NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt to host a Rail Tank Car Safety Roundtable Discussion: A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety
Among the provisions of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) are new requirements for improved railroad operating practices, more effective emergency responses, and safer and stronger tank cars. While tank car fleet owners must decide whether to replace or retrofit legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars over the next 13-years, we continue to investigate serious accidents with flammable liquids releases and fires.
Rail tank car safety is of vital interest to the NTSB, and is on our 2016 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Because of our concern over tank car safety, we are hosting a roundtable to better understand issues facing implementation of the Fast Act requirements. We hope to gain deeper understanding of the logistics of replacing the existing tank car fleet to transport flammable materials, as well as how government and industry can overcome factors that could impede timely implementation of the new tank car rules.
What Benicia can learn from the Oregon train derailment
By Steve Young, June 7, 2016
On Friday, June 3, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Mosier, Ore. Fourteen rail cars came off the tracks, and four exploded over a 5 hour period.
There are several things that the City Council needs to keep in mind whenever they re-open discussion of the appeal of the Planning Commission’s unanimous decision to reject the Valero Crude-by-Rail project. Many of the assurances given to the public about the safety of transporting crude by rail have been called into question by this derailment.
The train cars that derailed and exploded are the upgraded CPC-1232 version promised to be used by Valero for this project.
The train derailed at a relatively slow speed as it passed through the small town of Mosier. Union Pacific trains carrying Bakken to Valero will travel at speeds up to 50 mph in most of Solano County.
The portion of track on which the train derailed had been inspected by Union Pacific three days before the derailment.
A Union Pacific spokesman, while apologizing for the derailment and fire, would not answer a reporter’s question as to whether the Bakken oil had been stabilized with the removal of volatile gases prior to shipment.
At the Planning Commission hearing, I tried repeatedly without success to get an answer from both UP and Valero as to whether they intended to de-gassify the Bakken oil prior to transport.
A major interstate, Interstate 84, was closed for 10 hours in both directions while first responders used river water to try and cool the tank cars to a point where foam could be used to try and put out the fire. It took more than 12 hours to stabilize the scene.
An oil sheen is in the river, despite the deployment of containment booms.
And finally, Oregon Public Broadcasting on June 4 had an exchange with the Fire Chief of Mosier, about how this experience changed his opinion about the safety of transporting crude by rail:
“Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.
“He’s changed his mind.
“After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.
“’I hope that this becomes the death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,’ he said. ’I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.’”
When the City Council took up the appeal of the Planning Commission decision in April, Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell stated their opposition to the project, while the other three councilmembers (Hughes, Schwartzman and Strawbridge) approved Valero’s request to delay a decision on this project until at least Sept. 20. There is still time for the citizens of Benicia to tell their elected officials how they feel about this project. I urge them to do so.
Steve Young, a member of the Benicia Planning Commission, is running for the Benicia City Council in November.
Rail Safety Report Card: Only 225 Of Over 100,000 Unsafe Tank Cars Were Retrofitted in First Year
By Justin Mikulka • Monday, May 9, 2016 – 15:12
A year ago, when Federal regulators announced new rules for “high hazard” trains moving crude oil and ethanol, the oil industry protested that the rules were too strict. The main point of contention made by the American Petroleum Institute (API) was that the requirement to retrofit the unsafe DOT-111 and DOT-1232 tank cars within ten years did not allow enough time to get the job done.
Meanwhile, according to information recently provided to DeSmog by the Association of American Railroads, only 225 of the tank cars have been retrofitted in the past year. So, the API may have been onto something because at that rate it will take roughly 500 years to retrofit the entire fleet of DOT-111s and CPC-1232s based on government and industry estimates of fleet size of approximately 110,000.
As DeSmog reported earlier this year, the FAST Act transportation bill that passed in 2015 required that all DOT-111s that have not been retrofitted be retired from crude oil service by 2018. But the bill included the option that “The Secretary may extend the deadlines…if the Secretary determines that insufficient retrofitting shop capacity will prevent the phase-out of tank cars.”
However, prior to the new rule being finalized, Greg Saxton — a representative of leading tank car manufacturer Greenbrier — testified in Congress that there was sufficient shop capacity to meet the timeline noting that,“This is an aggressive timeline, we believe it is achievable.”
Saxton also made the assertion that the lack of new regulations was the issue that was delaying the safety retrofits.
“The only thing holding the industry back is the government’s inaction on proposed new tank car design standards and a deadline for having an upgraded rail tank car fleet.”
Now a year after the new rule was announced, with a mere 225 cars undergoing the safety upgrades, it would appear that was not the only thing holding back the industry.
DeSmog reached out to the Railway Supply Institute, leading oil-by-rail carrier BNSF, and Greenbrier to inquire about the lack of retrofits to date and asked if shop capacity was an issue, but did not receive any response. The Association of American Railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration were unable to provide information on shop capacity.
Unlike Safety, Public Relations On Schedule
Despite not actually making any significant safety improvements to the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars — tank cars called an “unacceptable public risk” by a member of the National Transportation Safety Board — the public relations effort to push the idea that the issue has been addressed appears to be successful.
In an article published in Chicago Magazine in April 2016, the risks of oil-by-rail were covered in detail. However, that article included the following statement, “Those first-generation tank cars, called DOT-111s, have almost all been subjected to new protections, including having their shells reinforced with steel a sixteenth of an inch thicker than used in earlier models.”
But 225 tanker cars clearly does not qualify as “almost all” of the DOT-111 oil tank car fleet.
As DeSmog has noted before, the oil and rail industries are very good at public relations when it concerns this topic. However, as when BNSF said they were buying 5,000 new tank cars that would exceed all safety standards, it often never results in anything more than a press release and some media coverage. BNSF never purchased the 5,000 tank cars.
Unsafe Tank Cars Can Carry More Oil and Bring Higher Profits
In January, Christopher A. Hart, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, presented his remarks on the NTSB’s safety “Most Wanted List” and once again mentioned the risk of the DOT-111s in moving crude oil.
“We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart said. “But an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time.”
Why would the industry want to take this risk? Could it be because unsafe cars are more profitable?
The more oil a tank car can haul, the more profitable that oil train will be. The way rail works is that the weight of the car plus the weight of the cargo can only combine to be a certain amount. If your tank car weighs less, you can put in more oil because it effectively has more capacity.
Exxon made this case to regulators prior to the rulemaking. Check out this slide the company presented that points out that adding safety measures “reduces capacity” — which reduces profit.
Tank cars full of volatile Bakken crude oil — deemed an “unacceptable public risk” by an NTSB member — continue to move through communities across North America. And the tank car owners are not moving to make the required safety retrofits.
While oil-by-rail traffic is declining with the current low oil prices, that is unlikely to continue. And with the lack of pipeline infrastructure needed to move dilbit from ever-increasing tar sands oil production, industry opinion holds that rail has a good chance of making a comeback. And they are going to need rail cars to move that oil.
The question remains: Will the Secretary of the Department of Transportation use the loophole in the FAST Act to grant the industry an extension on using DOT-111s past 2018?
If history is any indication, with rail safety improvements such as positive train control being repeatedly delayed for decades — including a recent three-year extension by Congress — it would appear that is a likely outcome if the DOT-111s are needed by the oil industry.
This makes the prediction by the head of the NTSB that “an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time” all the more likely to eventually occur.
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.