Category Archives: U.S. Department of Transportation

Safer tank car rules not expected until late 2014 (at earliest)

Repost from Associated Press – The Big Story

Rail safety effort marred by squabbling

By JOAN LOWY — Apr. 23, 2014 7:37 PM EDT
Train Safety
FILE – This Dec. 30, 2013 file photo shows a fireball going up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. An effort by government and industry to make the tank cars used to ship crude oil and ethanol safer, spurred by a series of fiery train crashes, is becoming mired in squabbling and finger-pointing. The Department of Transportation, concerned about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains that are sometimes as many as 100 cars long, is drafting new tank car regulations aimed at making the cars less likely to spill their contents in the event of a crash. But final regulations aren’t expected until the end of the year at the earliest, and it is common for such government rulemakings to drag on for years.  (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Spurred by a series of fiery train crashes, a push by government and industry to make safer tank cars used for shipping crude oil and ethanol has bogged down in squabbling and finger-pointing over whether they’re needed and if so, who should pay.

The Transportation Department, worried about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains that are sometimes as many as 100 cars long, is drafting new tank-car regulations aimed at making the cars less likely to spill their contents in the event of a crash. But final rules aren’t expected until late this year at the earliest, and it is common for such government rulemaking to drag on for years.

But one safety official said urgent action is needed.

The Obama administration needs to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Wednesday.

“We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly,” she told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. “There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed.”

The Transportation Department said in a statement in response to Hersman that: Safety is our top priority, which is why we’re putting every option on the table when it comes to improving the safe transport of crude oil by rail.”

The freight railroad industry proposed tougher tank-car standards last fall, and recently upped its proposal another notch. The government and the Association of American Railroads say oil being shipped from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana may be more volatile than previously thought.

But oil companies — which own or lease the tank cars, and would have to bear much of the cost of tougher standards — want to stick to voluntary standards agreed to by both industries three years ago unless it can be shown that new standards are needed, American Petroleum Institute officials said. The railroads, they say, are refusing to share the “scientific basis” for their proposal.

The petroleum institute wants “a comprehensive examination” of changes proposed by the rail industry, including whatever computer-modeling was used to support tougher standards so that it can be peer-reviewed, said Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the institute. “So far, no data has been provided,” he said.

The railroads are “pulling this out of thin air,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, another petroleum institute official.

The government, however, says it’s the oil industry that’s not sharing its data.  Transportation Department officials complained recently that the agency had received only limited data from a few oil companies on the safety characteristics of Bakken oil, despite requests made in January by Secretary Anthony Foxx. Hundreds of oil producers, shippers, and brokers operate in the region.

So far, only seven oil companies have responded, and several of those provided only sparse information, Foxx said in an interview. The government wants to know what is in the oil so regulators can decide what types of protections are needed for shipping, he said.

“One of the most fundamental questions that cuts across everything in crude oil by rail is how it is classified,” Foxx said. “If it is not classified correctly at the beginning, then it is not packaged correctly and the emergency response needs aren’t understood by the communities through which this material is moving.”

The oil industry is using every tank car available to keep up with the exponential growth in Bakken oil production since hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” made it possible to extract more oil from the ground. Freight railroads transported 434,032 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008.  Three years ago, the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products for the first time since 1949. Ethanol production has also escalated dramatically, creating competition for available rail cars. About 69,000 carloads of ethanol were shipped on rails in 2005. Last year, it was about 325,000 carloads.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Rail and safety officials said they were surprised by the ferocity of the fire. They were used to dealing with sludge-like crude that doesn’t ignite easily, but Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was more comparable to gasoline.

There have been eight significant accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to a presentation by crash investigators at a two-day National Transportation Safety Board forum this week on the transport of crude oil and ethanol. Most of the accidents occurred in lightly populated areas, although one derailment and fire in December occurred less than two miles from the town of Casselton, N.D.

Railroads can’t be sure what they’re hauling, said Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of the rail association. Given that uncertainty, he said, they want oil shipped in tank cars with thicker shells like those required for chemicals that form toxic vapor clouds when released.

Regulators who have tested some Bakken oil samples on their own warned emergency responders and the public in January that it could be more dangerous than many conventional types of crude. But petroleum institute officials say they don’t believe Bakken crude is significantly different than other light crudes, such as those from Texas.

Transportation officials are now “assessing whether or not we will need to take additional steps to gather the information we requested” from oil companies, according to a government statement provided to The Associated Press.

Thousands of older tank cars that predate the voluntary standards adopted three years ago may also have to be discontinued for oil transport, Fronczak said. Canadian authorities announced Wednesday that they will require a three-year phase out or retrofit of older cars like the ones that ruptured in Lac-Megantic. But oil industry consultant Lee Johnson, testifying for the petroleum institute, told the safety board that U.S. oil companies need the “flexibility” to continue to use the older cars, and any decision on retrofits should be “data-driven.”

Of course, if the railroad industry were to do a better job of fixing broken and substandard track, a major cause of accidents, or installing positive train control, a technology designed to reduce human error and prevent the most catastrophic kinds of collisions, there might be fewer crashes, Christopher Barkan, executive director of the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois, told the board.

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    Virginians concerned about explosions, spills near Chesapeake Bay

    Repost from The Daily Press, Hampton Roads, Virginia

    Crude oil tanker trains to Yorktown ignite controversy

    Three derailments, explosions in U.S. and Canada in past six months highlight dangers

     April 05, 2014|By Tamara Dietrich, tdietrich@dailypress.com

    Virginia environmentalists and activists are worried that an uptick in tanker trains carrying petroleum crude oil to a new storage and shipping hub in Yorktown is a recipe for disaster.

    At issue is crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota — the same crude that’s been implicated in derailments and explosions over the past several months from Quebec to Alabama, and is now being shipped by rail through heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas of the commonwealth.

    “These trains are traveling through Lynchburg along the James River through Richmond and on to the York County facility on the York River,” said Glen Besa of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’re concerned that a train derailment could result in an explosion and the loss of life, or an oil spill that could jeopardize our drinking water supplies and the environment.”

    The group says tanker trains carrying Bakken crude began arriving in Yorktown in December, and is calling on the public and first-responders to be aware of the risks associated with those trains and ensure measures are in place to prevent accidents and, if necessary, effectively respond to them.

    Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is calling on the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard to take action to reduce the risk of a devastating spill in the vulnerable estuary as “dramatically” increasing amounts of crude oil are likely to roll into Yorktown in the coming years, then get barged out again to East Coast refineries.

    The bay is “on borrowed time in the face of a major oil spill,” CBF President William C. Baker said in a recent letter to Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.

    Safety a priority

    The storage depot is the former Yorktown Refinery, a 600-acre facility that for decades converted crude oil into gasoline and other fuels. It closed in 2010 and cost the county one of its biggest industries and tax sources.

    Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline LP bought the facility for $220 million in 2011, and over the past two years spent $150 million to convert it to a transportation terminal, according to spokesman Brad Leone and news reports.

    “Plains made a significant investment to expand and modernize the existing rail and dock infrastructure, which has made the facility even safer and more efficient,” Leone said.

    The Yorktown Terminal supports 90 full-time jobs, he said, and has the capacity to unload 140,000 barrels a day and store 6 million barrels.

    CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., provides rail service to the terminal as part of its 23-state network.

    “CSX appreciates that the shipment of energy products is a topic of concern for citizens here in Virginia and across the country,” said spokeswoman Melanie Cost, adding that the company places the “highest priority” on community safety.

    Most of its crude oil shipments originate in the Bakken region, she said.

    The risk

    After three train derailments and explosions in six months involving crude from the Bakken Shale region, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert in January that this crude “may be more flammable” than other types of oil. The PHMSA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

    Last July, an oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed and ignited a catastrophic explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, leveling the small town and causing more than $1 billion in damages.

    In November, a 90-car crude oil train was traveling through a rural part of Alabama when 20 cars derailed and 11 of them exploded. An unknown amount of crude fouled nearby wetlands, and damage was estimated at nearly $4 million.

    Then, in December, a crude-oil train collided with a derailed grain car in North Dakota. Of the 21 oil cars that derailed, 18 ruptured and exploded. About 400,000 gallons of crude were released into the environment, and 1,400 residents had to be evacuated. Damage was estimated at $8 million.

    In response, the DOT issued an amended emergency order last month directed at companies that offer petroleum crude oil and carry it by rail.

    The Bakken formation has become “a major source for oil production” in this country, the order noted, and the risk of flammability is compounded because crude oil is commonly shipped in bulk on large unit trains.

    The Congressional Research Service reported to Congress in February that shipping more crude oil on bigger trains increases the risk of accidents and the size of the resulting fires and explosions.

    The controversial Keystone Pipeline would service the Bakken formation, but it is unknown if that pipeline will ever be built. If large tanker trains are used instead, federal agencies project about 49 more injuries and six more deaths each year.

    Force a fix

    In its emergency order, the DOT requires that bulk quantities of crude oil be properly tested and classed, and be treated as a hazardous material when shipped in rail tank cars. It also forbids deliberate misclassification.

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      Setback on new federal regulations governing oil by rail

      Repost from DeSmogBlog

      Feds Weaken New Oil-By-Rail Safety Regulations Days After Announcing Them

      Nine days after announcing new regulations designed to improve oil-by-rail safety, the Department of Transportation quietly weakened the rules for testing rail cars and exempted shippers of bitumen from having to…

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