Hazards that enabled the Weyauwega train disaster 20 years ago still exist
By Eric Hansen, March 3, 2016
A ferocious explosion and fireball followed a Wisconsin Central train wreck in the frigid predawn hours of March 4, 1996, in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. Two thousand citizens, many fleeing without their pets or medications, evacuated for 18 days as the fires burned.
Authorities feared additional explosions that would catapult shrapnel a mile or more from the derailed propane tank cars. Gas lines were shut off; water pipes froze in unheated houses.
Four days after the initial explosion, Wisconsin National Guard armored personnel carriers transported residents into the danger zone to rescue their pets. Wearing helmets and flak jackets, the evacuees dashed into their abandoned homes to retrieve hungry dogs, cats and parakeets.
Ever so slowly, specialists drained the railroad tank cars of their volatile cargo and Weyauwega pulled back from the brink. Federal investigators blamed a cracked rail and deficient track maintenance for the derailment.
March 4, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the Weyauwega catastrophe. Unfortunately, railroad track failures remain a concern today — a concern greatly magnified by massive increases in explosive crude oil train traffic in recent years.
Wisconsin, now one of the busiest routes in the nation for this dangerous cargo, is part of a nationwide surge. In 2008, railroads carried 9,500 tank carloads of crude oil in the United States. By 2013, that number had risen to 407,761.
Connect the dots on the systemic danger the oil trains bring — and the details of the Weyauwega incident — and a reasonable citizen would question whether a Weyauwega scale disaster, or worse, is looming.
Key points: highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota is traveling in tank cars that are aging and were never designed with this kind of volatile cargo in mind. In addition, the sheer weight of mile-long oil trains stresses railroad tracks and aging bridges.
Those concerns grew when a Canadian government investigation traced the path of an oil train that exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people.. The train had traveled through Wisconsin and Milwaukee on Canadian Pacific tracks before exploding in Quebec.
As knowledge of the dangers of oil train traffic spread, something else became clear: a lack of transparency on the part of the railroads. Milwaukee citizens, local elected officials and journalists sought to obtain safety inspection reports for the corroded, century-old, 1st St. railroad bridge.
Canadian Pacific railroad officials refused to share the inspection reports for half a year. Federal Railroad Administration director Sarah Feinberg announced a new program to obtain bridge safety reports on Feb. 19, 2016, indicating some progress.
But bridge inspection reports are only the tip of the iceberg. Railroads are not sharing information on what levels of insurance they carry, their worst-case accident scenario plans or how they make critical routing decisions that bring oil trains through densely populated areas.
Any illusion that federal regulators are exercising effective due diligence on oil train traffic faded when the Department of Transportation released an audit of the FRA on Feb. 26, 2016.
That report’s opening words cite the Lac Megantic disaster and the vast increase in crude oil train traffic. However, the audit summarizes FRA’s overview of oil train traffic as dysfunctional and lacking analysis on the impact to towns, cities and major population areas. It also notes a lack of criminal penalties for safety violations.
When citizens push, governments move into action. Insist that your elected representatives take effective action to protect our communities from dangerous crude oil train traffic.
News Analysis: Inspector General Cites Failure of Federal Railroad Administration on Oil Train Safety
By Matt Krogh, March 2, 2016
In a scathing critique, the US Department of Transportation Inspector General called out the Federal Railroad Administration (which is an agency within DOT) for failing to adequately evaluate or reduce the risks of a catastrophic oil train accident to the American public. The conclusion: The FRA is failing to provide adequate oversight and policing of oil trains, and FRA fails to enforce the rules or prosecute violators when they find dangerous violations.
Oil trains are too dangerous for the rails. The Inspector General makes this point in the first sentence of the review, citing the fatal Lac Megantic oil train disaster. But we’ve heard from far too many local, county, and state officials around the country who believe the federal government is overseeing oil trains and guaranteeing public safety. It’s true that century-old railroad law puts railroads under federal control. That makes sense because a continental railroad system would grind to a halt if it was regulated by thousands of different local and state government entities. But no one should let “pre-emption” or federal-control get in the way of local permitting decisions, especially when it comes to public safety. Especially when it comes to preventing a calamity that could reduce another town to ashes.
This Inspector General report makes it clear the FRA is failing the American people with a good cop/good cop approach when it comes to mile-long oil trains carrying millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude through US cities and towns.
the Agency has no overall, national understanding of the risk environment and cannot be sure that the regions consider all appropriate risk factors
This points to a key flaw in FRA oversight: they assume that region-based inspection systems are all that are needed, and fail to look nationally, comprehensively, at the risks of moving oil by train.
…do not take into account risk factors such as the condition of transportation infrastructure, the shippers’ compliance histories, or the proximity of transportation routes to population centers.
This begs the question, what does the FRA look at in risk assessment? Track conditions, how good the individual railroads are at safety, and how close people are living to oil train routes seem pretty important.
FRA issues few violations, pursues low civil penalties, and does not refer possibly criminal violations to the office of inspector general
The FRA turns a blind eye to criminal violations, settles for low fines, and fails to bring in the Office of Inspector General when criminal investigations are warranted. We need a bad cop, folks.
One inspector noted that the Office of Chief Counsel has effectively “numbed” a large portion of inspectors into not writing violations and stated that some inspectors have preconceived notions that violations will not get through the process.
It’s true that the FRA does have inspectors — but the FRA’s buddy culture with the railroads means that hard-working inspectors on the ground have lost faith in the agency’s willingness and ability to regulate railroads.
respondents just smile and cut the check
By respondents the Inspector General means railroads. They don’t argue with miniscule fines, but then why should they? They are happy to pay small fines as a normal operating expense, and get back to moving vast quantities of explosive, toxic crude oil through America’s population centers.
While the specific circumstances of all of these violations may not have warranted maximum penalties, FRA settled for 5.1 percent of the roughly $105.6 million dollars in penalties it could have levied…
No, seriously, the fines are miniscule. FRA is only issuing 5% of the fines they could levy under the law. Wouldn’t it be nice if the highway patrol took the same approach to speeding tickets? It would, but then, the Wild West of our highways would be littered with the smoking wreckage of souped-up Camaros.
By applying the same penalty to all violations of a regulation, FRA is distancing its enforcement actions from the context of the behaviors they are meant to rectify, thus weakening penalties’ deterrent effect. Furthermore, by bundling violations, FRA’s settlement process removes penalty enforcement from the context of each violation and low penalties diminish the potential deterrent effect of the penalties set in the guidelines and the regulatory maximums.
And there you have it: it doesn’t matter the scale or the number of fines you get, you can talk your way out of it in the settlement process.
The Inspector General audit of the Federal Railroad Administration found an agency that fails to understand and regulate the severe threat to 25 million Americans living in the blast zone. When it comes to oil trains the FRA seems to work for the railroad and oil industry, and not the American people. Local and state officials faced with permitting decisions need to recognize their responsibility to protect the public, just as the FRA now needs to do their job when it comes to deadly oil trains.
Washington asks if railroads could afford $700M oil train spill
By Samantha Wohlfeil, February 13, 2016 6:28 AM
• Three new rail safety rules scheduled to take effect March 11
• Railroads must show they have means to pay for a ‘reasonable worst case spill’
• Railroads disagree with new rule methods and question state authority
Railroads that haul oil trains through Washington state will need to report whether they could afford around $700 million to pay for a derailment and spill, under a recently finalized state rule.
As announced Feb. 9, the requirement is one of three oil train safety rules the state Utilities and Transportation Commission crafted as required under legislation that state lawmakers passed in 2015.
The new rules, which take effect March 11:
▪ Require signs with basic safety information be posted at private rail crossings along routes that carry full or empty oil trains.
▪ Allow certain cities such as Bellingham, Aberdeen, Spokane, Tacoma, and Richland to opt into a state rail crossing inspection program to get free assistance with inspections.
▪ Require railroads to include financial information in their annual report to the UTC to show if they could address a “reasonable worst case spill” of oil.
Reasonable worst case
The portion of the rule most heavily scrutinized during a months-long comment process was the requirement to show financial ability to pay for a reasonable worst case spill. The rule required commission staff to first define what a “reasonable” worst case spill looks like, and second, calculate what cleaning that up might cost.
THEY DIDN’T WANT THE WORST CASE. THEY WANTED SOMETHING REASONABLE.
Jason Lewis, Utilities and Transportation Commission transportation policy adviser
Railroads objected to the proposed spill scenarios, and argued that the requirement to show whether they could afford cleanup was pre-empted by federal law.
Johan Hellman, on behalf of BNSF, wrote Sept. 21, 2015, that the company was concerned with a draft that had defined the reasonable worst case spill as half the train’s contents, and had set minimum cleanup costs at $400 per gallon.
“We find both the definition and the minimum cost to be greatly exaggerated,” Hellman wrote.
The worst case calculation was refined to be based on the fastest speed an oil train travels, but both BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad continued to object to the requirement.
In a Dec. 7 letter to the commission, Melissa Hagan argued on behalf of Union Pacific that requiring the railroad to detail the insurance it carries, along with its ability to pay for the reasonable worst case cleanup, would “compromise the integrity of Union Pacific’s confidential business records” and was “blatantly discriminatory.”
Other people who commented said the rule didn’t go far enough in its estimates for how much oil could spill and how much those damages could cost.
State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, told the commission she thought the reasonable worst case spill amount was “far too conservative” and the estimated cleanup cost seemed “excessively low.”
Dale Jensen, spill prevention preparedness and response manager for the state Department of Ecology, also wrote to say an estimated $400 per gallon cleanup cost would cover only a “portion of the overall costs of an oil spill” and “in the event of a worst case spill, the true cost of damages incurred could certainly exceed the level established within the proposed rule.”
The commission agreed with Jensen but said the legislation refers to a “reasonable” worst case, not an absolute worst case spill.
Calculating the reasonable worst
In crafting the rule, commission staff looked to federal rule-making by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, and to the actual worst derailment of ethanol or crude oil in North America, which happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
“Quebec was a terrible tragedy that really put a lot of these types of regulations more in the public eye,” said Jason Lewis, who helped craft the rule as transportation policy adviser for the commission.
In Quebec, a parked, unmanned 72-car train loaded with Bakken crude oil rolled downhill, reaching 65 mph before crashing into the downtown and killing 47 people in July 2013. Sixty-three cars derailed and about 1.6 million gallons of oil leaked.
THE WORST OIL TRAIN DERAILMENT IN NORTH AMERICA OCCURRED IN LAC-MEGANTIC, QUEBEC, WHERE 63 CARS OF A 72-CAR BAKKEN CRUDE OIL TRAIN DERAILED AT 65 MPH, KILLING 47 PEOPLE.
Although Quebec is the worst oil train derailment to date, Washington state legislators specifically asked the commission to find a “reasonable” worst case scenario for the financial reporting requirement, Lewis said.
“They didn’t want the worst case. They wanted something reasonable,” Lewis said. “It’s an ambiguous term that we really had to work to define.”
The commission looked to other state rules and used PHMSA and FRA logic to scale down from the incident in Quebec, Lewis said.
The final rule says to take the maximum oil train speed (usually 45 to 50 mph), divide it by 65 (the speed in Quebec), and account for kinetic force to get the estimated percentage of the train’s cargo they should be prepared to clean up.
To illustrate, assume the longest BNSF crude oil unit train transported in 2015 was 110 tank cars and that those trains go 45 mph at their fastest.
Under the new formula, the railroad needs to show whether it has the means to pay for a theoretical spill of 47.9 percent of that oil.
Each tank car has a maximum volume of 30,000 gallons, so the train could carry at most about 3.3 million gallons.
At a cleanup cost of $400 per gallon, the new guidelines want to know if the railroad could pay $632.3 million.
If that train were to go 50 mph at its fastest, the reporting amount would be closer to $781 million.
$632.3 million to $781 million
Amount railroads need to show they could pay for a spill in Washington state if their fastest 110-car oil train goes 45 to 50 mph
UTC staff also took into account that supertanker vessels that can carry 84 million gallons of oil through Puget Sound are required to get certificates of financial responsibility through Ecology that cap out at $1 billion, Lewis said.
“If we went much higher in terms of total release or cost of cleanup, it would be difficult to justify a higher cap,” Lewis said.
BNSF challenged similar legislation in California, claiming in court that federal rules pre-empt state laws that try to regulate rail.
When asked whether BNSF would similarly challenge Washington’s rules or still had concerns about the worst case scenarios, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace wrote that BNSF was committed to work in good faith with Washington to promote safety.
WE HAVE NEVER EXPECTED TAXPAYERS TO ASSUME THE EXPENSE OF A CLEANUP AFTER A DERAILMENT, AND WE STAND BY THE PRACTICES THAT HAVE ALLOWED US TO KEEP THAT RECORD TO DATE.
Courtney Wallace, BNSF spokeswoman
“Nothing is more important to us than safely moving all of the commodities we carry, including crude oil. BNSF is a common carrier and our operations are governed by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, which generally pre-empts state and local regulations of railroads,” Wallace wrote to The Bellingham Herald.
“BNSF has a strong record of corporate responsibility,” Wallace wrote. “We have never expected taxpayers to assume the expense of a cleanup after a derailment, and we stand by the practices that have allowed us to keep that record to date. BNSF is financially sound with a long history, substantial assets and a track record of being a responsible corporate citizen.”
Because the rule only requires railroads to show whether they could afford that level of spill in their annual report to the commission, rather than requiring they carry a certain level of coverage, the commission believes the rule does not conflict with federal laws.
Annual reports from the railroads are due to the UTC in May.
Environmental groups praised the move by Portland commissioners as a “landmark,” and the most stringent action taken by any city against climate change.
Mayor Charlie Hales delivered the final vote for the resolution before the chamber erupted in loud cheers. He said the council’s decision shows a clear commitment to counteract climate change.
“It feels like things are accelerating,” the mayor said, referring to recent action by the White House and a climate summit earlier this year hosted by Pope Francis. “We have one route through those rapids that are just ahead.
“The future is not that far away, but if we are aware,” Hales said, “and we steer where we want to go, we can get to a safe and wonderful future.”
While all of the city commissioners eagerly endorsed the resolution, Commissioner Dan Saltzman noted that the vote took place before a friendly crowd.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Saltzman said. “It’s easy to proselytize among ourselves and feel a sense of excitement in the city hall chamber that’s packed with advocates. But when you step outside, we have a real world that needs to be persuaded and convinced.”
That was a largely symbolic vote, however, because the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over railways.
Both resolutions are a response to the rapid expansion of fossil-fuel development nationwide and numerous oil train accidents in recent years.
Vancouver Energy Project wants to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver. If completed, it would ship an average of 360,000 barrels of oil daily to refineries along the West Coast.
While opponents to the resolutions were greatly outnumbered, they urged the commissioners to consider how limiting fossil fuels in the region could hurt jobs.
“I wish the people in this room had the same passion for income inequality as they have for fossil fuels,” said electrical worker Joe Esmond at least week’s hearing.