Category Archives: Rail industry lobby

Maine’s Right-to-Know Advisory Committee to reconsider hiding oil train data

Repost from the Penobscot Pilot

State to reconsider hiding oil train data

By By Dave Sherwood, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 17, 2016 – 5:15pm
Photo courtesy of Roy Luck. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license / Wikimedia

AUGUSTA — The state committee charged with promoting transparency in government is asking lawmakers to overhaul a 2015 law that made secret information about the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials by railroad through Maine.

The legislature’s Right-to-Know Advisory Committee voted Wednesday to send a letter to the Judiciary Committee recommending that it reconsider the controversial law in order to ensure that the government is not keeping railroad data secret unnecessarily.

The legislation in question, enacted in October 2015, initially prevented officials from divulging information that it had previously provided to the public about rail shipments of hazardous materials passing through the state. The law took effect more than two years after a runaway oil train killed 47 people and leveled the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the border from Maine.

Lawmakers and railroad lobbyists said secrecy was needed to protect confidential business information and prevent terrorist attacks, but transparency advocates argued the public has the right to know what the trains are carrying.

Committee members sided Wednesday with transparency advocates, asking lawmakers in the letter to carefully weigh the public’s interest in having access to the information against potential safety concerns or business interests.

“We recommend the Judiciary Committee consider submitting a committee bill…in a manner that allows the most meaningful participation by stakeholders, state and local government entities and other members of the public,” states the letter, which will be submitted to lawmakers before the upcoming legislative session begins in December.

Eroding FOAA

The controversy over the oil train data underscores the gradual erosion of Maine’s 40-year old Freedom of Access Act, which was originally intended to ensure citizens have access to government information but has become increasingly riddled with loopholes.

As of 2015, state legislators had approved at least 450 exceptions to the law, each of which allows the government to keep certain information secret from the public. Last year’s railroad law added nearly 200 pages of chemicals shipped by rail to the growing list of secrets kept by the government, according to a memo filed with the committee by the Department of Environmental Protection in July.

Environmental officials questioned whether the exception was necessary.

“The additional burden of reviewing this list….provides no increase in safety for the citizens of Maine,” DEP officials wrote to the Right-to-Know advisory committee.

Right-to-Know Committee member Judy Meyer, the executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, noted in July that it was ironic that the law made secret the contents of railroad cars that any citizen could observe passing through a railroad crossing.

“To make private these records that are rolling through our city streets is odd to me,” Meyer said.

The committee’s recommendation to clarify the law follows a February 2016 investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that showed lawmakers who approved the bill repeatedly bypassed safeguards designed to prioritize the public’s right-to-know over private business interests.

Following a Freedom of Access Act request by the Center, environmental officials consulted with the Attorney General and once again began providing railroad data to the public, but in July admitted there was still confusion over the law’s intent.

“The Department…seeks to clarify the exact information that is exempted by the law,” according to the DEP memo submitted to the committee.

RAILROAD HAZMAT

Interest in railroad cargoes through Maine piqued in early 2013, when the state became top exporter of crude oil by rail. Maine, the country’s easternmost border state, was a key transit point between the oil fields of western North America and the 300,000-barrel-per-day Irving oil refinery in neighboring Saint John, New Brunswick, one of New England’s largest suppliers of gasoline.

After the Lac-Megantic accident, environmentalists began protesting the cargoes, blocking railroad tracks and calling for a ban on its transport.

Around the same time, documents uncovered by the Maine Center For Public Interest Reporting investigation showed the railroad industry began lobbying to keep data on its cargoes secret from the Maine public.

Former Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, the legislator who sponsored the bill and a railroad conductor by trade, had initially argued the legislation was needed to ensure railroads provided emergency officials with details about hazardous material shipments through Maine.

But the 80-word bill that emerged last year did nothing to make railroads provide information to local first responders. Instead, it only forced the state to keep those details secret from the public when railroads volunteered the data.

The legislation, which created the 460th exception to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, also contradicted the findings of federal regulators. A year earlier, they had determined that information about oil train shipments was “neither security-sensitive nor commercially-sensitive,” according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

The bill nonetheless became law in June 2015 over a sharply worded veto from Gov. Paul LePage.

When presented with these findings in an interview in January, former Rep. Shaw, who resigned from the legislature in August for personal reasons, said he was willing to encourage lawmakers to amend the bill to allow officials to disclose volumes of crude oil moving through Maine.

“Keeping them confidential was really never my intention,” said Shaw.

Dave Sherwood is a contributing writer to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Augusta.

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    SACRAMENTO BEE: State seeks fee on dangerous chemicals crisscrossing California

    Repost from the Sacramento Bee

    State seeks fee on dangerous chemicals crisscrossing California

    By Tony Bizjak, July 22, 2016 6:00AM

    HIGHLIGHTS
    • California officials say the state isn’t prepared to handle hazardous materials spills
    • A new $45 fee on every rail car carrying dangerous substances will help beef up spill response

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      The Crude Oil “Bomb Train” Story: Profits Over Safety

      Repost from DeSmogBlog

      The Crude Oil “Bomb Train” Story: Profits Over Safety

      By Justin Mikulka • Friday, May 20, 2016 – 10:42

      I would agree with the opponents. This is not about saving jobs…This is about profits. But gee, what is wrong with profits?”

      Those were the words of San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner Jim Irving, explaining why he was voting for a project to build a rail spur to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery so that the refinery can receive oil by rail.

      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?

      Bomb trains.

      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.

      In testimony to the North Dakota Industrial Commission about the proposed regulations to requireoil stabilization,Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus explained the reality:

      The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel.”

      And so there are no regulations to stabilize the oil because it would be less profitable.

      What is wrong with profits? Dangerous oil in unsafe cars with 19th century technology brakes traveling though many North American cities is a good starting point to answer that question.

      Profits Buy Plenty of Lobbyists

      In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the report “Rigged Justice – How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy” detailing what is known as regulatory capture — essentially using corporate profits to buy influence over regulators responsible for improving safety. Like the ones who the Globe and Mail said failed the people of Lac-Megantic.

      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.

      So far they have been really lucky — and very profitable.

      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

      Blog Image Credit: Justin Mikulka

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        AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

        Repost from the Boston Herald

        AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

        By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
        FILE -In this Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, file photo, clean up continues near Mount Carbon, W.Va., where a train derailed and sent a tanker with crude oil into the Kanawha River. A little-known truth about North American railroads: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

        A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.

        U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.

        Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.

        “We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”

        An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.

        In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.

        “It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.

        Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.

        All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.

        That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.

        “Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.

        Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.

        Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.

        Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.

        A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.

        The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”

        A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.

        The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.

        Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.

        “There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”

        “The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”

        The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.

        Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”

        NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.

        Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

        Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.

        Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.

        “Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.

        The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.

        Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.

        Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.

        “If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?'” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”


        Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana.  Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 
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