Northern California towns lack resources to handle oil train fires, spills
By Jane Braxton Little, April 23, 2016 7:49 AM
• Lassen County town has no reliable water supply for firefighting
• Crude oil transport by rail grew 1,700 percent in 2015
• Federal government providing hands-on response training
WESTWOOD – BNSF Railway trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials rumble through this Lassen County community every day – past homes, churches and a scant block from the downtown commercial center.
If a tank car were to derail and explode, Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen would take the only action he’s equipped for: Evacuation. Of all 1,000 residents.
Westwood has no consistent source of water, and the closest trailers with enough foam to extinguish a large blaze are a full four hours away, he said: “We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.”
Rural officials like Duerksen have been worried for decades about the chlorine, ammonia, propane and crude oil transported through their northern California communities by BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad. But a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported a 1,700 percent increase in crude oil transportation by rail.
That’s slowed significantly in the last year, a change generally attributed to a drop in the price of oil. But emergency responders worry that the volume will swell again when crude oil prices rise. In recent weeks, many have observed an increase in the number of tank cars on trains running south toward Sacramento and San Francisco.
That could be a precursor to the half-mile long oil trains planned for travel through Northern California to Benicia. Valero Refining Co. has proposed building a rail loading station that would allow importing oil on two 50-car trains a day to the city 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas.
WE’D JUST HAVE TO GET EVERYBODY OUT AND GO FROM THERE.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen
On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council postponed until September a decision on Valero’s appeal of a February planning commission recommendation that unanimously rejected the proposal.
Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.
No one was hurt in 2014, when 11 cars derailed on Union Pacific tracks in the Feather River Canyon, spilling corn down a hillside above the river that supplies drinking water to millions of people as far south as Los Angeles. The cars could easily have been carrying crude oil, with substantial environmental consequences far beyond the Feather River, said Jerry Sipe, director of Plumas County’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We were lucky,” he said.
In 2015 there were 574 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Of these, 114 were in California, and three in Roseville, site of a large rail yard. Most were minor, and none involved fatalities.
Officials in California’s up-rail cities, including Sacramento, have raised objections to plans to expand oil train traffic, saying not enough attention is being given to safety concerns. But these large urban jurisdictions are far better equipped to respond to incidents than their counterparts in rural Northern California, where train tracks pass through some of the state’s roughest terrain.
In these rural areas, the people responding first to oil spills and accidents are generally local fire departments like Duerksen’s, one of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire organizations. Among the small rural communities along BNSF’s tracks through Northern California, the Westwood Fire Department is one of the better equipped for a hazardous materials accident.
Duerksen took advantage of a BNSF program at the railroad industry’s training and research center in Pueblo, Colo. That gave him hands-on experience in using water and foam on a burning railcar, and taught him advanced techniques for containing spills.
Increase in crude oil transportation by rail in 2015
Since then, several volunteer firefighters from Westwood and communities along the BNSF line have attended the training. Quincy and other fire departments along the Union Pacific line have also sent volunteers to Pueblo.
Plumas County was recently awarded a grant to acquire an oil spill trailer with firefighting foam and 1,200 feet of “hard booms,” which can contain large quantities of hazardous materials. Sipe said it will be positioned along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon, where aging trestles and sharp curves make it among the most accident-prone rail lines in the state.
“We’re better protected now than a year ago,” Sipe said.
Despite the improvements, many fire departments remain untrained and poorly equipped. In Greenville, where the BNSF line passes directly through residential and commercial areas, none of the 25 volunteers has been to the oil-spill training in Pueblo, said Chris Gallagher, general manager of the Indian Valley Community Services District, which oversees the fire department. Four of the department’s 10 pieces of equipment have been deemed inoperable by the California Highway Patrol, he said.
“We definitely need some help,” said Gallagher.
That could come through an innovative program taking the Pueblo emergency response training on the road. Rail safety experts will travel to communities around the country providing hands-on accident preparedness to firefighters. Funded by a $2.4 million award from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the mobile training program is expected to train about 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities in 2016.
The award is part of a $5.9 million grant to provide hazardous materials training for volunteer or remote emergency responders. Plumas County has already requested the mobile training, Sipe said.
BNSF strongly supports these programs, said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. Last year alone it trained 10,000 first responders, 1,500 of them in California.
Duerksen, the Westwood fire chief, said he feels much safer than he did two years ago, when the increase in oil-train traffic had emergency responders on edge. “We’re better trained and better prepared now,” he said.
But not everyone is content with the increased training and beefed-up emergency response equipment. Larry Bradshaw, a retired therapist and community activist in Westwood, is advocating for additional safety requirements for BNSF. He wants to see a high-risk rail designation extended from Greenville to Westwood, imposing a 45 mph maximum speed and increasing the number of inspections.
“We’re not prepared at all. There’s no way we can respond to a spill. The only thing we can do is evacuate,” Bradshaw said.
U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds
By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07
Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.
Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.
The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.
“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”
–Diane McKnight, Chair Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment
“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.
The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.
Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.
“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.
Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”
–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation
Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.
“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”
The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”
“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.
The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:
Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.
After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.
“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”
Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.