Category Archives: Rail industry

VALLEJO TIMES-HERALD: Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald

Valero’s crude-by-rail project turned down in Benicia

By Matthew Adkins, 09/20/16, 9:54 PM PDT
Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall.
Anti-Valero supporters wave sunflowers as Benicia’s crude by rail project was denied Tuesday evening by council members in Benicia City Hall. Matthew Adkins — Times-Herald

BENICIA >> Environmentalists hoping to defeat Benicia’s crude-by-rail project scored a huge victory Tuesday night, handing Valero Refining Company a significant defeat in the process.

In a unanimous decision from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson and Benicia City Council, Valero’s application for a conditional use permit for a crude oil off-loading facility was denied.

Vicki Dennis, who moved to Benicia two years ago, was one of many present at City Hall and said she was “just delighted” with the decision.

“I’m so proud of this city,” Dennis said. “Our council people are very thoughtful. This process has been a long one, but I think they handled it in a wonderful way.”

The City of Benicia’s Planning Commission first began considering the issue in December 2012 when the refinery submitted an application seeking permission to build infrastructure to bring two 50-car trains a day carrying up to 70,000 barrels of North American crude oil into Benicia.

In March, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the application and to not certify an accompanying environmental impact report. The decision was made against the recommendation of city staff who said the project’s involvement with rail-related issues made the decision a federal issue.

Valero representatives submitted an appeal looking to reverse the commission’s decision to deny their application, and the matter was postponed until Sept. 20.

As part of the appeal, Valero sought a declaratory order from the Surface Transportation Board on the issue of federal preemption in regards to the project.

During this time, many governmental agencies, private organizations and individuals publicly opposed the city council’s decision to transfer authority on the matter to the federal government.

At the city council meeting Tuesday, however, public comment on the topic was officially closed.

“We are eager to hear from you about any item that is not on the agenda,” Patterson said. “I know it’s a little difficult right now. We have an item on the agenda that I know a lot of you are interested in, but there is no public comment on that tonight.”

This drew a few hushed laughs from the crowd of approximately 150 people who had shown up to witness the landmark decision at Benicia City Hall.

Mayor Patterson’s warning didn’t stop a few concerned citizens from indirectly talking about the issue.

“I originally put in my request to speak before I knew you were not accepting public comments about Valero,” said one man. “If the council decides to change their mind and re-open public comment on the issue, I would be glad to come back up and speak.”

“Since I can’t talk about what the Surface Transportation Board has just done, I would urge the council to support the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline,” said another man.

After public comment was closed, a brief recap of the project’s journey though Benicia’s civic system was put forth along with two resolution findings, one for approval and the other for denial,

The denial resolution highlighted specific issues that city council members had with Valero’s proposed project, including the unclear traffic impacts of having an unregulated shipment schedule, spill risks associated with shipping by rail and the project’s uncomfortable proximity to the city’s waterways.

Before making a judgement, Council members took turns voicing their concerns about health, safety and the project’s effect on the environment.

“When we first started considering this, there seemed to be little risk involved,” said Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “After four years, the community has endured numerous public hearings with hundreds of people speaking about the project. During this time, there have been 13 derailments around the country involving multiple carriers.

“The derailment in Oregon was a game-changer for me,” she continued. “Union Pacific was the same carrier and the railroad cars involved were the same ones Valero is offering. The strongest car didn’t withstand a puncture and crude oil came in contact with fire and burned for 13 hours. Union Pacific failed to maintain its track, resulting in its derailment. The railroad industry has not kept up with safety standards regarding the transportation of crude. I’m going to vote to deny the project in hopes that the community can begin to heal after such a divided process.”

After the council’s comments, Councilmember Tom Campbell put forward a motion to deny, and was seconded by Patterson.

A quick vote was taken and the motion to deny Valero’s presence in Benicia was decided.

Misao Brown, a retired teacher and environmental activist from Alameda, was thrilled with the council’s decision and was seen embracing her friends outside of Benicia City Hall.

“If there were any spills where we are in Benicia, it would be in the Bay and go all over the place,” she said. “Benicia is concerned about the greater good and it’s just wonderful. It was really hard sticking it out for so long, but they gave every chance to Valero. In the end, we’re really talking about life on earth. So, when the decision comes through like this under tremendous pressure, I’m really grateful to every member of the planning commission and city council.”

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FED REPORT: Many railroads making little progress on installing safety systems required by congress

Repost from the Recorder, Greenfield, MA
[Editor:  Important for Benicia as we consider permitting Valero Crude by Rail: “Progress varies considerably by railroad. For example, BNSF has equipped 4,309 of its 5,000 locomotives, but Union Pacific has equipped only 13 of its 5,656 locomotives.”  If permitted, Valero would be served by Union Pacific trains.  – RS]

Railroads show little progress on key safety technology

By Joan Lowy, Associated Press, Wednesday, August 17, 2016
In this Wednesday, May 13, 2015 photo, emergency personnel work at the scene of a derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train headed to New York. Many commuter and freight railroads have made little progress installing safety technology designed to prevent deadly collisions and derailments despite a mandate from Congress, according to a government report released Wednesday. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

WASHINGTON — Many commuter and freight railroads have made little progress installing safety technology designed to prevent deadly collisions and derailments despite a mandate from Congress, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The technology, called positive train control or PTC, uses digital radio communications, GPS and signals alongside tracks to monitor train positions. It can automatically stop or slow trains to prevent them from disobeying signals, derailing due to excessive speed, colliding with another train or entering track that is off-limits.

The Federal Railroad Administration report shows that while some railroads have made substantial progress, others have yet to equip a single locomotive or track segment with the technology, or install a single radio tower.

Congress passed a law in 2008 giving railroads seven years to put the technology in place, and last year extended that deadline for three more years after railroads said they were unable to meet the first deadline. The law extending the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, also allows the railroad administration to grant additional extensions for two more years to railroads that have installed PTC but are still testing the systems.

Railroads shouldn’t wait for the deadline to complete their work on PTC, said Sarah Feinberg, head of the railroad administration.

“Every day that passes without PTC, we risk adding another preventable accident to a list that is already too long,” she said in a statement.

So far, PTC is in operation on nine percent of freight route miles and 22 percent of passenger train miles, the report said.

Freight railroads have equipped 34 percent of their locomotives, installed 73 percent of their radio towers and completed 11 percent of their track segments. Passenger railroads have equipped 29 percent of their locomotives, installed 46 percent of their radio towers, and completed 12 percent of their track segments.

But progress varies considerably by railroad. For example, BNSF has equipped 4,309 of its 5,000 locomotives, but Union Pacific has equipped only 13 of its 5,656 locomotives.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates commuter trains in the Philadelphia region, has equipped all its locomotives, installed all its radio towers and completed all its track segments. But nearby New Jersey Transit Rail, which carries an average of 308,000 passengers on weekdays, hasn’t equipped any locomotives, installed any radio towers or completed any track segments.

The report also gave zeros in each of those categories to New York’s largest commuter railroads, the Metro-North and the Long Island railroads, which each carry about 300,000 passengers on weekdays. In 2013, a speeding Metro-North train derailed while going around a curve in the Bronx. Four people were killed and more than 60 injured. The National Transportation Safety Board said the accident could have been prevented if PTC had been in operation.

The report is based on information supplied by the railroads.

The report “is an overall summary that does not convey the progress we have achieved,” said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Transit. She noted that the railroad has acquired spectrum rights, equipped four “prototype vehicles” for testing and installed five antennas in a demonstration area, among other actions.

Beth DeFalco, a spokeswoman for the Metro-North and Long Island railroads, said the railroads have done extensive work on PTC and hope to see benefits from the technology as soon as next year.

The NTSB has urged railroads to install positive train control or earlier train control technologies for more than four decades. The board says that over that time it has investigated at least 145 PTC-preventable accidents in which about 300 people were killed and 6,700 injured.

More recently, the board has said PTC could have prevented the head-on collision of two BNSF trains in June near Panhandle, Texas. Three railroad employees were killed in the crash. The technology also could have prevented the derailment of a speeding Amtrak train in Philadelphia last year. Eight people were killed and over 200 injured in the crash.

Commuter railroads have spent $950 million on PTC so far, but the total cost is estimated to be at least $3.48 billion, said Richard A. White, acting president of the American Public Transportation Association. The White House requested Congress provide $1.25 billion in the coming 2017 federal budget year to help commuter railroads with PTC; House and Senate spending bills allocate only $199 million.

“Despite this funding dilemma, the industry is moving forward with this top safety priority,” White said in a statement.

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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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