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.
A statewide conflict over whether to allow more trains carrying crude oil into California is coming to a head in communities hundreds of miles apart.
The Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo and the Bay Area city of Benicia are poised to make decisions in the coming days that would have broad implications for the future of this type of import.
Longtime San Luis Obispo resident Heidi Harmon hopes to stop trains from hauling crude through her town, citing what she calls an “elevated risk of derailment.”
Oil trains would likely have to cross a 19th century bridge just a mile from the city’s thriving downtown.
“You can see the antiquated style with which this was put together” says Harmon, gesturing to rail tracks perched on top of the trestle’s steel rods.
She describes Stenner Creek Trestle as “stunning to look at but terrifying to consider a mile-and-a-half-long oil train coming over.”
Trains hauling up to 80 tanker cars could cross the trestle bridge multiple times a week if Phillips 66 gets wins approval for a plan to build a rail spur at its nearby refinery.
The company has applied for a permit to connect its Santa Maria refinery to the nearby Union Pacific line.
A steady decline in California oil production has compelled Phillips 66 to look for ways to bring in crude from other states. The company’s landlocked refinery in Santa Maria has no pipeline connection to do that — and no nearby port terminal.
The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission held hearings that began Thursday on whether to allow the rail spur project. County staff has advised against it, saying it poses too great a risk to public health and safety.
Harmon and hundreds of other opponents packed the meeting.
“We have an opportunity in San Luis Obispo to say we do not want this train” said Harmon. “We do not want the dangers — the air pollution hazards and the increased cancer risks — we do not want this in our community.”
Phillips 66 officials declined an interview for this story but said in an email the company uses “one of the most modern railcar fleets in the industry.”
Over 100 government agencies and school boards, including many from the San Francisco Bay Area, also oppose the rail spur in San Luis Obispo.
A similar project at the Valero refinery in Benicia also faces strong opposition.
Valero also wants to connect its operations to Union Pacific.
Benicia’s planning commission has set a public hearing on that crude-by-rail project Monday. Staff there is recommending approval.
Political leadership is divided, but many residents are opposed. Some of those municipal governments of nearby cities want more safeguards included in the project. To get to Benicia, the crude would first pass through communities far north, including Auburn, Sacramento and the university town of Davis.
“The rail line passes through the heart of our downtown and has a few geographic elements to it that raise concerns when oil trains are going through it,” said Mike Webb, city planner for Davis.
“We are not trying to stop the project,” Webb emphasized. “Our primary mission is to ensure that, to the extent that these trains and these materials are going through our communities, let’s make it as safe as it can possibly be.”
Davis officials and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) are pushing for a commitment from Valero and UP to use technology that automatically slows trains in densely populated areas.
“Public safety and first responder advance notification is of paramount concern,” said Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, a former council chair.
Officials also want a commitment to provide more training and funding for first responders in communities along the route and for emergency crews to get warned before an oil train comes down the line.
Chris Howe, a manager for Valero, testified at a public hearing last year on the Benicia oil-by-rail project that the company is committed to strong safety standards and modern technology.
“We have from the start planned to utilize in our project upgraded railcars.” Howe said.
Valero is also working with an experienced railroad.
“We expect UP railroad — which is the prime railroad that we’ll be utilizing to move those trains — to do so safely,” Howe said. “Many of the incidents that have happened have occurred on much smaller, less well maintained railroads.”
Union Pacific says it has made changes to reduce the risk of hauling crude: implementing slower speeds in high-population areas and creating analytical tools to find the safest routes.
The two projects under consideration are among a handful of crude-by-rail projects proposed in recent years to take advantage of inexpensive crude from North Dakota, Canada and Texas.
But the recent plunge in oil prices has made hauling it by train more expensive, causing some of those plans to unravel.
“The rail economics have changed the calculus for some companies” said Gordon Schremp, a senior fuel analyst with the California Energy Commission.
Last year WesPac abandoned a plan to build a rail terminal in the Bay Area town of Pittsburg, citing a lack of investors for the project. Alon USA has yet to act on a permit the company acquired in 2012 to build a crude-by-rail terminal at an idle refinery in Bakersfield.
According to Schremp, even at the peak of industry interest rail imports comprised just 1 percent of California’s oil imports. By the end of 2015, those imports plummeted to one-tenth of 1 percent.
“Crude-by-rail was never a very important source supply,” said Schremp, “because we did not have the facilities constructed.”
New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention
Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments
For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054
WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.
“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”
The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.
But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.
“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”
Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.
“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.
The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments
By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
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.