.S. fleet will end up with the most dangerous tank cars.

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        LETTER OF OPPOSITION: Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna

        By Roger Straw, March 31, 2016

        This morning, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna sent the Benicia City Council this letter of opposition to Valero’s oil trains project.

        SIGNIFICANT EXCERPT:

        The EIR identifies that trains accessing the project would traverse Sacramento, including the heavily populated downtown area that I represent. It would cross numerous creeks and rivers, and run immediately adjacent to and through vulnerable residential neighborhoods. A rail accident resulting in oil spills, fire or a toxic explosion could have disastrous life safety, health, environmental and economic consequences. For these reasons, I believe an increase in oil train traffic from this project poses an unacceptable risk to Sacramento County residents and the environment.

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