Specifically, Beutler asked DOT to consider whether interspersing oil tank cars with non-volatile commodities might make them less likely to catch fire in the event of a derailment.
Beutler’s letter was largely prompted by a growing number of destructive derailments involving crude oil trains in recent years, the largest of which claimed the lives of 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.
Back in June, a Union Pacific Corp. train carrying crude oil derailed near Mosier, Ore., about 68 miles east of Portland, causing some of the tank cars to burst into flames and spill oil into an adjacent section of the Columbia River. That train was en route from Eastport, Idaho to Tacoma, Wash. carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation, which is more flammable and dangerous than other types of crude oil.
“Although far less catastrophic than it could have been, the [Mosier] derailment highlighted the need for strong safety measures to address shipments of volatile and hazardous commodities through the Columbia River Gorge – whether related, or unrelated to oil shipments,” Beutler wrote in the letter. “Subsequently, I am writing to request information on dispersing tank cars carrying oil, or other hazardous materials, with non-volatile products throughout trains.”
She asked DOT to consider whether continuous blocks of oil tank cars increases the risks of combustion, potential benefits of requiring disbursement of cars carrying flammable materials throughout a train, and possible effects on combustibility of use of newer DOT-117 tank cars.
In addition, Beutler asked if federal regulators have studied speed limits reduction for oil trains as a way to mitigate the risk of combustion.
Washington state lawmakers last month adopted new regulations surrounding the transportation of crude oil by rail and pipeline that officially take effect Oct. 1. Developed by the Washington Department of Ecology at the request of the legislature, Chapter 173-185 WAC, Oil Movement by Rail and Pipeline Notification, established reporting standards for facilities receiving crude oil transported by rail and pipeline, and for the department to share information with emergency responders, local governments, tribes and the public.
The rule changes, first introduced by DOT in May 2015 as required by the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, include an enhanced tank car standard and an “aggressive, risk-based” retrofitting schedule for older tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol.
In addition, the rules require trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids to use a new braking standard; employ new operational protocols such as routing requirements and speed restrictions; share information with local government agencies; and provide new sampling and testing requirements DOT said will “improve classification of energy products placed into transport.”
Originally sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the legislation establishes a public-private council of emergency responders, federal agencies and industry stakeholders tasked with reviewing current training methods and prescribing best practices for first responders to Congress. The council will be co-chaired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and PHMSA. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., has introduced a companion bill to the RESPONSE Act in the House of Representatives.
“Currently, oil trains are traveling along the Columbia River Gorge, and my focus is on ensuring federal regulations are making these shipments as safely as possible,” Beutler said in a statement. “Long lines of oil cars are becoming a more familiar sight in our region, and if breaking them up into smaller blocks will better protect our citizens, the Columbia River and nearby forests, we should put a federal standard in place – quickly.”
Repost from the East Bay Times [Editor: Significant quote - The new rail yard “will be able to handle as many as 200 train cars at a time, Vuong said. It anticipates shipping mostly agricultural products, Bernardo said, adding, ‘We don’t ship coal.’”
Oakland port’s new rail yard likely to boost local economy
By Erin Baldassari, 07/07/2016, updated 07/08/16
OAKLAND — While public uproar over a proposal to export coal may have slowed down one redevelopment project at the former Oakland Army Base, another one has been quietly under construction.
And on Thursday, a 100-car train rolled in from the Midwest, carrying animal feed that was unloaded and repacked on-site for distribution overseas — the first of what the Port of Oakland hopes will be many such shipments at its new rail yard.
The roughly $258 million project, which is being developed in two phases, will ultimately house a warehousing and distribution center, offering commodity suppliers a more efficient way to sort and ship containerized goods, said port spokesman Robert Bernardo.
Workers with Capitol River Group, tenants of the Port of Oakland, use an NPK hard car unloader to loosen the DDG (distillers dried grain) from the train car as they unload the feed into container trucks for transportation at the Outer Harbor Intermodal Terminal rail yard in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, July 7, 2016. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)
Once both phases are completed, which is expected in 2019, the facility will provide an estimated 4,000 jobs on-site, plus another 8,000 jobs from ancillary industries, not including construction jobs, he said. Currently, many of the large warehousing and distribution centers are located in the San Joaquin and Central valleys, Bernardo said.
“Those warehouses and distribution centers can be hundreds of miles from the port,” he said. “So, this allows us to move products much faster.”
The new rail yard also enables the port to handle more cargo without adding to the often-congested weekday traffic at the port as trucks wait to drop off and pick up containers at marine terminals, Bernardo said. The port recently added night hours to help eliminate some of that congestion, which was exacerbated when one of the port’s four terminal operators declared bankruptcy earlier this year.
Each “hopper” train car, which are used to transport loose bulk commodities, can carry 3½ times as much product as a single 40-foot truck container, Bernardo said. “It’s a lot more efficient,” he said of the train cars. “Not only are you reducing truck pollution, but at the same time, we’re increasing commerce for the region.”
Before the opening of the new rail yard — officially named the Outer Harbor Intermodal Terminal, or OHIT — the port could accommodate a train with only 17 cars, said Thanh Vuong, the port’s supervising engineer. The former yard was part of the Oakland Army Base and not the port, he said, and had limited capacity for lumber and small bulk cargo such as wallboard.
Now, OHIT will be able to handle as many as 200 train cars at a time, Vuong said. It anticipates shipping mostly agricultural products, Bernardo said, adding, “We don’t ship coal.”
The port is also anticipating that construction will begin later this year on a $90 million cold storage facility, Vuong said, allowing customers greater flexibility in shipping temperature-controlled products.
Bernardo said the expansion is part of a major transformation for the port and will help the agency attract cargo suppliers from outside California that might otherwise have shipped their products through other West Coast ports.
“We do want to bring more cargo through Oakland, and specifically, cargo that isn’t local to the region,” he said. “We’re working with our business partners and government funding partners to make that happen, and we’re also using the existing infrastructure to really develop the port and make us more competitive.”
BOMB TRAINS – THE SCARIEST THREAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT
They’re explosive. Pervasive. And their movements are cloaked in secrecy. Their nickname? Bomb trains. And they roll through the heart of Chicago.
A train carrying hazardous material, potentially crude oil, heads south through Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park, photographed at dusk on March 15, 2016. PHOTO: JON LOWNENSTEIN
BY Ted C. Fishman, April 25, 2016 9:35 A.M.
They could not look more ominous. The long coal-black tubes announce themselves by their distinctive shape and color, their markings too small to read from the street. The 30,000-gallon tank cars roll, sometimes 100 at a time, in trains of up to one mile in length. Their cargo? Crude oil—as much as three million gallons per train. Nearly all of it is light sweet Bakken crude, a type that is particularly explosive. In whole, these trains constitute likely the biggest, heaviest, and longest combustibles to ever traverse America, and they do so routinely. More pass through Chicago than any other big metro area. Their blast potential has earned them a terrifying nickname: bomb trains.
Stand long enough at 18th and Wentworth, on the traffic bridge that separates the newer sections of Chinatown from the largely residential South Loop, and you will spot the tank cars wending their way across neighborhoods on the Near South and West Sides, past playgrounds, schoolyards, and row after row of houses. An estimated 40 of these trains cut through the metro area weekly. There’s no public information on exact routes or timetables; revealing their paths, the logic goes, might aid potential saboteurs, a real risk in an age of terrorism.
Until recently, crude on the rails was relatively rare. But since 2008, when Bakken oil began rolling out of newly active fields in the United States—North Dakota is the biggest producer—and toward Eastern refineries, the number of oil tank car shipments has grown 50-fold. That’s pushed the number of accidents up, too. According to U.S. government data, from 1975 to 2012, an average of 25 crude oil spills from tank cars occurred on the rails each year. In 2014, that number rose to 141. Most incidents are minor, such as small leaks. But in cases of a major derailment, the result can be catastrophic, even fatal (see “Terrifying Incidents,” below).
Chicago found that in the last three years there were 17 derailments of crude oil trains in North America significant enough to generate news coverage. In eight of them, the tank cars blew, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air, filling the sky with black mushroom clouds. In the most severe cases, the flames produced are so hot that firefighters almost inevitably choose to let them burn out, which can take days, rather than extinguish them. (The Wall Street Journal calculated that a single tank car of sweet crude carries the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite.) Even when there are no explosions, the spills can wreak havoc on the environment: five of the 17 accidents resulted in the pollution of major waterways, affecting thousands of people across the continent.
Chicago is particularly vulnerable. As the Western Hemisphere’s busiest freight hub, the city has become a center for crude oil traffic, too. High volumes, combined with a densely populated urban setting, have watchdogs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council alarmed. Henry Henderson, the NRDC’s Midwest program director, sums up the threat this way: “Trains with highly explosive materials are traveling through the city on aging tracks in cars that are easily punctured, which can result in devastating explosions.”
Many of these trains cut through what were once industrial rail yards in the city and suburbs. Over the last 35 years, however, much of that property has turned into residential and commercial clusters. “You should assume that if you live in the Chicago area, near a railroad track, that there are trains carrying Bakken crude oil,” says Jim Healy, a member of the DuPage County Board.
Though Chicago has so far been spared a crude oil train crash, the potential of one presents a horrifying picture. One particular nightmare is emblazoned in the minds of first responders, and regulators. On July 6, 2013, a runaway crude oil train, which had been left unattended, sped through the center of the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Sixty-three cars derailed. Forty-seven people were killed, some literally incinerated while they drank at a bar.
The catastrophic 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic PHOTO: PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Emergency responders in the Chicago area say they are confident any derailment here could be managed before it reached neighborhood-destroying levels. “Crude is not the threat that everyone says it is,” says Gene Ryan, chief of planning for Cook County’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Ryan and a group of first responders looked closely at 29 major accidents across North America and found that “even though the crude is full of all kinds of volatile materials, the cars did not completely blow apart and hit homes,” he says.
But in a city as dense as Chicago, it takes only one freak incident to have a titanic effect on the urban landscape. Just last year, on March 5, on a stretch of track near Galena, Illinois, 21 BNSF Railway train cars carrying 630,000 gallons of Bakken crude derailed and tumbled down an embankment. Five of them burned for three days. At the time, James Joseph, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, told the Chicago Tribune: “We’re fortunate this occurred where it did, in a remote area, and there were no homes around it.”
Experts believe the train was likely headed for Chicago, 160 miles to the east.
Historically, oil in America moved from south (think Texas and Louisiana) to north mostly through pipelines, the safest conduits for it. When newly deployed technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—opened access to sources of oil in North Dakota and elsewhere in the West, few pipelines were in place to move the crude to the refineries back east that could handle it. (A proposed pipeline for Bakken crude running from Stanley, North Dakota, to Patoka, Illinois, has faced political and jurisdictional challenges.) With limited alternatives, oil producers and refiners turned to railroads. In 2014, trains carried 11 percent of the nation’s crude oil.
So what paths do these tank cars take? The exact routes are state secrets. But assuming 40 trains, carrying three million gallons of crude oil each, pass through the Chicago area weekly, that means more than 17 million gallons roll through the city daily. It’s an inexact count, and the NRDC has continued to push to get accurate information. “A lot of people don’t know their residences are adjacent to hazardous cargo,” says Henderson. “The issue should be subject to public discussion, but the public has been cut off from it.”
Using freight maps and firsthand reporting, the West Coast environmental advocacy group Stand has assembled a national map of the most common crude oil train routes and created an interactive website that allows users to determine how far any U.S. location is from these routes. For example, according to the site, half of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, home to 32,000 people and U.S. Cellular Field, falls squarely within a half-mile “evacuation zone,” established by the U.S. Department of Transportation for areas vulnerable to crude oil train explosions. Stretch that to the one-mile “impact zone” and you include the Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Cook County Juvenile Court.
It’s not just Chicago proper that sees traffic from crude oil trains. They cut through Joliet, Naperville, Barrington, Aurora, and dozens of other suburbs. “I can look outside my office and see them passing through downtown,” says Tom Weisner, Aurora’s mayor. “About 120,000 tanker cars a year now come through our city.”
Last April, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered a maximum speed for crude oil trains of 40 miles an hour in populous areas. The majority of railroads run them 10 miles slower than that, an acknowledgment, in effect, that the trains aren’t invulnerable. Most often, it is a flawed track, wheel, or axle that leads to a derailment, which can then cause tank cars to rupture.
Bakken crude was first shipped using tank cars designed for nonhazardous materials and ill suited to its volatility. (Most tank cars are owned not by the railroads but by the oil producers and refiners, such as Valero Energy and Phillips 66, that ship crude.) 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. Federal regulations passed in 2015 mandate that by 2025 haulers must replace all cars with new models featuring even thicker steel shells and other safety measures.
Railroads know the dangers. In addition to the human and environmental costs, one terrible accident could put a railroad company out of business. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which ran the train that devastated Lac-Mégantic, could only cover a fraction of its hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities and went bankrupt.
The big railroads hauling crude in the United States and Canada have spent heavily on new technology to make their lines safer, including an Association of American Rails app called AskRail, which identifies the contents and location of rail cars carrying hazardous materials. What railroad companies cannot yet do is reroute trains away from the populous areas whose growth their lines once spurred. There simply isn’t the infrastructure in place to do so.
And while the American Association of Railroads reports that rail companies have spent $600 billion since 1980 improving their current routes, even well-maintained tracks remain vulnerable. Department of Transportation accident data shows that broken rails were the main cause of freight derailments from 2001 to 2010. What’s more, the Federal Rail Administration, the agency charged with overseeing the integrity of America’s tracks, says it can only monitor less than 1 percent of the federally regulated rail system annually due to a shortage of manpower.
“There’s a lackadaisical attitude among people, including officials, about infrastructure that is not up to the threats against it, even as the threats are manifesting,” says Henderson. “You saw that in Flint, Michigan, and in other places with drinking water. And now with crude oil trains, which deal with very serious materials moving [on a system] not adequate to protect people from mistakes.”
10 Terrifying incidents
With crude oil rail shipments growing 50-fold in the last eight years, the number of accidents has risen too. Below, 10 of the most damaging. —Katie Campbell
JULY 6, 2013
In the worst recent accident, 63 cars on a runaway train derailed in the heart of this Canadian town. The resulting blast and flames killed 47 residents and destroyed 30 buildings in the small downtown.
NOVEMBER 8, 2013
Outside this tiny Southern town, 25 cars spilled nearly 750,000 gallons of oil into surrounding wetlands, creating an environmental nightmare.
DECEMBER 30, 2013
Casselton, North Dakota
After two trains collided, 18 cars on the one carrying crude oil spilled nearly 400,000 gallons.
FEBRUARY 13, 2014
Enroute from Chicago, a train went off the track and crashed into a downtown industrail building.
APRIL 30, 2014
A train from Chicago derailed near a pedestrian waterfront area, sending three cars—and 30,000 gallons of oil—into the James River.
FEBRUARY 16, 2015
Mount Carbon, West Virginia
After 27 cars went off the track during a snowstorm and exploded, the fire burned for four days.
MARCH 5, 2015
A train likely headed to Chicago derailed on a remote stretch of track, sending cars down an embankment. Even though the cars had been reinforced with half an inch of steel, the fire burned for three days.
MARCH 7, 2015
Just one month after a derailment in the same area, five cars fell into the Makami River, leaking oil into waterways used by locals for drinking and fishing.
MAY 6, 2015
Heimdal, North Dakota
Five cars exploded and spilled nearly 60,000 gallons of oil. Fire crews from three nearby towns were called to help fight the blaze.
JULY 16, 2015
Twenty cars toppled from the track, with three spilling a total of 35,000 gallons of oil, forcing 30 people to evacuate.